On the “How depressing is this?” scale, debates over baseball’s postseason awards probably don’t rise to the level of the presence of a perpetually filled bowl of Tootsie Rolls in the lobby of the Center for Integrative Science at the University of Chicago—a condition, per urban legend, of a $25 million gift made by Tootsie Roll magnates Ellen and Melvin Gordon. They’re close, though, and they’re depressing for nearly the same reason.
The Gordons’ bottomless dish of industrial byproducts is a sort of bent-chromosome parody of the eternal flame, some variant of which will be found in nearly every ancient civilization, suggesting that this bit of icongraphy is rooted in one of man’s deep needs. (From the Altar of Burnt Offering to endless supplies of corn syrup and partially hydrogenated soybean oil!) A debate over the American League Most Valuable Player award, similarly, might be seen as a sort of hideously diminished version of the debate over the relative merits of ancient Greek and Roman civilization that has fired much of the West’s high culture.
In his great 1978 book From Ritual to Record, Allen Guttman identified seven characteristics of modern sport: Secularism, equality, specialization, rationalization, bureaucracy, quantification and records. The main distinction between ancient and modern sport is that neither the Greeks or Romans cared about records; the main distinction between the Greeks and Romans is that the Greeks didn’t care about quantification.
“Why don’t we know how fast the runner ran?” asks Guttman. “We are tempted to respond that the Greeks lacked accurate chronometers. This may be the correct answer, but I suspect that it may have been the other way around—the Greeks had no accurate chronometers because they didn’t care how fast the runner ran.”
The Romans, conversely, cared quite a lot about this kind of thing. They never did get around to timing runners, but there are bizarrely detailed statistics available on Roman sports.
“There is, for instance,” Guttman writes, “an inscription to Gaius Appuleius Diocles, whose career began in 122 A.D. In four-horse chariot races, he started 4,257 times, won 1,462 times, came in second 861 times, and third 576 times.”
Strip everything else away, and this is what MVP debates are about—a debate between those who think the beauty of the sport is in the beauty of the sport, and those who think that there is further beauty to be found in contemplating the winning percentages of charioteers. That the former often pose as the latter so as to take advantage of certain rhetorical techniques doesn’t change the fact that this is really an extension of an argument over human modes of apprehension that has lasted for thousands of years.
The problem is that, just as no great and enduring volume can be written on the flea, the distinction between Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera is not the kind that can sustain a debate over the meaning of beauty and the value of human achievement. Every time you cite a fact or an impression in favor of one or the other—something I’ve done myself—you are recapitulating the same decision that the Gordons (supposedly) made in conditioning a gift of tens of millions of dollars in support for scientific research on the presence of a small and always filled dish of inedible candy. It is worth not doing.