Monday, March 21, 2005



Part I of V on steroid use in baseball
"If they started in 1992 or 1993 illegally using steroids, wipe all of their records out. Take them away. They don't deserve them. Go ask Henry Aaron. Go ask the family of Roger Maris. Go ask all of the people that played without enhanced drugs if they would like their records compared with the current records."
-- Senator Jim Bunning (R-Kentucky), testifying at the House hearings on steroids in baseball.

The notion that a player's records should be "wiped out" reflects a deep confusion about what the baseball "records" mean. (This is so whether Bunning means "records" to refer simply to a player's totals in one or more statistical categories or to "the record" as in a league leading total for a season or an all time leading total in baseball history.)

Baseball records are a factual record of player performance that function as (1) an aid to memory, (2) a basis to compare the abilities of current players, and (3) a basis to compare the abilities of players across time.

Bunning seems to think that baseball records are some sort of honorary award, but such a function would be, at best, a distant fourth in terms of its importance and its fit with the logic of baseball records-keeping.

The "home run crown," for instance, is simply a phrase describing the fact of hitting the most home runs in a season. It's not an Olympic gold medal bestowed in an honorific ceremony. To be sure, Olympic medals are intended to go to the athlete who wins an event with the best time or distance or whatever, but the medal is not the time or distance achieved. This feature makes the decision to strip an athlete of a medal after the fact less bizarre than the idea of "wiping out" baseball records.

Baseball records record events and statistics that counted in games. The Yankees are not going to be stripped of runs created by Jason Giambi's hits, or of wins created by those runs. Even if Giambi (or McGwire or Bonds) are deemed to have "cheated" by taking illegal performance enhancing substances, they hit the home runs that they hit. To "wipe out their records" is in an important sense simply as bizarre as a decree to wipe out our memories of their play.

Bunning's objection about the unfairness of comparing the records of steroid users to players of his (1950s-60s) or earlier eras rings somewhat hollow, and indeed smacks of the bitter grousing that one hears from retired athletes across sports. Anyone with an ounce of historical sense knows that baseball statistics are a faulty basis for player comparisons over time. The game has changed dramatically during the time period in which such comparisons are made, and in ways that have direct impact on "the records."

Frank Baker, third baseman for the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1900s and 1910s, was one of the foremost home run hitters of the dead ball era but never hit more than 14 homers in a season. He certainly had reason to gripe about the bright, new tightly-wound and frequently changed baseballs of the 1920s that Babe Ruth hit out by the dozens.

Prior to 1920, it was legal for pitchers to doctor the baseball with spit, vaseline, tobacco juice or sandpaper. Since 1920, that has constituted "cheating," though numerous pitchers prided themselves on getting away with such cheating, such as notorious spitballer, and Baseball Hall of Famer, Gaylord Perry.

In former times, Major League hitters used heavy bats with thick handles. Today, hitters have discovered that thinner handles and somewhat lighter bats generate more bat speed and more home runs. It's not inconceivable that MLB could place limits on the width ratio of bat handles to bat heads, such that the use of certain shapes of bat will become cheating.

Which raises another point: Major League Baseball has repeatedly manipulated rules and practices, often to create fewer or more runs, always to create fan interest. The ball has been changed, ballpark fences have been moved in and out, grass has been changed to turf and back, the pitching mound has been lowered, the strike zone has been raised, lowered, expanded and contracted. Teams have changed cities, and expansion has led to twice as many Major League clubs now as there were 50 years ago. All of these features affect player performance and "records."

And of course, the athletes themselves change. Most experts agree that the athletic ability of today's players is on the whole significantly greater than it was many years ago, due to improved diet, conditioning and coaching regimens.

Bunning now makes a shibboleth out of Roger Maris's 61 home runs, but he pitched in the AL that season and should remember that many people both among baseball fandom and officialdom did not want Maris to break Babe Ruth's record. And when he did, Major League Baseball, in its wisdom, decreed that Maris's home run "record" would have an asterisk in the "official record books" to signify that his 61 home runs surpassed Ruth's 60 homers only in a qualified sense: Maris hit his 61 in the modern 162 game season, whereas Ruth played in an era of 154 game seasons.

A few years ago, that asterisk was properly given up as idiocy. I think it would be further idiocy to put asterisks next to Mark McGwire's 70 home runs, or Barry Bonds' 73, or any accomplishments by players found to have used illegal steroids, let alone to "wipe out" those records.

Don't get me wrong. I think steroids should be banned from baseball -- because they are a serious health hazard -- and the powerful incentives for players to use them need to be offset by heavy deterrent penalties. But the penalties should be prospective – lengthy suspensions and stiff financial penalties.

Wiping out records – that's just Orwellian. We're capable of distinguishing Babe Ruth's 60 homers from Frank Baker's 14 and from Roger Maris's 61; and we're able to cabin today's records as stemming from an era of bloated offensive statistics, driven in part by the use of illegal steroids. We don't need your damn asterisks, and we don't need your damn "wiping out" of records to tell us how to place Giambi's or McGwire's or Bonds's records in context. You guys screwed up, but the records, they're for us fans. Don't mess with our heads.


Even so, don't you think, that if Sammy Sosa were clean he would have to feel like history had unbelievably screwed him over, far more than any damage done to Roger Maris? Of course, this is a purely hypothetical question, given how naive a person would have to be to think that Sosa was clean.
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