Berroa, Willis take top rookie player titles

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

NEW YORK -- Kansas City shortstop Angel Berroa beat out New York Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui for AL Rookie of the Year in voting that rekindled the debate on whether veteran Japanese players should be eligible.

Florida pitcher Dontrelle Willis easily defeated Milwaukee outfielder Scott Podsednik to win the NL award.

Berroa's victory came in the closest AL rookie race in 24 years. He received 12 first-place votes, seven seconds and seven thirds for 88 points in totals released Monday by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Matsui got 10 firsts, nine seconds and seven thirds for 84 points.

Berroa had to lean against a wall to hold himself up when he heard the news. He then jumped and shouted.

"I was astounded," Berroa said from his home in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo. "Super-happy is the ideal expression to describe how I feel about receiving this honor."

It was the closest finish since the BBWAA adopted the current rookie voting format in 1979, a year after Minnesota's John Castino and Toronto's Alfredo Griffin tied with seven votes apiece.

Berroa hit .287 with 17 homers, 73 RBIs, 21 steals and 92 runs, cutting his errors from 19 in his first 63 games to five in his last 95. Matsui batted .287 with 16 homers, 106 RBIs, two steals and 82 runs.

Berroa, 25, spent parts of five seasons in the minor leagues before this year and began 2003 with 128 major league at-bats. Matsui, 29, was a three-time MVP of Japan's Central League before signing with the Yankees last winter.

"I guess I just looked too old for a rookie," Matsui said in a statement, going on to congratulate Berroa. "I think he deserves to win."

Each was missing from the ballots of two voters.

"I really do think he is not a rookie in the traditional and true sense of what a rookie is," Ballou said. "I think major league baseball has to look at redefining what a rookie is."

A rookie is a player who hasn't accumulated 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in previous seasons and hasn't spent 45 or more days on 25-man active rosters, not including times when the active list is expanded to 40.

"I think everyone has concluded that there's no realistic way to delineate between players who are early in the careers and come into major league baseball, and players who come from other leagues," said Sandy Alderson, executive vice president of labor relations in the commissioner's office.

Souhan did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

"I think Matsui had an extraordinary performance (this season) and he also deserved to win the award," Berroa told reporters in the Dominican Republic. "But I'm glad that baseball writers took into consideration the difference in playing experience that each of us had before this season."

Tampa Bay outfielder Rocco Baldelli finished third in the AL voting with 51 points, followed by Cleveland outfielder Jody Gerut (20).

"I'm happy that Matsui didn't win," Gerut said. "I don't want to take anything away from Berroa and it's nothing against Matsui, but I think if you asked Matsui, I don't think he would qualify himself as a rookie."

Pitcher Hideo Nomo won the NL award for Los Angeles in 1995. Seattle reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki won the AL award in 2000, and teammate Ichiro Suzuki took it home the following year.

"Rookies are rookies, regardless of the age," said Willis, who doesn't think older players such as Matsui should be ineligible.

Willis received 17 first-place votes and 118 points, while Podsednik got eight firsts and 81 points.

"I never thought I would make it to the big leagues so soon, let along have success," said Willis, who signed out of high school in 2000.

Willis, 21, went 14-6 with a 3.30 ERA, slumping in the second half of the season. The high-kicking left-hander went 9-1 with a 2.08 ERA in making the All-Star team, then went 5-5 with 4.60 ERA as the Marlins earned the wild-card spot.

Willis was dropped from the Marlins' rotation after two postseason starts, limited to relief appearances during Florida's World Series win against the Yankees.

Podsednik hit .315 for the Brewers with nine homers, 58 RBIs, 43 steals and 100 runs. Arizona pitcher Brandon Webb was third in the NL voting with 73 points.

Berroa is the fourth Kansas City player to win the award, following Lou Piniella (1969), Bob Hamelin (1994) and Carlos Beltran (1999). Willis is the first Florida player to win the NL honor.

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