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April 27, 2006: MVP! MVP!

Tonight, Alex Rodriguez will be handed his 2006 Most Valuable Player Award in a pre-game ceremony. He was previously the first MVP to ever be traded during his reign. The words “best player in the game” can be placed in a sentence with his name without hyperbole or exaggeration.

So why is he still in Derek Jeter’s shadow?

Perception is a funny thing. Baseball fans and writers alike believe what we see. But what we see–and what it means–is as much a function of expectations as performance. Is this why, even though A-rod hits more home runs than Jeter, Jeter’s always seem to come in “big spots”?

Ask your average Yankee fan to name a Jeter homer and a list will probably follow. The Jeffrey Maier one. The Mr. November shot. The walk-off off Foulke at the Stadium last year. The one off Pedro in 2003 in the Zimmer brawl game. The leadoff homer at Shea, on the first pitch after the Yanks lost a game, the first time they had lost a World Series game in recent memory. The very fact that some of these homers have nicknames limns the point that they are legendary moments.

Now make a list of A-rod’s memorable dingers (as a Yankee–I’ll never forget that one he hit off El Duque’s “eephus” pitch when he was with Seattle…). It’s an unfair question, I know, because he has not had the long tenure in pinstripes Jeter has had, yet fewer of them stick in the collective memory. How about the three taters off Bartolo Colon in a single game last season? Reggie-esque. But no one is more disappointed in the way Alex hit (or failed to) in last year’s ALDS against the Angels than Alex himself.

This year both men are off to hot starts, but Jeter still seems to have an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time. He makes his own luck by virtue of being fearless. When he was in a slump worthy of a Sports Illustrated cover story in 2003, Jeter briefly–very briefly–experienced boos at Yankee Stadium. But he has disappointed so rarely (it seems) and come through in the clutch so often (it seems), that the fans’ comfort zone with him is a mile wide. Jeter is home-grown, a fairy tale storybook, and all that. But this does not mean that Alex Rodriguez has to polish his shoes.

Winning the MVP will hopefully add some comfort zone for A-rod, both for himself and the fans. There was a time when Tino Martinez–a guy now thought of as one of the “made” Yankees–was booed at the Stadium as an unworthy replacement for Don Mattingly. A grand slam in Baltimore, another one in the 1996 ALCS, not to mention the homer 2001 World Series… my how perceptions change.

This is what it will take for A-rod to become a “made” Yankee himself. He needs to not only be the best player in the game day in and day out, not just the MVP (though that helps), not only carry the team to another postseason berth, but also to come up big in those big spots in October. Until then, the unfair perception that he is a carpet-bagging attention-seeker will never be completely dispelled on the streets of Yankeetown, and Jeter will always be perceived as the “better” Yankee.

It will be curious to see which one makes it into the Hall of Fame first. I suspect it will be whichever one retires first.

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