Major League Baseball’s awards for the Comeback Player of the Year are so quintessentially American. Americans love giving people second chances and they love when people make good on second chances. Who hasn’t needed a second chance? We identify. Frequently, we are inspired. Americans can be quick to give someone up for dead, so that makes it even more delicious when he rebounds.
Look at this guy! Who woulda thought? Go for it, buddy!
A successful comeback is the flip side of a career-ending injury. Although the award doesn’t always go to the player who came back from the worst injury, it often does. This year the National League comeback player was Buster Posey, the San Francisco Giants’ catcher. The American League winner was Tampa Bay reliever Fernando Rodney.
Their 2012 seasons were stunningly different than their 2011 seasons, but in very different ways. Posey, the young star catcher, is more of a traditional winner. In a highly publicized injury resulting from a collision while covering home plate, Posey incurred a broken leg and missed most of 2011. He was kaput for the season after 45 games. But he rebounded phenomenally this year. Posey, who is still just 25, led the NL in batting with a .336 average, and while the voting was completed beforehand, he also was a key member of the Giants’ World Series-winning team.
Right-handed flamethrower Rodney is a completely different story. At age 35 he saved 48 games for Tampa while posting an earned run average of 0.60. That’s an ERA so small that you need a microscope to see it. It was by far the best season of his career. Rodney’s 2011 consisted of going 3-5 with a 4.50 ERA and three saves for the Los Angeles Angels. You might say there was some improvement. So Rodney was coming back, not from injury, but from playing badly. Bully for him. So apparently sucking and then being great can win you the Comeback Player of the Year award.
It’s not all about how many stitches you got or how serious your surgery was, although it usually is. On the confusing side, the official AL and NL awards have only been given out since 2005. The Sporting News has been making unofficial awards in the same category since 1965.
Some recent MLB winners who endured more pain (from injury) than humiliation (from being lousy on the field): Jason Giambi, Jim Thome, Francisco Liriano, Ken Griffey Jr., Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson. It’s not hard to halfway think the Comeback Player of the Year Award should be the Tommy John Award. By the way, Tommy John did win The Sporting News version of the award in 1976. One of the most worthy winners was the Boston Red Sox’s Tony Conigliaro, who was honored for his courage in 1969 after suffering a near-fatal beaning in a game in 1967 and missing more than a year of play.
Although it was not longstanding, Conigliaro’s comeback was one of the greatest of all time. His was a reminder of how fragile some comebacks are. The award recognizes just one season of play, but it is always hoped the comeback is emblematic of a fresh start.