There should be little doubt about who should win the National League's Most Valuable Player award.
Any hard look at the NL statistics shows one player who, were he famous, would run away with the balloting -- leaving the likes of Dave Kingman, Mike Schmidt, Bruce Sutter, Dave Conception and even sentimental favorite Willie Stargell far behind.
However, it would be a shock if Keith Hernandez, the first baseman of the St. Louis Cardinals, wins. It would be a surprise even to him.
"Pete Rose and Willie Stargel have come over to me and told me that I should be MVP without any doubt," Hernandez said today. "But frankly, I'll be pleasantly surprised if I get it."
Hernandez's teammate, and his hero, Lou Brock, is even more candid.
"Keith doesn't stand a chance," said Brock. "The wrong person will probably win again. In the last 20 years it seems that the award has gone more and more to a player off a pennant winning team, even if that is not one of the award's prerequisites."
Brock knows all about the anonymity of playing with the young Cardinal teams of the late '70s. The Red Birds have one of the flashiest and most talented regular lineups in baseball -- led by Hernandez and shortstop Gary Templeton -- but, because of a pitching staff that has not turned the corner to excellence, the Cards are still a third-place club.
Nonetheless, Hernandez's season deserves a proper warble of praise, a short sweet song sung from a high bough.
In the American League, a proper case can be made for both Don Baylor of California and George Brett of Kansas City, if we emphasize actual performance and are not overly impressed with team won-lost records. In fact, Baltimore's Ken Singleton, and even Royal catcher Darrell Porter, would have superb MVP credentials in a large majority of seasons.
In the senior circuit, however, who can deal with Hernandez with his .342 average, 206 hits, 114 runs, 105 RBI, 46 doubles, 69 extra-base hits, 307 total bases and 290 times on base.
Hernandez's most impressive stat is, unfortunately, a figure ignored by the multitude: runs produced (runs plus RBI, minus homers). Hernandez has 208 runs produced -- for more than anyone else in the National League, where Dave Winfield of San Diego ranks second with 190.
If much of Hernandez's line-drive hitting excellence, not to speak of his fielding, which won him a 1978 Gold Glove, is obscured by the fact that he has only 11 homers, he has had one showcase opportunity in recent days.
For two weeks, Hernandez has been trying to hold off the charging Rose for the batting title.
"I saw him coming," said Hernandez. "He kept putting out the word that he was going to get me if I went into a slump."
Hernandez, who grew up in San Francisco with a father who was a minor league ballplayer and fulltime fireman, loved every minute of his duel with Rose.
"It was my first real test of pressure," he said. "Pete and I played six games against each other in the last 10 days. Since we're both first basemen, we'd talk constantly every time one of us got on first base."
At one point, Rose closed the gap to six points. "In every game, Pete'd get a hit first and put the pressure on me," Hernandez said. "I really felt it. He gained on me in five straight head to head games. When he's right in front of you, you can't ignore him. He's like a charging bull."
In one game last week in St. Louis, Rose was awarded a hit on an extremely dubious call. When Charlie Hustle got to first, Hernandez was ready for him.
"How can you get a hit like that in my town?" said the 25-year-old with the flowing hair. "You just keep pushing me, Pete. Make me earn it. But you better be ready to come up over .340 to get me, 'cause .340 is it. That's as low as I'm comin' down."
"Then you got me," replied Rose. "I've got too many at-bats to bring my average up that high."
Hernandez proved to be right.
"Pete awarded me the silver bat last night," Hernandez said today. "I went one for two and Pete went 0 for five. I got a hit for the first time, and Pete felt a little pressure.
"He said, 'You're 14 points up with four to play. I can't catch you,' " said Hernandez. "Someday, I'm sure I'll tell my grandchildren about battling Pete Rose for the batting title. And I'll have that silver bat over the mantle."
Hernandez, who entered this season with a .274 average for his first 1,700 at-bats in the major leagues, admits that, "I never dreamed I could hit .340. I felt I could hit .300 but there's a world of difference in getting up to the .340s. That's a lot of poling."
As long as the 6-foot, 185-pound Hernandez has his silver bat and his Gold Glove -- to go along with his league leadership in runs, doubles (47) and perhaps hits -- he will not worry much about the MVP.
Hernandez, who wears a "Lou 3,000" T-shirt to go with his ancient painting streaked jeans, has studied Brocks' composure in dealing with the ebbs and flows of erratic fame.
"It's easy to lose your privacy and it's easy to lose yourself," said Hernandez. "I enjoy it on the road, that nobody ever recognizes me. At home in St. Louis, a few people say hello and I enjoy that and try to be nice to them. It's a good mix. As long as I know, and the people in the game know, what I've done this year, that's enough."
Hernandez may, indeed, acquire some of that grace Brock carries so easily.
"My book is finally closed," said Brock, who, after yet another "Farewell, Lou Brock Day" here, has three games left in his career. "I've gotten the 3,000th hit, batted .300 (.307), had a new baby and been to the White House."
In fact, Brock even broke the last record he craved -- Billy Hamilton's 19th century mark of 937 career stolen bases, set back when going first to third on a single was considered a steal. Brock got his 939th last weekend.
"Now, there's no 'before' and 'after,' " said Brock. "There's just me. No asterisks or explanations. That makes it nice and clean."