08 August 2007

511 amd the Memory Hole

Barry Bonds became baseball's all-time home run leader Tuesday night, surpassing Hank Aaron with his 756th career home run off the Washington Nationals' Mike Bascik, whose father twice pitched to Aaron after he had hit the final home run of his career.

The doing may be done, but the long odyssey of the national sports press and assorted others to pour doubt onto the record chase--which began three years ago when it became apparent Bonds was going to reach the all-time mark--is likely just reaching full swing. Bonds, as everyone knows, has long been under suspicion of using performance-enhancing drugs, and his connection to the steroid lab BALCO and disgraced trainer Greg Anderson are still under investigation which, we are told repeatedly, is a horrific calamity threatening to rip the very fabric of baseball.

I'm not buying it. These kinds of scandals come along at regular intervals, dutifully accompanied by a chorus of apocalyptic doomsayers predicting the imminent demise of baseball into obscurity. After the 1994 players strike which canceled the World Series for the only time in the past 105 years, we were regularly presented in the press with uncountable number of people who swore up and down they would never attend another baseball game. Apparently, and, if so, not coincidentally, these people have all died off. Major league baseball has set a new attendance record each of the past four years, and two Saturdays ago set a single-day record on a weekend that also included a record crowd for the Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

So I can say, with some confidence, that baseball has survived the trumped-up "steroid scandal" swimmingly. Steroids are a problem because they are a health hazard, and I am not in favor of unrestricted use as some are. But I also suspect the total effect of steroid use on statistical output in the past 15 years has been less than generally believed, particularly since pitchers have been dosing just as much, if not more, than their hitting counterparts, as we have discovered since baseball's new testing system began in 2005. (Indeed, Clay Hensley, the San Diego pitcher who allowed Bonds' record-tying home run, served a 15-game suspension in 2005 for a "steroid precursor.")

That's a minor inconvenience for the modern sports media, who need to find a way to discredit the modern athlete at any cost. I have little doubt that, even if steroids were not in play, there would be some other narrative put forth to render the new record-holder's mark untidy. Smaller ballparks, juiced balls, pitching talent diluted by expansion, etc.; all excuses which were being used in some quarters during the late '90s before the Godsend of steroids was fully realized. If Alex Rodriguez succeeds in surpassing Bonds' mark, he will likely do so as a full-time designated hitter, which will give the aged sportswriters all the ammunition they need to cast doubt on that accomplishment. Write that down. Come back to me in eight years.

All those points I mentioned in the previous graph are true, at least to some extent. There's no dispute we are living in an era of increased offense. What's absolutely scandalous is that there is nothing at all unnatural about this. Baseball, despite the bloviating of the more pompous purists, ebbs and flows from periods of pitching dominance to periods of hitting dominance. We are actually not living in the most favorable run-scoring environment of all time; that occurred from roughly 1925 to 1940, when Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in a season and Hack Wilson drove in 190 runs. Those periods favoring pitchers, however, are usually held up as being somehow more aesthetically pure and innocent. That might have something to do with the last such period coming between 1960 and 1990.

Cy Young racked up 511 wins in an era when pitchers soft-tossed their way to 40 complete games in a season and had little restriction on the ways they could doctor the baseball. Young's record will never be approached before the invention of bionic pitching arms, yet tellingly no one in the sports press has suggested scrubbing pre-1920 pitching marks because of the legal spitter and "dead" balls which were rarely replaced during the game. On the occasion of Tom Glavine's 300th career win on Sunday, we were subjected to the chorus of gloom fretting that modern pitching were too brittle and flimsy to ever reach that modest milestone again.

This is the kind of tyranny we are up against. They are unsatisfied with casting aspersions on records of our generation which were aided by our current environment, they are also unwilling to recognize the occasions in the great and glorious past might have been similarly affected. They are asking us to believe the balderdash that modern players are somehow more morally weak for resorting to steroids, when the only distinguishing factor them and the players of past generation was the absence of that temptation. Anyone who believes otherwise is a doddering fool easily taken.

The modern sports scribe is like a worker gerbil slaving away in the Ministry of Truth, carefully cropping and editing history to flatter themselves and their generation. It is an unfortunate cycle that is passed down from father to son like the game of baseball itself. Luckily, it is also a perpetually losing battle, as current events are reinforcing.