Braun, Kemp sound as close as the MVP race

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports
Ryan Braun had a hot September when the Brewers needed his production most

Braun, Kemp sound as close as the MVP race

Ryan Braun had a hot September when the Brewers needed his production most

To the National League Most Valuable Player, to the vote of apples or apples, to the slugger on the division champion or the one on the cusp of the triple crown, and to the Jewish kid from the San Fernando Valley who plays his ball in the Midwest or the African-American kid from Oklahoma who plays his in Los Angeles.

To Ryan Braun(notes) or Matt Kemp(notes).

To the one who got the phone call Tuesday morning on a balcony in Malibu.

"It's a beautiful day," Braun said.

Or the other, on a balcony down the coast with a more distant view of the Pacific Ocean, whose phone did not ring.

"He's right on the ocean," Kemp said. "He's doin' it big."

After the quarrels of Monday afternoon, when Justin Verlander(notes) became the American League MVP after a months-long debate of pitchers vs. position players for such an award, along came the purest argument of all:

Braun or Kemp?

At the end of two of the more magical months baseball has ever seen, starting with the final hours of the regular season, through a seven-game World Series, a news conference from Park Avenue with Bud Selig and Michael Weiner sitting shoulder to shoulder, and ending with a tweet from Matt Kemp's mother – "heartbroken" – we got Braun or Kemp.

Damn, it doesn't get better.

[ Slideshow: Photos of Ryan Braun's MVP season ]

We end with a baseball question.

How do you like your superstar?

You like him in the middle of an NL Central champion, lashed to the hip of Prince Fielder(notes), a 30-30 man dragging a freshly mid-market franchise back into October after three decades?

Or do you like him with slightly better numbers, in the middle of a slog of a season, lashed to no one, a near 40-40 man dragging a freshly mid-market franchise into what surely looks like another dark offseason?

Personally, I had Kemp by the narrowest of margins.

But I do not dispute with great energy the vote cast for Braun. He crashed the three-run home run in the season's final weekend that put the Brewers into the playoffs and hit 32 other home runs like it. He led the NL in slugging and OPS, batted .332, and drove in 111 runs.

In many ways he was to Milwaukee what Kemp was to Los Angeles, or Verlander to Detroit, Jacoby Ellsbury(notes) to Boston or Jose Bautista(notes) to Toronto.

More, arguably.

And so of 32 possible votes, Braun took 20. Kemp took 10. Fielder and Justin Upton(notes) each had one.

Braun awoke Tuesday morning in Malibu, the MVP award on his mind. He killed some time with a drive. Then he sat down, laid out his cell phone and house phone and, he said, "Hoped to get a call from a number I didn't recognize."

He was delighted, even touched. He thanked his teammates, his owners, the people who fill the ballpark in Milwaukee and made it fun.

"The reason I won this," Braun said, "is because they put a better team around me. It's a result of 25 other guys."

[Related: Michael Young's oddball MVP voting ally]

Raised a Dodger fan in the suburbs of Los Angeles, his competition would be a Dodger, and a player he admires, and a young man he considers a friend.

"For all my years," said Braun, who five days ago turned 28, he'd never seen a Dodger have a season like it.

"If he had won the MVP, I certainly could not have argued it," Braun said.

The difference, clearly, was that Kemp – and the Dodgers – have not played a meaningful regular-season game since, oh, September.

Of 2009.

Kemp may have pounded his way through the tedium of half-empty ballparks and half-attentive crowds. He may have helped keep a foundering organization relevant, with its fans at least. And he may have done it in a weak lineup.

But Braun did it in a race, over months when reputations are born, from ahead in the NL Central, and when the lead got a little squishy and maybe a few got panicky.

Braun batted .330 in September, and drove in 22 runs and hit eight home runs. On the day the Brewers clinched he held the championship belt amid chants of "MVP!" and there could be little denying it. Not then and not two months later.

"Pretty incredible, man," he said Tuesday afternoon.

[ Yahoo! Sports Shop: Buy Ryan Braun gear ]

Down the coast, if Kemp was disappointed he hid it in his happiness for Braun, whom by Twitter he called, "my homeboy."

If 2011 was for Braun further proof of his steadiness and brilliance, a predictable destination for his remarkable offensive skills, it was for Kemp a revelation. He'd tanked in 2010, when his game suffered under the weight of personal and professional imprudence. There was speculation he would be shopped and perhaps traded.

But he showed up in spring training with a taut body and mind. He played the game with fresh focus. And he very nearly was an MVP, an incredibly rapid turnabout.

So, a couple handfuls of hits short of the first Triple Crown in more than four decades, one home run short of 40 homers and 40 steals, Kemp laughed, said his one regret was not winning the MVP he'd told Don Newcombe he would, and promised more.

"I'm thinking 50-50," he said. "Never been done. I'm serious. Yes, I'm serious."

After a pause he added, "I know you all are out there thinking I'm crazy."

Nah. Just another day for baseball. Just another day at the beach.

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