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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Baseball Dilemma

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,


Jay D. Homnick said...

Although I haven't published on this subject elsewhere, I have been vocal on this here in the past. So I might as well revisit this once more.

It's my view that baseball statistics are not the least bit tainted by steroid use or weightlifting or anything that was not forbidden by the rules of the game.

Particularly in the case of Barry Bonds is this true. He became the best hitter in the history of baseball on the level of hand-eye coordination, and he did it in his 30s. Steroids were not a factor in that pursuit.

James F. Elliott said...

I agree with Jay.

Coming from a family of lifelong baseball (and San Francisco Giants) fanatics, I eagerly devoured my dad's copy of "Game of Shadows." The book should be entitled "Book of Shadows." The only case it makes convincingly is that Bonds is quite the a-hole to people he doesn't like, including everyone (like the books' authors) with a press pass. The "citations" are laughable. In general, the authors make big sweeping statements about steroid use in baseball and then insert anonymously attributed quotes to relate them back to Bonds. All in all, a laughable piece of sports reporting.

Professional baseball isn't the Olympics. These men aren't being paid to play for the glory of the sport. Once baseball stopped being a "pasttime" and became a multi-billion dollar industry, a situation was created in which the use of "performance enhancers" like steroids was easily predictable. It is not without reason that Major League Baseball didn't have a rule against steroid use until 2003, two years after it was made a federal crime to use steroids in professional sports.

This means that the only two seasons in doubt for Bonds, under the rules of baseball, are 2003 and 2004 (remember, he was DLed for most of 2005). He passed MLB-given drug tests several times both seasons. Especially in the case of Bonds, he was miles beyond his nearest competitors, whom we know from their own admission were juicing. That speaks volumes of the man's talent.

Barry Vanhoff said...

He became the best hitter in the history of baseball on the level of hand-eye coordination, and he did it in his 30s. Steroids were not a factor in that pursuit.

How do you know he has better hand-eye coordination than anyone else?

He went from "warning track power" to hitting mammoth homeruns ... in his middle to late 30's. That has more to do with bat speed than anything else.

Increased bat speed and power can be natural or artificially enhanced.

In his middle to late 30's.

The tests administered by MLB can be cheated. Like James said, with that much money on the line you'd have to be stupid NOT to think the tests could be cheated.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm of two minds: if you need steroid to compete, make a living and feed your family, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. (I'm with Eddie Cicotte in Eight Men Out.)

But to juice up just for glory, nah. Hollow triumphs. I do empathize with Bonds, tho---rumor has it he only started juicing after his baseball inferiors McGwire and Sosa destroyed the single season HR record. That's tough to swallow. Bonds even without the juice was the best player of his generation, a fact that was becoming obscured.

Hunter Baker said...

I identify completely with Dr. London on this score. I think it is ridiculous (with all due respect Jay) to suggest that artificially-induced brawn would have no effect on the power numbers for a hitter. I spent the better part of my childhood on baseball statistics and used to read the backs of the cards in the bathroom.

The strike in the mid-nineties nearly finished me on baseball, but I stuck with it to a degree because my beloved Braves were finally successful. This problem of steroids has caved in my remaining joy of the sport.

At least I still have my NFL, with drug testing so sensitive it catches Ricky Williams' holistic medicines!

Jay D. Homnick said...

With respect, CLA, forget about home runs, in his mid 30s Bonds reached a level of pure hitting where the man had no "out pitch". We all saw that with our own eyes; it's not a legend from another generation.

Steroids can't help you hit the whole strike zone, fastball, curveball, change-up.

Pitchers didn't fear him because of home runs per se, they feared him because no concept existed of an approach to getting him out.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Aye, Jay.

Bonds was entering my Ruth-Mays pantheon, at the very top of baseball history, before his descent into glory.

He couldn't pitch like the Babe or play the field like Mays, but he stole bases in great bunches and his career HR totals would have approached Mays' 660 even without the juice.

The irony is, in pursuing taking the single-season HR record from McGwire (and he took it), and the headlines for a month, he diminished a lifetime of achievement.

Gloria Mundi, whoever she is, would laugh, with more than a little sadness.

Hunter Baker said...

Tom, you've hit it just right. He was a spectacular player, a player often referred to as the best in baseball. But then he had to become a home run beefcake. So he joined the 'roid rampage and wiped out the memory of his own greatness.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Tom, you reminded me of that fun 1978 movie, Foul Play, in which Goldie Hawn's character was named Gloria Mundy. (That was Chevy Chase's first star turn.)

There's a memorably funny scene in which two old ladies are playing Scrabble and all the words on the board are obscene.

Well, I suppose your theory is that Bonds got sick in transit to that glorious Monday when he would be inducted into the Hall. I don't buy it, but I'm willing to chuckle along.

Barry Vanhoff said...

With respect, CLA, forget about home runs, in his mid 30s Bonds reached a level of pure hitting where the man had no "out pitch". We all saw that with our own eyes; it's not a legend from another generation.

While you may be correct, increased bat speed gives the hitter more time to see what the pitch is.

Back to Herb's original post, I too am a baseball stats junkie, but less so than I used to be. I can't blame it on steroids, however, as I am now married with three kids ... that has a tendency to adjust ones priorities a tad bit.

Evanston2 said...

I'm with Tom, Hunter, and Dr. London. Sorry Jay, but none of Bonds' records should be recognized. Same standard should be applied to Sosa, McGwire, Palmeiro, etc. I don't care if/when they were good players, they flushed it all down the toilet by cheating and taking away from other players who also had concerns about feeding their kids, etc. You may want to give them a pass on a technicality -- whether/when MLB had a ban on steroids -- but this isn't the Gas House Gang looking for an edge. It's a case of false testimony to Congress and fans alike, and the best I can say about the whole matter is that hopefully it induced a sense of realism in some naive fans.