Updated: November 12, 2003, 10:05 AM ET

Berroa barely edges Matsui for AL honor

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Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Kansas City shortstop Angel Berroa beat 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.

AL Rookie of the Year Voting
Player 1st 2nd 3rd Total
Berroa, K.C. 12 7 7 88
Matsui, N.Y. 10 9 7 84
Baldelli, T.B. 5 5 11 51
Gerut, Cle.   6 2 20
Teixeira, Tex. 1 1 1 9
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.

It was the closest vote since the BBWAA adopted the current format in 1980, a year after Minnesota's John Castino and Toronto's Alfredo Griffin tied with seven votes each. Berroa and Matsui each were picked on 26 of 28 ballots.

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."

NL Rookie of the Year Voting
Player 1st 2nd 3rd Total
Willis, Fla. 17 9 6 118
Podsednik, Mil. 8 10 11 81
Webb, Ari. 7 10 8 73
Byrd, Phi.   1 3 6
Cabrera, Fla.   1   3
Lidge, Hou.   1   3
Robertson, Hou.     2 2
Reyes, N.Y.     1 1
Wigginton, N.Y.     1 1
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.

Pat Caputo of The Oakland Press in Michigan and Bill Campbell of The Dallas Morning News left off Berroa. Bill Ballou of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star Tribune didn't include Matsui.

"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."

The debate continues over whether players from the Japanese league should be considered rookies, but this year it seems clear that writers were looking to vote for a true rookie of the year, so to speak.

In recent years, MLB rookies with considerable experience in Japan have won the award (from Hideo Nomo to Kazuhiro Sasaki to Ichiro Suzuki). Ichiro also won the AL MVP the year he was named the league's top rookie (2001).

Royals shortstop Angel Berroa is certainly worthy of this year's AL rookie honor, but I thought Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui deserved it more. Look at how he filled in at the center-field position when Bernie Williams was injured; look at his hitting and run-production (106 RBI to Berroa's 73); and look at how he produced in New York with all the media stress. It's hard to ignore all that. He would have been my pick, not to take anything away from Berroa.

MLB needs to identify and clarify the qualifications for the rookie of the year award so voters know what to base their choices on. Some voters have different views of how deserving experienced players are. Jackie Robinson, who was the 1947 major-league rookie of the year after breaking baseball's color line following a successful career in the Negro Leagues, would not have won the award in some voters' minds. It would be helpful to have guidelines that set aside the speculation about Japanese players.

In the NL, Dontrelle Willis is a great choice for rookie of the year. I thought Brandon Webb, who finished third, would garner more attention. I saw him pitch a few times this year, and he's lights-out. But Willis is a no-brainer. Voters understood how important Willis' call-up and immediate success were to the Marlins' playoff push and subsequent World Series championship.

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 -- Japan, Korea, independent leagues in the United States," said Sandy Alderson, executive vice president of labor relations in the commissioner's office.

Souhan's thought process was similar to Ballou's.

"I just could not in good conscience pretend that Hideki Matsui, this great player from what I consider to be a major league, was on the same footing as a 22-year-old kid trying to learn to hit a major league curveball," Souhan said. "I think it would be an insult to the Japanese league to pretend that experience didn't count."

Berroa told reporters in the Dominican Republic he was just happy to win.

"I think Matsui had an extraordinary performance (this season) and he also deserved to win the award," he said. "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."

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner thought Matsui should have won.

"As far as I'm concerned, the person who plays left field for the Yankees was the Rookie of the Year," he said in a statement. "All year round, New Yorkers cheered him, and he gave great inspiration to our fans."

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.

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press