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Tuesday, September 9, 2003
An ecomonic solution

By Rob Neyer

In which your happy columnist does another about-face. ...

It's not just you. In my most recent book, I wrote:

Some writers would like the BBWAA to change its rules, to prohibit an experienced Japanese player from winning the Rookie of the Year Award. But why stop there? What about Cuba, and Mexico, and Australia? What about the American Association and the Pacific Coast League? The Rookie of the Year Award, after all, is just a plaque that's given to the best first-year player in each league. Let's leave it alone.

I'm not so sure any more.

I think the parallels between the Negro Leagues and Japanese baseball are both interesting and relevant ... but they're not perfect.

First, Jackie Robinson and the others were kept out of the majors because of segregation. Ichiro and the others were kept out of the majors because of an agreement between two moderately lawful baseball leagues. As I understand things, the great majority of Japanese players spend years of their career in Japan because they want to.

Second, there's a difference in the perceived quality of the leagues. Most would agree, I think, that Japanese baseball today rates somewhere between Triple-A and Major League Baseball. But if, in 1947, you'd asked the baseball writers -- the men who invented the Rookie of the Year Award -- about the quality of play in the Negro Leagues, the consensus probably would have been that the Negro Leagues were roughly comparable to Double-A: the Texas League, the Southern Association.

In fact, for a few years after Jackie Robinson's arrival, the Negro Leagues did function as something of a minor league, unaffiliated but happy to sell their best players to the "real" major leagues.

Which isn't to say the "Jackie Robinson argument" doesn't have merit. It does. I'm just not sure that the Rookie of the Year Award makes a lot of sense when it's given to players who have already established themselves as great baseball players.

Unfortunately, all the cures I've seen proposed are worse than the disease. If you say that Japanese players can't be the Rookie of the Year, then what happens when a truly young Japanese player makes a splash in the major leagues? If you say that it's not where you come from but when you were born, then where do you draw the line? In the NHL, you have to be 26 on the first day of the season to be eligible for the Calder Trophy -- but baseball's not hockey. Bob Hamelin was 29 when he won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1994, and anyway you'd still wind up with 26-year-old Japanese stars becoming the Rookie of the Year.

I simply can't support a rule based on a player's nationality or his birthday. Here's something I can support, though: a rule that ties the Rookie of the Year Award to compensation. Think about it ... What distinguishes all the players who don't seem like "real" rookies? They make a lot of money. Here are the salaries of the three Japanese players who have won the award, along with this year's favorite:

Essentially, these players were all paid like established stars in their rookie seasons, but the idea of "rookie" is that you're not already an established star. Granted, getting paid like a star doesn't mean you'll play like a star. But considering the high rate of success for the well-paid Japanese players -- the only notable exception is Hideki Irabu -- salary would seem to be a pretty accurate predictor of stardom.

I don't know if we need a new rule for our Rookies of the Year. But if there is a new rule, it should not discriminate against a player because he's from a particular country, or because he's passed a particular age. Discriminate against him because he's already established himself as a great baseball player. And if his salary is higher than a certain marker -- $1 million, or the MLB average, or something else significantly higher than the MLB minimum -- then don't call him the Rookie of the Year.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site.