April 19, 2011

An Assault on Baseball History

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The past two weeks have been rather ignominious outside the diamond for major league baseball. On April 8th it was reported that aging slugger Manny Ramirez had tested positive for a performance enhancing drug (PED) for the second time since penalties were introduced for positive tests. Facing a 100-game suspension, he decided to retire. Last week, on April 14th, single season and all-time home run champion Barry Bonds was convicted on one-count of obstruction of justice in relation to testimony he made in 2003 regarding his use of PEDs.

These two events have once again unearthed the issue that major league baseball and most of the sports media would probably just like to go away — PEDs in baseball. Note: Most of the time the PED is a steroid, but not always. The two great players mentioned above have been linked to PEDs and likely exiled from the hall-of-fame for the foreseeable future.

It’s a mess for everyone involved in the game. What to make of these players, all the others linked to PEDs, and really, every player who played in the “Steroid Era?” Here’s my take. The problem and hence the solution lies in the way greatness is measured and players are remembered. It has to do with the effect PEDs have had on the record books — the grand historical measuring stick of the game. Baseball has an obsession with history. As a history major, I have long had an appreciation for the history of the game, and I suspect it’s probably one of the reasons I love the game so much.

Baseball also has an obsession with numbers. Numbers are indeed useful for measuring things because they are objective. The problem is the fantasy that baseball has long entertained in linking numbers and history to come up with the definitive measuring rod for greatness.

All numbers in the game aren’t created equal, and it’s because things change over time. There are so many variables that have affected the way the game has been played over the past century, effectively making today’s game likely unrecognizable to someone who played before 1920. Since 1920, ballparks have shrunk, the game has been played indoors and on artificial turf, and the training regimen of players has improved among many other things. Each of these factors has certainly affected hitting and pitching statistics. But there’s an old saying in baseball — that eventually everything “evens out” — and generally that seems to have been the case until now.

The “Steroid Era” has resulted in such distorted figures that it threatens to undermine the use of numbers as the definitive assessment of players across generations and therefore the historical continuity of the game itself. If you take a look at the home run numbers — the stat which appears to have been affected most significantly by steroid use  — specifically the 500 career home run list and the 50 home runs in a season list — the numbers are remarkably consistent from 1920 until 1990.

I won’t bore you with the numbers, but I urge you to look them up. What I will say is that in the 20 years since 1990 the instances in which a player has hit over 50 home runs in a season has increased significantly compared to any stretch of time in the previous 70 years, and 10 players joined the 15 members already in the 500 home run club during a ten year stretch from 1999-2009.

The home run stat is the key stat to look at not only because it is believed to be a telling indicator of the effect steroids have had on the game, but also because of what the home run means to baseball. The home run made baseball what it is today — there’s a reason they say chicks dig the long ball. It started with Ruth who hit aberrant home run numbers from 1918-1920; he hit 11 in 1918, 29 in 1919, and 54 in 1920. But nobody looks back now and says, ‘gee, what Ruth did really distorted the record books.’ Instead, it set the standard by which a now popular sport would be measured going forward.

So how does baseball resolve the dilemma regarding the players and the numbers from this era? Essentially, who is worthy of the hall of fame?  Assuming the drug testing policies effectively return the numbers in the game to “normal” levels, baseball may relegate the “Steroid Era” to merely a blip on the radar — an aberration on the imaginatively smooth historical continuity of the game. All of the players, but most shamefully the great players will be relegated to suspicion, shame and eventually obscurity — remembered only as long as witnesses to their careers live.

Or baseball can do something else. It can throw out the record books. It can change the way history is used to evaluate players. Instead of continuing with the fantasy that comparisons based on objectively formed numbers across vast periods of time are optimum, let’s instead compare players to each other within the generations that they played.

Chances are you’ll get roughly the same players as you would using the other method, but it will be a more valid assessment, and you largely resolve the issue of the inflated statistics from the “Steroid Era.” Surely some of the players from that era, Barry Bonds and Manny Ramirez for instance, would be considered great even without having used steroids.

Not everyone was doing it you may say. Well, the hall of fame is about honoring greatness on the field, irrespective of moral failures. Until 2002, performance-enhancing substances weren’t tested for, and even then penalties were merely a tap on the wrist until a few years later. It would be shameful for baseball to castigate great ballplayers for merely trying to get an advantage in a competitive sport when baseball had for many years done nothing to curb such an advantage. It’s not just a matter of continuing the tradition of honoring great players; it’s a matter of doing justice to the numbers and the history of the game too.

Original Author: Brian Bencomo