Justin Morneau’s Mighty Bat

I pay enough attention to baseball that I knew about the kind of season that Justin Morneau was having. I am, after all, the owner of a fairly sane Canadian patriotism and was once the custodian of a fairly sweet portside swing (and warning track power). So I’d heard that Our Man Justin was in the mix, but even The Globe and Mail’s excellent Jeff Blair wasn’t picking him to win.

When ‘Big Papi’ David Ortiz came back with another superbly (absurdly) clutch-hitting season, I figured that maybe the a DH doesn’t deserve to win MVP argument might have run its course. And even more compelling, the isn’t it about time Derek Jeter won an MVP blast carried a lot of weight with me. It seemed sure that, with the Red Sox, the Yankees, and the Twinkies in the running, it wasn’t going to be the kid from hockey country (who plays his baseball in the State of Hockey, Minnesota) that the sportswriters selected.

But it was, and I’m mostly happy. Canucks have had Larry Walker winning the National League MVP award in ’97, Jason Bay as NL Rookie of the Year in ’04, the ridiculous Steve Nash topping the NBA voting for the last TWO seasons, and any number of Howes, Lafleurs, Lemieux and Gretzkys (and Joe Thornton last year) who have won the NHL’s Hart Trophy. (Lest we forget: Howe won it six times. Gretzky won NINE.) And now, Justin Morneau has become the first Canadian to win honours as the American League’s top player. Particularly because of how loyal he has been to our national baseball team, that engaging humility, and because his salary is about 5 percent of Jeter’s, it’s hard not to like Morneau’s selection.

Unless you appreciate the defensive side of the game: apparently, not only do chicks dig the long ball but sportswriters do as well. Though he plays for the Evil Empire, there’s a lot to admire about Derek Jeter, and I liked the idea of a magnificent all-around player – and someone with his leadership and class – getting recognized individually. Shoot, a mashing first baseman is next door to a DH, and the National League choice was also a long-ball, bushel-basket-glove sort of guy, Ryan Howard. Whatever happened to “strength down the centre”? When was the last time a shortstop was MVP? (I’m thinking Cal Ripken.) Or a catcher? (Johnny Bench?) Or even a centre fielder? (Hmm. Surely we don’t have to invoke Willie Mays?)* Not that I’m complaining. Congrats to Mr. Morneau. New Westminster, B.C. is the capital of Jock Canada today.

* Okay, how did I do? (And how ’bout you?) Shortstops. Yikes. There’ve been three since Ripken: Barry Larkin (1995 NL), Miguel Tejada (2002 AL) and Alex Rodriguez (2003 AL), though the last two were picked mainly on big home run numbers. Catchers. Bench in 1970 and 1972 (NL), but I’d forgotten Thurman Munson (1976 AL). Centre fielders? There have been a few since Mays. Robin Yount (who also won as a shortstop, and is therefore the greatest all-around player in history) got it in 1989 (AL), and was preceded by Fred Lynn (1975 AL) and Willie McGee (1985 NL) and followed by Ken Griffey Jr. (1997 AL), whom I thought would win several. Many other outfielders have won, but few of them were better than average defensively and some were highlight reels of ineptitude. George Bell comes to mind. (And if I don’t shut up soon, somebody will mention that Wonderful Stevie Nash ain’t exactly a defensive stopper, either!)

Game Three TeeVee

I was disappointed when the Cardinals got smoked in Larry Walker’s last chance for a Series ring in 2004. My friend The Don has been a Cards fan at least since Tony LaRussa got there – he’s a fan of coaches more than of players, although he wants eligibility requirements rewritten so that Albert Pujols can go straight to the Hall of Fame this week. So as St. Louis is reborn after their Undead stagger to “winning” their division, it was time for me to actually watch a game. Regular readers will know that, for a guy who loves sport, I have an atrocious television. I depend on the kindness, well, not of strangers (though I have picked up a few games in restaurants), but of whatever friends I can impose myself upon.

I went over to the Sélégers’ place, where my Haitian-born buddy Fanfan required only slightly more basic education in baseball than his Canadian-born wife and brother-in-law. Mind you, he didn’t wander downstairs until about the sixth inning, so I wasn’t able to get too much wisdom in between pitches. He has the athletic eye, though. At first, he didn’t know how a pitcher even got a hitter out – or even know what “out” meant (or retrait in French) – but it didn’t take long before he realized that Chris Carpenter was dominating the Tigers. I don’t mind watching the game alone, but it was fun to help a new Canadian with one of the essential aspects of autumn living, not to mention his blissfully baseball-impaired family.

Good game. Baseball rocks. (Slowly, but it rocks.) Fox’s telecast is good, if a little too busy, and I love some of the inventive camera angles, especially the one embedded in the turf in front of home plate. I don’t have much patience left for commercial television, though. Maybe I take life too seriously, but when one of the major sponsors of an athletic event is a video-game maker, I draw a curmudgeonly line. Sure, there’s always been the irony of sporting excellence being underwritten by performance-decreasing substances (greasy foods, cigarettes in the bad ol’ days, beer forever). But something about sitting through an ad for a thumb-friendly entertainment called “Kill All Humans” made me feel dirty, and a little worried about the mental hygiene of some of my fellow viewers. What kind of audience are they aiming at? How did I get in? Not long after came another promo for a zombie chew-em-up game. Yecch. Makes me yearn for Skoal and Copenhagen commercials. At least there, the fantasy was of killing only yourself with style.

Wish You’d Won With the ‘Spos, Larry

I wanted to write about Larry Walker. Lest we forget — Canucks and any fans who like their baseball smart and skilled, a little folksy and funny — Walker preceded Steve Nash as The Lad from HockeyLand who made good in American sport.

Walker made it best in American sport, winning the National League MVP in 1997. In my idealistic universe, of course, he’d have done it as the right fielder for the Montreal Expos (long may their goofy caps reign) rather than the Colorado Rockies. The view of sportswriters I respect is that he’ll never make the Hall of Fame – too many injuries, too late a start in the bigs – but that won’t bother Walker too much, I don’t think. It’s hard to tell how badly he felt, after his MVP year, when he wasn’t even named Canada’s top athlete. (Jacques Villeneuve was; as Walker cracked, “I got beat by a car.”)

I wish I’d seen him play more. He had a sensational gun from the outfield, ran the bases brilliantly, and had that gorgeous left-handed swing. Not bad for a failed goaltender. Too bad that he got on the wrong side of the Red Sox exorcism last year, and fell just sort of the Series again this fall. He went with a laugh and that usual hoser straight-talk. He was the best ballplayer we’ve ever had come out of Canada, and I’m sad to see him go.