Sunday, April 08, 2007

Baseball's records trumped by scandals

Barry Bonds has passed Babe Ruth and set his sites on Hammering Hank. He might not make it this year but, barring legal issues, Bonds will pass that record. If he has to limp out to the plate for five more seasons, Bonds will keep playing until he hits 756. It's a given. Fans don't seem particularly fascinated with this inevitability.

It's fitting because Aaron's record has long been overshadowed by Ruth's even though Ruth hit 41 fewer home runs. The fans who hold Ruth in higher esteem insist that the slight is not a racial issue but rather a testament to the fact that Ruth set the record in fewer at bats. Some fans will even go so far as to argue that the talent in baseball has become increasingly diluted since the days Ruth played and that Aaron's accomplishments would have been impossible if he had played in Ruth's era.

They're correct because Aaron would have been forbidden to play. That fact alone invalidates everything Ruth did. Though it was not his fault, Ruth never faced black pitchers nor was his assault on the record books challenged by black sluggers. When you look at the influence black players have had in baseball, how can one reasonable argue that what happened before Jackie Robinson actually matters? It seems that the talent pool got deeper once black players entered the league.

Think of the best players in the game today. Think about the best players in the game over the last 50 years. Where would baseball be without black and Hispanic players? Granted Hispanic players weren't specifically excluded from baseball but teams limited the number of Latino or Chicano players they carried. Now we have Japanese and Korean players entering the league and doing quite well. Baseball is pulling the best players from all around the world, but back in the 1920's it didn't even feature the best players in the country. Some remarkable white athletes even eschewed professional sports for real jobs because professional athletics was not an admirable profession. Now the minimum annual salary is deep into six figures and multimillion dollar contracts are the norm. Back in the 1920's it was foolish to pursue a career in sports, now it is foolish not to.

Ruth changed the game by bucking tradition and going for the long ball. Before he played the game was still rooted in the conservative style of play that was introduced back in the 1860's. Players were trained to hit the ball low and advance along the bases as subsequent hitters followed suit. The game was methodical. Ruth came along and hit the ball in the air. As other players took his cue the records he set became more attainable. With Hack Wilson and Jimmie Foxx coming quite close to hitting 60 home runs in the 30's. Ruth was an impressive hitter but the disparity between Ruth and the rest of the league had more to do with the nature of the game than it did talent.

Aaron was a better all around player than Ruth. He was an effective base runner and a solid fielder. His record breaking performance suffers criticism because he played more games than Ruth and finished his career as a designated hitter but he broke Ruth's record with a National League team and did so amidst death threats, hate mail and facing the pressure of being a role model for an entire race.

Still, it's unfair to compare the two. Aaron broke Ruth's record almost 40 years after Ruth played his last game. Aaron was born one year before Ruth finished his career after playing just 28 games in the 1935 season and 13 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball. They played in different eras and might as well have played on different planets.

Now we have Barry Bonds ready to inch past Aaron in the record books and again it's a different ball game. We are more than 30 years removed from Aaron's final at bat and the game has changed tremendously. Now baseball players are encouraged to lift weights. The muscles everybody once thought would slow down swings and limit flexibility are now an asset and that revelation has made the use of steroids beneficial to many players.

Bonds has resisted the designated hitter as a means to prolong his career but he has found other things. Human Growth Hormone stimulates tissue growth and increases lean muscle mass. Barry Bonds looks like a bloated cartoon image of a brawny baseball player. He claims he's legal but his name has been implicated in several scandals involving the sales, distribution and application of illegal performance enhancing substances. Back in the 1970's Aaron might have been popping pills to find a little extra energy but Bonds has gone beyond the use of uppers and found a veritable fountain of youth. You can make the argument that his career and productivity have been artificially lengthened by modern medical science. Those are advantages Aaron and Ruth didn't have.

There is the argument that Bonds doesn't have an advantage over his fellow players. Roger Clemens is well past the age a pitcher should be hurling 95 mph fastballs but he's still pushing smoke past hitters half his age. He's remarkably fit and seems even more formidable at an age where his predecessors learned more breaking pitches and took a seat in the bullpen. It wouldn't be a surprise to anybody if Clemens tested positive for steroids. Randy Johnson still throws remarkably hard and Curt Schilling is still eating up innings as a starting pitcher in spite of sustaining some pretty serious injuries late in his career.

Other hitters have been implicated in steroid scandals. Gary Matthews Jr. emerged as a great player in 2006 after floundering in mediocrity for six years at the major league level. Then in 2007 his name surfaced in a steroid scandal. Matthews insists that he's clean but it's quite a coincidence that after 11 years in professional baseball Matthews had his best season when he was connected with steroid investigation. Maybe there isn't enough evidence to support criminal charges but it certainly looks suspicious.

Does that mean that the game was pure back in the old days? Not really. The steroid scandals are the result of the modern player's commitment to performance excellence. Old school heroes like Babe Ruth were selfish booze hounds who could have been better athletes. Mickey Mantle's career was shortened by his substance abuse problems. You simply didn't see people put in the effort that today's players put in. The science of exercise physiology has taught us that everybody can become bigger, stronger and faster which will ultimately make them better. Unfortunately steroids can make those gains easier to attain and even increase the athletes potential to realize those gains.

That argument often makes people wonder what Ruth and Mantle would have been capable of if they would have had access to today's exercise technology and the steroids that go with it. It's easy: They would have been superheroes. Ruth might have stolen 60 bases to go with his 60 home runs and probably would have crested 70 home runs at least once in his career. But that's assuming he would have been the only guy putting in that kind of effort. If the pitchers in his day would have had access to the training and conditioning techniques today's pitchers enjoy, Ruth might have struggled to make contact. Of course, we can only wonder how Ruth would have fared if black players had been allowed to play against him.

And so you have it. Bonds' accomplishments won't resonate as much as Aaron's because Bonds is on steroids. Aaron's record doesn't matter as much as Ruth's because Aaron played more games. Ruth's feat should be second guessed because he didn't have to face black players.

What does this teach us? Baseball places too much emphasis on numbers. We're led to believe that the game might change but that the numbers will never lie. That's simply not true. Babe Ruth was a great player in his day but his numbers don't prove that he is better or worse than Barry Bonds. They both have their demons and we can make a valid case for either of them to be stricken from the record books but what would that accomplish? Then we'd just have a new set of numbers to question. Baseball's records simply don't matter. They don't tell the whole story. So we should look beyond the numbers and think about the context in which they were attained. In my book, that makes Aaron's record more compelling. He faced the best players in the game but did so before those players were inclinded to take steroids.

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