Minor controversy arose in 1990. Cecil Fielder became the first man to hit 50 home runs since 1977 while leading the Tigers back from the abyss. Meanwhile, Rickey Henderson had perhaps his finest season leading the A's back to the World Series. Henderson won the Most Valuable Player Award, but some felt it should have gone to Fielder. However, the definition of MVP is open to voter interpretation. As a result, either man could have been the American League MVP.
The Baseball Writers of America Association's definition of MVP involves several criteria. The most confusing is the first. Writers choose the player with the most "actual value" to his team. As a result, some interpret this to be a player of the year award. On the other hand, some view this clause to mean the player that is most valuable to his team. This distinction became extremely contentious in 2012 and 2013 as voters chose between Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera. Likewise, the argument reared its head in 1990.
Rickey Henderson enjoyed a monster 1990 campaign. He hit .325 with 28 home runs, and 61 RBI from the lead off spot. Henderson led the league in runs (119), steals (65), OBP (.439), and OPS (1.016). He also walked 97 times. At the time, the outfielder might have been the most dominant offensive force in the game. He could hit home runs or he could single, steal second, steal third, and score.
Unlike Henderson, Cecil Fielder stole two bases his entire career. The big man was a slugger. Detroit imported Fielder from Japan to help a sagging franchise. Big Daddy responded by leading the league in home runs (51), RBI (132), and slugging (.592). He became the first person since 1977 to blast 50 or more home runs. Fielder's power was incredible for the era. Henderson defeated Fielder for the MVP Award 317-286. The Oakland speedster garnered 14 first place votes to the Tiger's 10. Roger Clemens finished third with 3 first place votes. Dennis Eckersley received the other first place ballot and finished sixth overall.
Most believed Henderson enjoyed a MVP season, but many felt Fielder deserved the award because of the impact on the team. Oakland won the 1989 World Series and made their third consecutive playoff appearance in 1990. They probably would have won the pennant without Henderson. On the other hand, Detroit lost over 100 games in 1989 and improved by 20 games with Fielder's emergence. Henderson voters argued they could not vote for a player on a sub .500 club. However, this did not prevent Andre Dawson in 1987 or Cal Ripken in 1991 from winning the award. Fielder finished second to Ripken in 1991 despite being on a winning team. The Orioles lost 95 games.
The Most Valuable Player Award goes to whomever the voters feeling like casting ballots for. The lack of consistency drives observers mad. Some consider it a player of the year award while others demand team success. This controversy has existed for years. In 1990, Cecil Fielder helped Detroit's dramatic improvement. Rickey Henderson won the award as the A's coasted to their third straight pennant. If the MVP is designed to reward the best player, then Rickey Henderson wins with little argument. If the award is for a player most valuable to his team's success, then Cecil Fielder has a strong argument for the 1990 AL MVP.