Happy Tom Seaver’s Birthday! No. 41 is 73 today. He’s also No. 1 forever, not only in all the ways we usually think, but in a very specific, sort of timely way.
Tom Seaver was the first National League East Most Valuable Player.
OK, so it’s a mythical award, but it’s based in reality and, besides, Tom is a mythic figure.
When Giancarlo Stanton won the National League MVP for 2017, I actually felt kind of warm about it, generating a perverse twinge of neighborhood pride when I learned Giancarlo won, like, hey, we know that kid, he lives up the block from us, he grew up around here. We play our divisional opponents so much, I figure we have more than a little something to do with it when one of our direct rivals is awarded. Stanton hit eight of his 59 homers against the Mets and recorded twenty of his 132 RBIs. We put the V in Stanton’s MVP.
I had a similar if more spiteful feeling when Chipper Jones took the NL prize in 1999 and Jimmy Rollins did the same in 2007. Maybe those guys would have become MVP without their respective late-season tours de force at our expense, but they became locks (and we became lox) once they were done with the Mets. There’s a reason we loved Larry and Jimmy as we did.
The other two relatively recent NL MVPs to come out of the East didn’t resonate quite so closely. Bryce Harper in 2015 certainly seemed of the neighborhood, but eight houses behind ours. My attitude was, fine, enjoy your hardware, we’re over here in the playoffs, ha, ha, ha…ha. Ryan Howard and his 58 home runs in 2006 barely registered in my consciousness. We didn’t yet have a rivalry with the Phillies and I thought it would be Albert Pujols who’d grab Carlos Beltran’s MVP.
Stanton. Harper. Rollins. Howard. Jones. And that’s been it since the National League East became a five-team division in 1994. That’s the other thing that occurred to me with Giancarlo’s victory announced Thursday night — we don’t win MVPs. I don’t just mean the Mets, who remain bereft of this award, but our entire division tends to get overlooked. Two of the last three years, yes, and back-to-back in ’06 and ’07, but otherwise this century and that last bunch of years of the last one have been a Central and West party. I spend approximately 76 games a year rooting against the rest of the NL East, yet I felt our third of the league has been getting overlooked too long.
So I set out in search of National League East MVPs, the players who ranked highest in MVP voting from our neck of the woods, whether they won the big one or came closer than anyone else to whom we’re close. To be clear, that means the player with the most MVP points in a given season from a team who played for the Mets, the Phillies, the Expos/Nationals, the Marlins, the Braves (but only since 1994) and the three who used to be among us until they left us: the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates, from 1969 through 1993.
Let’s get to the good part first: Seaver. Tom was Cy Young, Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year and Hickock Belt winner in 1969, the first year there was divisional play in baseball. The BBWAA, however, stopped short of recognizing that the most important player on the most Amazin’ team ever was more valuable than anybody else in National League. They gave NL MVP honors to Willie McCovey. Seaver finished second, but tops among all NL East players.
Some years in the two-division era, there was no slicing and dicing to be done. The first NL MVP winner from the East from those days was Joe Torre, in 1971 for the Cardinals (the Mets would wait until he aged and slowed down even more to make him theirs). But there was definitely a tilt westward for a while, meaning the NL East MVP was only the NL East MVP. Billy Williams, who turned the trick of being both a superstar and perennially underrated, twice finished behind Johnny Bench, in 1970 and 1972. Bench was in the West (as was Cincinnati; don’t try to map it). Williams was the main man in the East.
Willie Stargell, you probably know from Keith Hernandez, shared the NL MVP award with Keith Hernandez in 1979. He also won our mythical NL East award in 1973. His Pirates didn’t win the East, though, did they? A year later, another future Hall of Famer, Lou Brock, stole off with NL East honors. Baseball writers judged him not quite up to Steve Garvey’s standards overall, however.
In 1975, the Phillies grew into a legitimate contender, and that was no bull. But the Bull, Greg Luzinski, led them into the thick of the fight, winning NL East MVP that year and in 1977. In between, a third baseman named Mike Schmidt carried our division’s 1976 banner. He’d do it three more times for the whole league (1980, 1981, 1986).
In 1978, Dave Parker became the first NL East player to win NL MVP since Torre. In 1982, Smith of the Cardinals won NL East accolades…but not the one you’re probably thinking of. It was Lonnie Smith, not Ozzie, who placed behind Dale Murphy (of the then-West Braves) in the overall voting. A year later, in ’83, an Expo who would go to the Hall of Fame, Andre Dawson, repped the East to Dale’s rear.
In 1984, Ryne Sandberg overwhelmed voters, just as Willie McGee would in 1985. That made it two consecutive NL MVPs won for teams that edged out the Mets. Say, we’re well along since Seaver established the NL East MVP award. Where is another Met? We’ve already mentioned Schmidt somehow beat the field in 1986. And maybe you recall the voters looked past all established norms and gave their award to Dawson again in 1987. Honoring Andre wasn’t the unorthodox part — but his Chicago squad finished last. What the Cub?
Finally, for the first time in nineteen years, a Met was elevated to the top of the NL East heap. It was Darryl Strawberry, the best player on the best team in the league…at least until the playoffs started. In the NL MVP voting, grit and leadership and intangibles in the person of Kirk Gibson outdistanced Straw, but not even Kevin McReynolds’s excellent 1988 was judged better than Darryl’s.
You may remember Pedro Guerrero as a Cardinal. I remember him mostly as a Dodger. I didn’t remember how good he was for St. Louis in 1989. Voters did. He was the beast of the East. Then along came Barry: Barry Bonds was the NL MVP as a Pirate in 1990 and 1992, sandwiching the highest vote total from an East man in 1991 (he lost the grand prize to Atlanta’s Terry Pendleton, though you may remember him as a Cardinal). In 1993, the Marlins joined the East, and Lenny Dykstra joined the Met regret parade. Our former sparkplug was the division’s Most Valuable Player, finishing second overall to Bonds, who was no longer with the Pirates.
In 1994, the Pirates would no longer be with us. Nor would the Cards or Cubs, but that was all right, because we got the Braves, who were three contenders rolled into one. Their reign of terror got lost in shipping that year, though, as the Expos ran the East until the lamented labor stoppage halted their prospective rise. The writers tabbed Moises Alou, later a Met, as the NL East MVP.
Then it became Brave time: Greg Maddux in 1995; Chipper Jones in 1996; Larry Jones in 1997; Andres Galarraga in 1998; Larry “Chipper” Jones in 1999 (the whole league on that occasion)…yeesh. With the turning of the millennium, though, a bright light in the piazza. More specifically, Piazza! Mike Piazza! He finished third in MVP voting to the Giants’ Jeff Kent and Bonds, but beat out every Brave and every other Easterner.
After which, it was Braveness as usual: Chipper Jones in 2001. We had a breather via a Canadian front in 2002 — Vladimir Guerrero — until the Braves resumed banging the East like a drum. Gary Sheffield in 2003. J.D. Drew in 2004. The Jones not named Chipper in 2005… Andruw Jones to you. We got sick of the Braves collectively in those years. We weren’t crazy about them individually. I gotta admit I do admire the variety. J.D. Drew? You could have given me a hundred guesses for this award I just made up and I wouldn’t have recalled him as NL East MVP in 2004, or a Brave at all.
Atlanta fever at last broke in 2006, but an insidious strain of Eastfluenza incubated in Philadelphia and, as noted, proceeded to infect the MVP balloting: Howard, to Rollins in 2007, right back to Howard (Eastwise) in 2008. Just as we were tiring of the Phillies, a Marlin suddenly reeled in NL East MVP honors: Hanley Ramirez. He’s still playing ball, I hear.
Roy Halladay was Most Valuable among NL East players in 2010 and 2011, and the only pitcher besides Seaver and Maddux to be so recognized. Come 2012, we had a Stargell-Hernandez situation, albeit writ smaller. The top five National Leaguers were from the West or Central divisions. Tying for sixth were two gentlemen of the East: Met-killer Adam LaRoche and, yes, a Met! David Wright! The fourth Met to win NL East MVP, the only co-MVP among Mets. David’s such a good guy, of course he’d share his accolade.
Freddie Freeman punished the Mets enough in 2013 to rise up and bring Atlanta a new wave of divisional glory. Then along came Stanton (second to Clayton Kershaw) in 2014, foreshadowing his league victory in 2017. We mentioned Harper in 2015. There was another National, oh joy, in 2016. He was a Met before that: Daniel Murphy.
As noted, a number of actual MVPs in here, more of them divisional MVPs, which isn’t really a thing, but I decided it is today, for Tom’s birthday. A few of these winners finished as low as ninth in their overall voting, leading me to believe there’s an anti-East bias at work. Then again, we got Tom Seaver and 1969. Everything after that is second place.