No Record, No Foul: There’s No Need to Salute Bonds

Murray Chass – New York Times

Chass is too often interested in oddball ephemera (most AB without a HR in a season, for one) and less than exciting inside information, while abjuring the trade rumors and the real inside baseball scuttlebutt we crave and he would seem to have at his disposal daily, to be interesting. But he’s a very nice writer and he clearly lives in some odd Timesean baseball universe that, like the NY Times itself, is a little too insulated from the hatred it inspires, but is admirable for its stubborn embrace of staunch liberal values, no matter how mutable they end up being.

This Chass story quite correctly and pedantically points out that MLB not honoring Barry Bonds for passing Babe Ruth is quite correct, because passing Ruth is not a record. Barry has (when it happens) simply moved up the list. But in this same story he also conducts a rather spurious survey of Bonds career that indicts him for hitting more homers than anyone else after he was 37. The fact that he did this (hit so many more homers than Ruth or Aaron or Mays) is Chass’s evidence that Bonds used steroids, which then improved his performance, which put him in the position, this week, to become the second most prolific home run hitters of all time.

This is crap because:

Stats aren’t really comparable across eras. The context in which they were created is constantly changing, and it is a romantic illusion to think that the records themselves confer some sort of grandeur. Stats should always be judged in the context of when they were created.
We don’t know what effect steroids have had, and it’s certainly possible that Bonds got extra years out of his career because of whatever drugs he took. It’s possible he got stronger and hit more homers because of drugs. But he’s never tested positive for a banned substance, and others have, so to attribute all the gain to him is misleading, at the very least.

And, most obviously, just because someone does something that hasn’t been done before doesn’t convict him. Could be. I think Barry juiced in some way. I’m not happy about that, but it has to be dealt with. Maybe the George Mitchell commission will give us some way to measure the context in all this, I hope so. But the bottom line is we pay our athletes to perform at peak value every day.

When they don’t we boo them. To think that whatever drug use there is hasn’t been sanctioned by our failure to make rules and our demand for impovement is dopey. So let’s make rules and enforce them. Let’s continue to consider context when considering whether a player is the greatest of all time.

But let’s not be stupid about our moralizing. Athletics are about performance, and it’s absurd to think that competitors wouldn’t use every means necessary to win, if they thought they could get away with it. And it would be hyper-hypocritical to call them on it as if they shouldn’t have.

2 thoughts on “No Record, No Foul: There’s No Need to Salute Bonds”

  1. Peter, I’m with you up until that last line. I don’t think it’s hypocritical at all to call a cheater a cheater.

    Maybe I’m never *surprised* when an athlete is caught cheating – be it steroids or emery paper, vasoline or a corked bat – but I don’t feel hypocritical because we all should be playing on something resembling level. The problem I have is that once caught, the cheater removes himself from proper context – unless we just assume that everyone cheats.

    In other words, if McGwire used steroids or Sosa corked his bat, then do we not have to take that into consideration when placing them on their appropriate pedestal? I think so.

    The real problem with steroids is that we have no idea as to how much it actually enhances. Bonds would have been great with or without, but is he an Aaron chaser or a Mays chaser or a Robinson chaser without them? I’d love an answer to that question.

  2. I didn’t really mean we shouldn’t criticize them for their drug use, but that we shouldn’t be sanctimonious about it. The pressure for players to use has to have been great, especially when the rules against it weren’t clear and the physical costs seemed so horrific. Deciding to use wasn’t moral weakness, it was deciding that the edge you hoped the drugs would give would make a difference in your career.

    I see little evidence in those who’ve actually tested positive that their games were improved by the drugs (at least in baseball), to convince me that the foundations of sport have been rocked.

    But I’m happy to stipulate that all the records of the last 20 years or so were created in a time when some players took steroids. But we don’t know which ones and I’m less happy declaring that all those who set records or had big years were juiced.

    As you say Megary, it would be so great to know exactly how the drugs changed the game. I suspect we’re going to have to settle for something a little less sure.

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