Three weeks to go, and another great race is shaping in the NL -- for Most Valuable Player.
Sure, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Luis Gonzalez would rather win a playoff spot than another piece of hardware. But one of them is probably going to take home the trophy. So which one?
As in those dot races that became insanely popular on stadium scoreboards long ago, all three players have probably nudged ahead at some point this season.
Bonds is chasing history, although a home-run record is no guarantee of an award. Mark McGwire, as fans remember, finished second to Sosa in the voting after hitting a record 70 bombs in 1998.
A three-time winner -- and his dour demeanor may have cost him a couple more -- Bonds went into the weekend leading the majors in slugging percentage and on-base percentage. To some, those numbers are the best indicators of who's really best.
Already at 60 home runs, Bonds admitted he was enthused about the lofty total, although he said the pennant race was more on his mind.
"I'm excited," the San Francisco star said. "I'll be more excited if we get to the postseason, though."
Gonzalez was ahead of Bonds in batting average and RBIs, and led the majors in total bases. He'd also topped 50 home runs.
No slight to 20-game winner Curt Schilling and fellow Arizona ace Randy Johnson, but Gonzalez was the main reason the Diamondbacks went into the weekend leading Bonds and the Giants in the NL West.
Sosa led the majors in RBIs and, with apologies to Jon Lieber's outstanding pitching, was the only reason the Chicago Cubs were still contending.
Realize this: While Sosa went into the weekend with 137 RBIs, no one else on his team had even reached 55.
Sosa, too, was over 50 home runs and has a chance to hit 60.
Not to overlook stars playing for other teams in the hunt -- including Lance Berkman, Moises Alou, Jeff Bagwell, Chipper Jones and Shawn Green -- but Bonds, Gonzalez and Sosa were far and away the favorites.
It's so close that the guy who really breaks loose in these last few weeks will likely wind up playing into October, and picking up the award in November.
IN A PINCH: While Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and the Seattle Mariners keeping posting the biggest numbers, a utilityman for the New York Mets is quietly closing in on a more obscure record.
Lenny Harris went into the weekend needing three pinch hits to break Manny Mota's career mark of 150.
Harris started this season with 130 pinch hits, and already has passed Greg Gross (143) and Smoky Burgess (145).
Harris was hoping to break the record this weekend against the Marlins in his hometown of Miami. At times, he said, the mark was on his mind too much.
"It was like I was trying to get three or four hits in each at-bat," he said. "I saw Andre Dawson recently and he said it looked like I was fighting myself."
Helped by the observation from Dawson, a former NL MVP who works in the Marlins' front office, the 36-year-old Harris felt he regained his stroke.
"If the record comes, that'd be great," he said.
THANKS, BOSS: When it comes to Cal Ripken, even George Steinbrenner has a soft spot.
The Yankees' owner agreed this week to let Ripken's final game in Baltimore -- against New York -- be changed from day to night on Sept. 23.
The Yankees had been against playing any more Sunday night games, saying it could affect their preparations for postseason play.
But major league baseball wanted Ripken's last game at Camden Yards to be shown on ESPN2, and figured an evening start would not smack right into the middle of NFL telecasts.
Commissioner Bud Selig presented his case to Steinbrenner, who approved the shift.
"The commissioner made a request for the best interests of baseball," Yankees' general manager Brian Cashman said.
BASEBALL'S BULL'S-EYE: Corky Miller didn't get a hit in his first game for Cincinnati. He did get hit -- a most appropriate debut for pro baseball's closest thing to a bull's-eye.
The Reds' catcher just can't seem to get out of harm's way when he's in the batter's box.
"It's been that way ever since Little League, I guess," Miller said. "I wasn't one of the best hitters and I always tried to get on base. It started happening a lot. I found out how to take a pitch without getting hurt."
Miller, 25, signed with the Reds as a free agent out of Nevada-Reno in 1998 and took his talent for accumulating bruises to the minors. He got 35 hits and was hit 21 times in 45 games in rookie league.
In 1999, Miller was plunked 31 times in 99 games, second-most in all of minor league baseball. He earned first place last year by getting hit 30 times in 103 games while batting .233.
He was nailed 31 more times this season before earning his first promotion to the majors on Monday.
"Maybe in high school or junior college I was trying to get hit, hoping not to bat, but it's something that's turned out to happen every year," he said.
In his first four pro seasons, Miller has been hit 114 times in 351 games while getting 305 hits. By comparison, Don Baylor was hit 267 times in 19 seasons, an average of 14 times a year, as he set the major league record.
Miller has been seriously hurt only once, when a pitch got him in the flap on his batting helmet in 1999 and punctured his ear drum. He was out for seven days and lost his hearing for a month.
"The main thing is, I don't get out of the way a lot of the time when I could," he said. "That has a lot to do with it. When you bat eighth, you're always looking for a way to get on base."
He got his first big league start Tuesday night against Houston's Roy Oswalt, who has had near-perfect control against the Reds all season.
In his second plate appearance, Miller took a fastball in the back.
"I probably could have gotten out of the way of that pitch," he admitted.
Family and former teammates called after the game when they learned his first major league game resulted in his first major league HBP.
"They were like, 'That's odd,"' he said.
End Adv for Sept. 8-9
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