I’m one of those people who takes the baseball encyclopedia to the bathroom with him and memorizes statistics. There isn’t the slightest value in going through this exercise except, that for reasons only available to me, I enjoy it.
I know, for example, that in one distant year in the past Babe Ruth hit more homeruns in a season than the entire American League. I know that in 1949 Jackie Robinson in the National League and George Kell and Ted Williams in the American League finished the season with identical .342 averages to lead the majors. I know that Alex Rodriguez’s 48 homeruns in 2005 to lead the American League broke Joe DiMaggio’s record for most homeruns by a right handed Yankee batter.
Now one might well ask, so what? These statistics don’t reveal anything about the complexities in life, nor can they offer any guidance about human behavior. The numbers aren’t even predictive, a great season is sometimes followed by a mediocre one.
Still baseball was a game of numbers. I learned how to use a slide rule so I could break that log-jam in ’49 and determine that George Kell led the majors in batting. But now that the revelations of steroid use are convincingly documented in Game of Shadows, I wonder what my bathroom reading will be; in fact, I wonder if statistics will ever have the meaning for baseball aficionados it once did.
It is not merely Barry Bonds and his pursuit of Henry Aaron’s lifetime career homerun record that disturbs me. As I see it, the problem is every single number in the age of “juiced” players. Should I take seriously McGuire’s homerun achievements? Should I discount Palmiero’s 500 plus homers and 3000 hits?
How should I evaluate the game? What Bud Selig and the myrmidons of baseball have taken from me is not easily forgiven. Here we are with a new season and I don’t know what is legitimate about the game. Should I honor the player or his pharmacologist?
I’m perplexed. All of my life baseball was a game of numbers. After all, I would say “the numbers don’t lie.” Yet now in my middle years I discover the numbers do lie. In fact, it is hard to know what is real.
The owners intoxicated by box office results averted their gaze from this tragedy. They want the long ball that keeps fans in their seats. Forget about the sacrifice bunt or hitting behind the runner. In the age of steroids, it’s the homerun that counts.
Of course, if you’re looking for results, teams with the most homeruns don’t usually win. Pitching and defense count for a lot; just ask the 2005 White Sox or, for that matter, the Japanese team that recently won the World Baseball Championship.
Clearly Popeyes with muscles bulging who hit 500 foot homeruns get big seven figure contracts and are the envy of their colleagues. The problem is now you don’t know if those biceps came from eating spinach, lifting weights or consuming steroids and growth hormones.
Years ago Bart Giamatti, the former president of Yale and later commissioner of baseball, was asked to compare university and baseball life. His comment: “There’s a better class of people in baseball.” Perhaps, but it should be noted that using pharmaceuticals to enhance performance is the rough university equivalent of plagiarism. The integrity that once characterized baseball is in tatters.
Habits are hard to break. I still read baseball statistics in the newspaper before I read the news. Earl Warren, who did the same thing, once said, “I prefer to read about accomplishments before I read about failures.” Unfortunately I’m no longer sure about those accomplishments. I’m not even sure about what to have as bathroom reading.
Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of Decade of Denial (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001). London maintains a website, www.herblondon.org.