Sometimes, what appears to be the dumbest and most unsatisfactory resolution of a problem is also the best one.
Take, for example, the National League's new most valuable player -- both of him: Willie Stargell and Keith Hernandez.
For nearly half a century, baseball's most dependable autumn furor was the frost-on-the pumpkin announcement of the MVP choice.
Nobody thought you could improve on the old method of getting fans mad.
Many a Thanksgiving dinner has been halted as a sage grandfather, drumstick in hand, summoned a lifetime of bleacher wisdom and intoned, "But children. What exactly does the word 'valuable' mean?"
Year after year, the MVP debate was a tangled and sophistic knot of double-edged statistics, esoteric distinctions and marvelously unregenerate bias. How could you best it?
It took 49 years, but the answer has been found. Have a tie. That way, everybody's mad.
On the field, baseball abhors a tie, keeping fans in the stands until the a.m. to reach a decision.
But let the sport hold the equivalent of an annual beauty pageant to decide its highest individual honor and what do the judges say? "Gee, we can't decide. Let's have two winners."
In any other season, such a fiasco would be a pie in the face for baseball. And a few shins could deservedly be kicked.
After all, part of the point of such shenanigans is to inflame fans, ruffle feathers, create interest. After ties, what next? A Mr. Congeniality award?
However, this season -- by pure luck -- a split MVP award is a tolerable, even pleasing, fluke.
By a sort of perverse semijustice, both Pittsburgh's Stargell and St. Louis' Hernandez deserved the MVP -- in a sense. Yet, in another sense, neigher really merits it totally. If there were ever a year for co MVPs -- a dubious notion -- then this is it.
All the old debates about what the MVP award means and how it is selected -- arguments that go back to Ted Williams vs. Joe DiMaggio and before -- are brought to a head in the '79 deadlock.
First, is the MVP supposed to go to the best player in the league -- the best stat-amassing machine, regardless of where his team finishes? Or does it lean heavily toward leadership, clutch play and a central role on a championship team?
Hernandez, of the fifth-place Cardinals, is a perfect example of a player with the numbers, including a batting title (.344) and a major league-leading 210 runs produced.
Only RBI king Dave Winfield (118) can approach Hernandez's figures.
Stargell, by contrast, is the old master of intangibles. His .281 average with 82 RBI (while resting his aged bones almost for a fourth of the season) produced the bare minimum expected of a quality cleanup hitter who batted with swarms of Bucs on base.
So what's the catch? Hernandez's teammate, catcher Ted Simmons, said it best: "Willie Stargell has more impact then any player in baseball."
Anyone who saw the playoffs and World Series needs no further illustration of the impact that poise, character and leadership can have.
That, of course, raises the next prickly point. Does postseason count in MVP balloting? Should it?
According to the rules that govern the voting by 24 baseball writers (two from each NL city), only the regular season counts. Don't everybody laugh at once. Many writers, of course, hang on to their ballots until officials of the Baseball Writers Association of America nag them into handing over the dratted things after the Oct. 1 deadline. Why won't they unhand their ballots? For a full explanation, just contact four gentlemen named Mike Littwin, Tim Tucker, Harry Shattuck and Ken Hand.
They are four sportswriters who play by the rules.And are they sorry.
These chaps -- now being excoriated nationwide as the curmudgeons who left Stargell totally off their 10-man ballot -- looked at the end-of-year statistics, threw out all that balderdash about intangibles and reached the purely numerical conclusion that Stargell didn't belong.
Their self-defense pleas, now being mocked in most of the 50 states, are probably justifiable, if somewhat myopic.There has always been a hardheaded purist minority that says, "Go strictly by the numbers. Play fair."
Nevertheless, if any member of that quartet had his ballot back -- knowing what he knows now -- Stargell would be a solo MVP.
On the other hand, it's a safe bet that several of the 10 who chose Stargell first on their ballots were cheaters.
They fudged by peeking at some or all of the postseason, then placing their votes with the smart money. Ironically, these two factions probably balanced each other. Many ironies, however, spiced this 216-216 deadlock election.
In 1947, DiMaggio edged Williams, 202-201, in the closest previous election.
One spiteful Boston writer left Williams totally off his ballot. Even more incredible, three writers around the country completely snubbed DiMaggio.
A rules change in the balloting was precipitated. Instead of 10 points for a first-place vote, nine for second, and so on, the system was changed to 14-9-8-7, etc.
The idea was to emphasize the importance of a first-place vote while minimizing the chance of a crank ballot changing the whole election.
The new rule actually gave Stargell his tie with Hernandez. Under a 10-9-8-7 system, Hernandez would have won by 24 points.