Alex Ovechkin and Mike Thomas are linked in Washington history (I’ll explain why shortly). But while even non-sports fans know Ovechkin’s the guy with the gap-toothed grin who scores all those goals for the Capitals, surely plenty of Redskins rooters have forgotten Thomas, the mid-1970s running back bridge from 1972 MVP Larry Brown to Hall of Famer John Riggins.
What Ovechkin (2006) and Thomas (1975) have in common is that they’re the only Washington football, baseball, basketball or hockey players to have been named their league’s top rookie during the past 50-plus years.
This is relevant because Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa is a serious candidate for National League Rookie of the Year honors. The 24-year-old Californian is hitting just .242, but is tied for second among second basemen with 17 homers (trailing only Milwaukee Brewers All-Star Rickie Weeks) and third with 55 RBI (trailing only Neil Walker of the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Yankees All-Star Robinson Cano) while adding 47 runs and 12 stolen bases.
Various reports have Atlanta reliever Craig Kimbrel, who has been dazzling as the Braves’ closer, as the favorite to win the NL Rookie award especially since he seems to be playoff-bound. However, Espinosa’s power production has to be given its due even with the Nats only hovering near .500.
Unlike the MVP selection which generally takes into account how much a player affects his team’s season, Rookie of the Year voting is usually purely performance-based. Last year’s top rookies, San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey and Texas Rangers closer Neftali Feliz, played on pennant winners, but 2009 winners Andrew Bailey of the Oakland A’s and Chris Coghlan of the Florida Marlins, didn’t reach the postseason.
If Espinosa is voted Rookie of the Year, he’ll not only be a recent rarity in Washington, he’ll be the city’s first baseball player so acclaimed since Senators outfielders Albie Pearson (1958) and Bob Allison (1959) were chosen in consecutive years by American League voters. Even considering that we were unjustly without the summer game for 33 years, it has still been 18 seasons with a team since a top rookie wore a W on his cap.
Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda, who are both enshrined in Cooperstown, were the NL winners when Allison and Pearson triumphed in the AL. Thirteen other Hall of Famers have been named Rookie of the Year including Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Johnny Bench, Tom Seaver, Rod Carew and Cal Ripken.
But of course, being named Rookie of the Year is far from a guarantee of immortality as the relative obscurity of Allison and Pearson shows. Other winners of the award included such forgotten players as Harry Byrd, Don Schwall, Marty Cordova, Butch Metzger, Kazuhiro Sasaski and Bob Hamelin.
So winning or losing the award isn’t likely to change the course of Espinosa’s career, but it would be nice for a town that’s had so little to celebrate in sports for so long to be able crow about having a Rookie of the Year again.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the former President of the Pro Football Writers of America. A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.