Twenty-five years ago today, every single voter in the National League selected Ken Caminiti the most valuable player in the league.
Value is difficult to quantify -- it represents the high regard of others, which can be subjective.
Something valuable is seen as being useful or important.
But what is most valuable? It's tough enough assessing value, tougher still to rank things based on how valuable they are. And at the end of each season, baseball writers are forced to do just that -- assess the league's most valuable player.
These days, the MVP Award is statistically driven and based on the player who had the best season. But during the 1990s, the award was more heavily tied to a team's playoff appearance. Pick a breakout player on a team that wasn't meant to make the playoffs but snuck in, and there was your most valuable player, the player who meant the most to his team's success.
Twenty-five years ago today, every single voter in the National League selected Ken Caminiti the most valuable player in the league. It had only happened three other times in league history up to that point, and has only happened three times since. The other unanimous winners: Cepeda, Schmidt, Bagwell, Bonds, Pujols, Harper. A collection of Hall of Famers and superstars identifiable by last name alone.
And right in the middle is Ken Caminiti.
Ken had a monster season in 1996 -- he hit 40 home runs, drove in 130 runs, batted .330, and had a 1.028 OPS. Caminiti remains the only Padres player to take home National League MVP honors (that could soon change if Fernando Tatis Jr. wins this year’s award; he’s a finalist alongside Harper and Juan Soto).
But was Ken the most valuable player in 1996?
In terms of Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, three National League players topped Caminiti in 1996: outfielders Bernard Gilkey and Ellis Burks, also having career seasons, and the otherworldly Barry Bonds, who topped all position players with 9.7 WAR.
But those players (along with whiny Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza, who thought he should be the MVP) didn’t have the season stories Ken did in 1996—the torn rotator cuff, the throw from his butt, the Snickers game, leading his team to the playoffs.
Even Piazza's manager, Bill Russell, thought Ken was deserving. "To me, I think (Ken) Caminiti is obviously the leading candidate," Russell said at the time. "If you're going to be objective and you're not allowed to pick one of your own players, he gets my vote.”
After Piazza complained about the perceived slight, Russell met with the catcher and later clarified that “Mike Piazza is the MVP for me.” Piazza believed, according to his book, Long Shot, that Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully was also overenthusiastic in his support for the Padres third baseman.
And how could he not be? Ken was the sentimental choice, the gritty everyman who performed like the hero of a John Wayne western.
To Ken's colleagues with the Padres, his impacts stretched far beyond statistics and box scores. He was a clubhouse enforcer, someone you didn't want to disappoint, someone whose effort forced everyone around him to dig deeper and ask more of themselves.
"He was a joy to watch play, and probably one of my favorites because of the type of person that he was, the type of guy that (Bruce Bochy) and I could always lean on. You didn't have to worry about policing the clubhouse because you had him in there. He was gonna make sure that things are done the right way,” the late, great Kevin Towers, the former Padres general manager, told me in a February 2015 interview.
Ken remained circumspect after winning the biggest award of his career.
"I got picked MVP for doing my job, basically," he said.
The greatness of Ken’s 1996 season becomes clear when setting it against players of the same age. Ken’s on-base plus slugging plus, or OPS+—which measures each player against a league average of 100, and adjusts for league and park factors—was 174, meaning his season was 74 percent better than the league average. Against all other players’ age 33 seasons, Ken’s OPS+ was tied for the 9th ninth best ever at the time.
The Padres wouldn't have been anywhere near the playoffs without Ken's effort, intensity, presence and poise.
And those are all pretty valuable things.