There's a reason the Comeback Player of the Year Award comes out long before the Cy Youngs and the MVPs, even before the Gold Glove awards. After all, it's an awfully boring award.
This year's winners, of course, are Prince Fielder of the Texas Rangers and Matt Harvey of the New York Mets. Rest assured, both did have great comebacks. Both were sidelined last year by injuries, and both came back this season as two of the most dominant players in baseball. Fielder hit .305 and had 23 home runs; Harvey, who went on to pitch a solid postseason, put together a sub-three ERA and struck out 188 batters in 189 innings.
But is that all that interesting? As is usually the case with the award, two really good players played really well a year after they got hurt. It happens quite often, and while it is undoubtedly impressive, it's not all that meaningful.
But this year, the award could have been. By all measures -- impact, significance, and yes, numbers -- this year's award should have gone to Alex Rodriguez.
Put aside for a second what you know about A-Rod (we'll get to that in a moment). From a purely numbers perspective, Alex should have won the award. Following one season plagued by injuries and another season spent serving a suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs, A-Rod came back and, at the age of 39, had an incredible season, hitting 33 home runs and carrying the Yankees for the better part of the year. Indeed, his 3.1 WAR was far better than Fielder's 1.9.
Yet even without numbers, this season was an adventure for A-Rod, a far more interesting, meaningful, and noteworthy one than either Harvey's or Fielder's. A-Rod has a long story -- one that is very well-known, so we need not get into it here -- that took a fairy tale-like turn in 2015. Many people never believed he would recover. There were talks of retirement. He was hated, berated in the media, and treated as a parasite that was eating away at the national pastime.
Fast-forward a year, and everything has changed dramatically. For a while he was in the running for MVP. His pursuit of the home run crown, however unlikely, is actually plausible once again. His relationship with the Yankees, once as bitter as could be, has seriously cooled-down: The celebration for his 3000th hit and the settlement of his contractual dispute over his home run milestones signaled a sharp change of direction. And to top it all off, Alex widened eyes with his highly-praised performance as a commentator for Fox during the World Series.
Of course, this is all clouded by the fact that all of A-Rod's wounds were self-inflicted. Arguably, he should (and probably was) removed from the discussion regarding the award simply on moral grounds. But how much does A-Rod have to say and accomplish in order to pay his debt to the baseball society? Alex openly admitted he was wrong. He rid himself of the ego that constantly got him in trouble. Every time he opened his mouth this season, he projected respect, gratefulness and humility. And most importantly, he worked his butt off to put up the numbers that he did, and left it all on the field, with no showboating or victory laps.
In 2015, no one was more inspirational, provided more teachable moments, or better represented the values that sports writers, of all people, should be celebrating than Alex Rodriguez. No story was better. His comeback was surely one of the greatest in sports history, certainly amongst the most improbable, successful, and exciting resurgences of any public figure in recent memory. He is a testament to the fact that no mistake is unredeemable, that if you work hard enough, say the right things, and put yourself on a different path, you can overcome any hurdle placed in front of you. If this award is, in fact, about morals and values, about actually representing something, then A-Rod should have won it, hands down.
But sadly, no one believed he would, in part because when it comes to Major League Baseball, steroids are the end-all. Touch them and you will regret it. The league, the writers and the front offices -- everyone, notably, besides the fans -- will never forgive you. As I've argued in the past, that mentality is not only logically flawed, but also it is causing the game to collapse in on itself, chalking up endless contradictions and creating an ever-expanding rift between what's happening on the field and in the stands, and what's happening in the media and at MLB headquarters.
Remember, we're not talking about changing MLB's drug policy, or rescinding A-Rod's suspension. We're talking about an award few people even care about or pay much attention to. Handing A-Rod this award would have been a good, harmless way to show that the baseball elites are not simply on a relentless witch-hunt. Instead, this vote indicates that the Baseball Writers' Association of American, who votes for these awards, will continue to stand pat -- voting down any steroid user that comes up for a Hall of Fame vote, snubbing candidates for awards -- while the fans continue to cheer away for the players they rightfully admire and marvel. And they'll do so, ironically, in the name of protecting the game.
The question, of course, is who are they protecting? Who knows? But it's certainly not the fans, who had no qualms cheering along one of the most thrilling, improbable seasons in baseball history.