The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

 

Kiss My Asterisk

I missed Barry Bonds' 715th home run on Sunday, and not by a little. In fact, I was just about as far away as can be while remaining in North America, out on Prince Edward Island, some 3,600 miles away from the action at [Insert Phone Network Here] Stadium in San Francisco. I didn't even find out until about 1:30 AM Atlantic Daylight Time (an hour ahead of Eastern) Monday morning, when I flipped on the tube after prolonged attempts to fall asleep. Rogers Sports Network (no ESPN under the maple leaf, or at least on the P.E.I. cable package) showed Bonds' homer from three different angles in the show's intro, then buried the story behind the Edmonton Oilers' unlikely run to the Stanley Cup finals, the spectacularly tight finish at the Indy 500, Patrick Roy's Central Hockey League champions (!), and at least three other nonbaseball things. Unsure whether I was lingering on the channel because I actually wanted to see more coverage or if I merely wanted to see the story buried, I finally said to hell with it and flipped over to "The Simpsons," figuring it was less likely to get my blood boiling -- further preventing me from sleep -- at that ungodly hour.

So Bonds passed Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list and the world didn't end. The Bambino didn't open up the skies to smite his successor, Bonds didn't confess to any wrongdoings, and because he hit his homer in front of the hometown fans, he received a decidedly warmer reception than he has for many of his other homers this year. Still, I didn't see too many folks turning cartwheels by the time I arrived home some 16 hours and one news cycle later. The barrage of controversies surrounding Bonds and the protracted end to his chase of Ruth -- his last three homers separated by three weeks -- have served to dampen the celebration outside of the Bay area. Even his own teammates shied away from the spotlight. Interesting.

A reader left several Bonds-related questions for me in the comments section of my previous post. Based on their tone, the lack of an email address and perhaps a touch of my own paranoia, I initially took the comments as trolling. I still think they might be, but I also think those questions have enough merit to be worth the trouble of a response so that I can clarify my position. So here goes...

[D]o you think that by promoting use of the asterisk to mark what you consider illegitimate records you might be opening the door to marking up all historical records that were gained under other types of unique or questionable circumstances that gave a player a specific advantage? Is that something you would like to see? Or would it be just for alleged cheaters?

First, I haven't used an asterisk to mark anything besides the single-season home run record in a few instances within my own writing here and at Baseball Prospectus. It's my form of protest, a reaction to a very specific combination of events and a great deal of evidence indicating wrongdoing. It isn't a quest for an official action on the part of Major League Baseball; it's more of a grassroots effort to acknowledge the dubious context under which Bonds hit his 73 homers in 2001. I'm not so naive as to think MLB will come knocking to ask me for advice as to how to handle its record books any time soon, so I'm not too worried that I'm opening the door to anything (except maybe the refrigerator, because that's where the beer is).

Would I advocate the usage of an asterisk in other instances? I would be thoroughly entertained if other writers and fans keep referring to 73* or 715* or 756* (or wherever Bonds winds up) as a form of popular protest, to remind us why we've lost the opportunity to celebrate those particular feats without the shadow of doubt. On that note, I'm fond of a couple of paragraphs from Joe Sheehan's BP column on Monday. Sheehan and I don't particularly see eye to eye on the Barry Bonds situation (a topic the two of us discussed via email this past week), but he eloquently captured some of my reservations about this debacle:
What has been taken away from us, as baseball fans, is the ability to enjoy the moment with no reservations. Even for someone like me, who’s criticized the process and who thinks Bonds has been given something less than fair treatment, it’s clear that his last six seasons have occurred at the intersection of ability and something else, something of dubious legality or morality...

I'm someone who wants to celebrate the greatness of baseball and its players, and whatever Bonds has or has not done, he’s taken that away from me. I'm left with a choice between ignoring everything, cheering and feeling a little bit like a sycophant, or snarling at the feat and pointing to a hardcover book and reams of media coverage. Neither is satisfying.
As for taking the asterisk beyond Bonds, that would depend on the record and the weight of the evidence; I don't see a need to go tacking on asterisks willy-nilly to career totals that we know are tainted (say, Jose Canseco's homer total based on his own admission of steroid usage, or Gaylord Perry's win total, which I'll discuss further below) because really, they don't mean much in the grand scheme.

Maybe it's silly, but I think there's something about the home run records (single season and all-time) which transcend the sport. For the past eight and a half decades, a great deal of the popular appeal of baseball has centered around the home run and its surrounding mythology. Even the terminology far outdistances the sport, finding usage in a wide array of contexts, some of which would make Babe Ruth roll over in his grave. Numbers like 60, 61, 714 and (someday) 755 hold a romance to those who knew them as records. They're just numbers, but they're numbers that act as a point of entry to new fans, are recognized by even the most casual fans, and have remained touchstones though the ages because they're so rarely attained.

Should Gaylord Perry's place on all-time lists be annotated due to his admitted cheating?

First of all, Perry has already done us that service by titling his autobiography Me and the Spitter and publicizing his transgressions. He isn't the single-season or all-time record holder for anything I'm aware of, except perhaps unofficially for the most spitballs (or Vaseline balls, etc.) thrown, most public discussion of spitballs thrown, and most gestures indicating he might throw a spitball. Even at the tail end of his career, he was a riot to watch when he pitched. Wiping his jersey, running his fingers through his hair, rubbing the bill of his cap, tugging at his sleeves -- it was all a shell game, designed to put the idea in the batter's head that a doctored pitch was coming. If Perry had loaded up as often as we imagine, he would have been a breeze to catch, but he understood that the spitball's potential use was every bit as potent a weapon as its actual use.

The first big difference between Perry's spitballs and Bonds' steroid usage is that Perry's actions weren't in violation of any laws, just Major League Baseball's rules. Baseball outlawed the spitter in 1920, grandfathering seventeen pitchers, the last of whom (Burleigh Grimes) retired in 1934. Bonds' actions did violate several laws as well as MLB rules, albeit laws and rules that weren't always particularly well-conceived and were often poorly enforced. Congress made the usage of steroids without a prescription a crime back in 1991, and that same year baseball created a policy which applied to all illegal drugs, including steroids and other drugs used without a proper prescription. As we've seen, that was only paying lip service to the problem of steroids, but it does prevent Bonds and others from hiding behind that excuse.

Another big difference between Perry's spitballs and Bonds' steroid usage is that Perry's actions were taking place on the field of play, in plain sight of the players, coaches, fans and umpires. Savvy umpires, particularly at the behest of the opposing manager, certainly could have pressed harder to stop Perry by searching his uniform or more diligently inspecting the baseball. In actuality, Perry wasn't ejected from a major league game for throwing a spitter until 1982, his 21st season in the majors. Why not before? I suspect that has to do with the fact that doctoring the baseball was (and still is) a very simple method of gaining an edge, and a time-honored method that pitchers too numerous to count have employed in the decades since the pitch was outlawed. Legal or not, it's been part of the culture of the game for over a century, as have various other forms of gamesmanship that include bat corking, sign stealing, and field doctoring. The general dialogue surrounding such actions is usually one of a smile and a wink, whether it's discussing the 1951 Giants' elaborate scheme for sign-stealing, Buck Showalter showing us how to cork a bat on "Baseball Tonight" in the wake of Sammy Sosa getting caught, or the recollections of some ancient groundskeeper when it came to the height of the mound, the length of the grass, or the watering of the area in front of home plate.

I suspect that if you polled players, you'd find very few who objected vehemently to a pitcher doctoring the ball. The most vocal critic I can recall is former Houston Astro Bob Knepper, whose moral objections to his teammates' (including Mike Scott) alleged doctoring of baseball was documented in Mike Sowell's One Pitch Away. Unless I'm mistaken, Perry didn't draw much ire from opposing hitters for his actions, likely because such hitters were protecting their own pitchers' dabbling in the black arts. Opposing pitchers could pay Perry a handsome sum for a tutorial on how to throw the spitter.

As for steroids, you've got numerous players who've recently spoken out against their usage, and as Howard Bryant explores in Juicing the Game, the rank and file of the Major League Baseball Players' Association was generally against steroids because players felt they'd be compelled to use them to keep up. Whether or not that's true, what's undeniable is that the union opened the Collective Bargaining Agreement not once but twice to redraft steroid policy, which is unprecedented in the annals of the their history. That speaks volumes about the difference between the distinction between spitballs (or corked bats) and steroids.

Also, when you say that Bonds did things nobody else has done at his age, couldn't you say the same thing about Babe Ruth in his time?

Absolutely, but there are two main distinctions to be drawn. First, Ruth's achievements were based on his pioneering a new style, the uppercut swing, which gave the ball tremendous loft and sent it great distances. Once that style began to be copied to a greater or lesser degree, other prodigious sluggers -- Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Hack Wilson, Hank Greenberg -- came along and produced seasons which approached Ruth's numbers. To my knowledge Bonds didn't produce any innovations on the field of play which would explain his late-career power surge.

Second, to the best of my knowledge nobody, whether in his day or since, has made a credible accusation that Ruth was doing anything outside the rules of baseball. Recently Greg Spira called my attention to a claim that Ruth may have used a primitive steroid, sending me the following paragraph, which comes from a May 8 article in The Nation by Dave Zirin:
According to The Baseball Hall of Shame's Warped Record Book, by Bruce Nash, Allan Zullo and Bob Smith, the Bambino fell ill one year attempting to inject himself with extract from a sheep's testes. This effort by more than a few athletes of his era to seek the healing and strengthening properties of testosterone prefigured the craze for steroids. When Ruth fell ill from his attempted enhancement, the media was told that Ruth merely had "a bellyache." This was believable since Ruth was a glutton, famed for eating eighteen-egg omelets.
I haven't read the book cited by Zirin; in fact, I'd never heard of it before this. That's not to discount Nash, Zullo and Smith's claim outright, but I've yet to seen what documentation they produce to back that claim. Ruth was certainly no saint, and many other explanations have surfaced for "The Bellyache Heard Around the World," including the Babe's notorious gluttony, his binge drinking (especially during Prohibition, when outlawing alcohol made it even more dangerous due to the lack of oversight in its production), or a sexually transmitted disease. Any of them seem more likely than the Nash/Zullo/Smith explanation, but even if the authors are right, what Ruth was doing wasn't against either baseball's rules or the country's laws. As for the alcohol, Prohibition banned its manufacture, sale and transport, but not its possession or consumption, so trying to draw a parallel there doesn't work.

What if Pujols slugs .750 at age 39, will that change the way people think of Bonds's career?

As great as Pujols is, he's never slugged higher than .667 for a season. He's currently at .783 on the strength of 25 homers hit in 50 games, but there's a long way to go before he even can pull off .750 over a full year, let alone 13 years down the road. Even then, that .750 would only be one point higher than the lowest of the four slugging percentages Bonds posted from 2001-2004 when the best evidence available tells us he was using various illegal performance enhancers. So in the extremely unlikely event Pujols can pull that off even once, he'll call attention to the fact that Bonds' performances under those circumstances (advancing age and unfavorable park) were exponentially more unlikely.

Speaking of Pujols, Friday saw the publication of a quick article I wrote for the New York Sun about last week's series between the Cardinals and the Giants, contrasting Bonds' quest for 715 with Pujols' potential challenge of the single-season record. "The Chase is on for 73*" is the article's title, the asterisk waved through by the Sun's editors but otherwise unmentioned in the text. In the original version article, I drew a comparison between the allegations concerning Bonds which are contained in Game of Shadows, the unsubstantiated charges that Pujols has lied about his age, and the loopholes in MLB's steroid policy (the lack of a test for Human Growth Hormone, and the likely existence of other undetectable designer steroids) which prevent us from knowing whether anyone is clean. The Game of Shadows graf was cut, likely for space reasons (trying to limit myself to 1,100 words is an exercise in futility). Here's how it reads, with the excised text bracketed:
But the press attention still focuses on Bonds. Though he’s still 41 homers behind Aaron, passing Ruth — the outsized folk hero who singlehandedly made the home run fashionable in the early 1920s — rates as a spectacle, in part because of Bonds’s own stated desire to “wipe out” the Bambino’s feats, accomplished during an era when the game was racially segregated.

[Intensifying the scrutiny is Bonds’ alleged use of steroids, which may have aided his climb up the home run charts. In March, San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, who broke the story of Bonds’ connections to the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, published Game of Shadows, a book offering the most compelling evidence of Bonds’ usage. Using grand jury testimony, a slew of court documents, and interviews with more than 200 sources, the authors portrayed a supremely talented slugger who so resented the adulation afforded Mark McGwire upon his 1998 shattering of the single-season homer record that he doped up by any means necessary to steal the white slugger’s thunder.]

Bonds’s protracted march has given players, fans, and the press a chance to vent their frustration with a steroid-fueled era featuring juiced-up hitters producing inflated home run totals. Prior to number 713, Philadelphia fans greeted Bonds with an oversized banner: "Ruth did it on hot dogs and beer. Aaron did it with class. How did YOU do it?" In Houston after his homerless homestand, Bonds was drilled by a pitch from journeyman Russ Springer, drawing an ovation from the hometown crowd along with an ejection and subsequent four-game suspension. Meanwhile, nearly every sports section in the country finds writers taking aim at Bonds. He’s become the perfect symbol of how the steroid era has cost baseball its most hallowed records.
Continuing onto the Pujols segment:
Pujols, by contrast, makes an appealing icon for a post-steroid era. He wants no part of the controversies surrounding Bonds, and though he’s told the press to "give the guy a break," he’s otherwise studiously bland. "I don't want to be the next Barry Bonds," he's said. "I want to be Albert Pujols and that’s it."

Nonetheless, Pujols hasn’t escaped suspicion. From the moment he reached the majors, he carried himself with the air of a veteran star, and produced like one as well. Maybe a bit too much; critics have questioned the validity of his January 16, 1980 birthday. The annals of baseball are full of falsified birthdates, particularly among Latin American-born ballplayers who lower their ages, suggesting to scouts that they have more time to reach their peaks. It would shock no one if the Dominican-born Pujols were among those ranks.

But since September 11, 2001, the U.S. Immigration Service has required real birth certificates in order to obtain work visas, resulting in dozens of ballplayers outed as being up to six years older than first believed. Pujols was not among them, however, and the intervening years have produced no evidence suggesting he should have been.

Major League Baseball's steroid policy has enough holes that Pujols can’t escape suspicion on that front, either. Experts believe undetectable designer steroids such as the ones Bonds allegedly used are still in circulation; "the Clear"0 and "the Cream," substances central to the BALCO case, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to flouting the rules. Moreover, no urine test exists for the naturally-occurring Human Growth Hormone, another performance enhancer which Bonds and other sluggers, such as Jason Giambi, allegedly used. Even if Pujols never fails an MLB-administered steroid test -- as the Giants’ series dawned, he announced he’d passed three so far this season -- he has no way to prove his innocence to a skeptic.
From there I moved on to placing the first five years of Pujols' career in the context of other great starts, using data compiled by Jonah Keri for a previous BP article:



In any event, with Bonds' 715th homer, we can now turn our attention away for awhile, lest the spectacle of Bonds suddenly attempting to cast himself as kinder and gentler Barry nauseate us to the point of skipping meals. I'm looking forward to that, and a chance to give my inner Howard Beale a well-deserved rest.

• • •

Kudos to Marc Normandin on a fine job of pinch-hitting on this week's Prospectus Hit List in my absence. As it turns out, we've got a nice little series between the top two teams (the Tigers and Yankees) in our midst. I caught a few late innings of last night's 11-6 Yankee win, and I'm especially looking forward for the chance to watch Justin Verlander pitch on Thursday. I'm also ready to start a Melky Cabrera fan club; the little dude (5'11" my ass) is hitting .328/.406/.410 through 61 at-bats and was a homer short of the cycle last night. Back with some stuff on the series later this week.

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