Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Batter up

There's little original but much that bears repeating in this essay about Major League Baseball steroid hypocrisy. Baseball purists are fretting because Barry Bonds stands to break the all-time homerun record, and he already holds the single-season record. But many Major League milestones were set at a time when many athletes also had an unfair competitive advantage:

In the 20th Century, baseball was America's Favorite Past Time, second only to invading small countries. Baseball players and their records were cultural icons; every kid knew the batting averages and rbi's of their favorite players. How many wins? How many hits in a season? How many homeruns? What did DiMaggio do today? When Ruth was asked why he was paid more than the Depression-plagued President, he responded "because I had a better year."

How would these records have changed if African Americans (and Latinos of African ancestry) had been included during the 60 year period of color line baseball? What impact would black players have had on the records of the all-white baseball players? Would Ruth have still hit 714 homeruns if he had to face pitchers like Satchel Paige, Leon Day or Smokey Joe Williams?

It seems unlikely.

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7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, editor Alex Cockburn is a noted expert on the great American sport and... Wait. Isn't Cockburn a noted leftie hack who conspired with Don Santina to vomit up this "essay" in order to make a point about racial politics in the Major Leagues, beginning his lede with a reference to an 1887 event?

No one doubts the legacy of racism in baseball. In the hands of gifted writers and editors (and Cockburn and Santina will never be accused of that vice), the sport is a metaphor for racial, labor and cultural strife, and should be.

But purists aren't simply fretting that Barry Bonds broke the HR record, but Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa too. Questions about McGwire's work in St. Louis, when he admittedly used various nutritional supplements but was long rumored to have counted on steroids to boost performance, were raised seven years ago.

Last time I looked, McGwire was very, very white.

That's why this bit on nonsense is simply irresponsible:

"No fuss. No outrage. No talk show blather. No senators screaming into the television cameras about the morality of athletes and sanctity of records. McGuire is white."

That wasn't true at all! The blather on ESPN alone in 1998 was deafening! But the problem for the journos then was that they couldn't prove McGwire took steroids or any other illegal substance. The supplements he admitted to using were legal under the MLB collective bargaining agreement, even if the NFL would have taken one-fourth of the player's salary if they caught him using it.

Fast-forward to 2005. The leaked BALCO Grand Jury testimony (which, by the way, netted several high-profile white players, especially in the NFL) is an insight into Bonds' performance that reporters never had with McGwire or Sosa (who also was rumored to have used body-altering chemicals to boost his power totals).

Had New York Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi (also named in the BALCO transcripts) set the MLB homerun record, the scrutiny on his achievements would have been just as high, I suspect. Race would have nothing to do with a great American sports scandal! And can you imagine what the media frenzy would be like in the New York market? Bonds only has to deal with the Merc, Chronicle and the Oakland paper. Imagine the bloodletting in the shark-infested waters of Gotham.

Please note that Roger Maris, who hit 61 HRs in 1961, also was white, but at least could safely say that he never used performance enhancing steroids. He also toiled in an era that saw African-American players hitting home runs alongside him.

And if you think the Bonds scandal looks brutal, imagine the roars when Maris got closer to breaking hero Babe Ruth's record, even passing the more popular Mickey Mantle along the way. Then, when he hit 61, the AL commissioner put an asterisk next to his name. You think Bonds is getting a little heat? Hell, the Maris story of unwanted accomplishment, then bleak betrayal, is baseball lore!

Internationally, of course, it's been track star Marion Jones who has occupied the headlines, even if the American press largely ignores her ties to BALCO. But last time I checked, she's African-American AND a woman! Where's Santina and Cockburn on that!

He doesn't even mention her. The big international sports scandal over the last two years, and she doesn't even merit an asterisk.

Perhaps Santina didn't want to tell the Times of London, Lagos Guardian or the Jamaica Star what hypocritical racists they are for focusing on the seemingly tainted accomplishments of the most celebrated woman runner since Wilma Rudolph.

Damned hysterical Jamaican and Nigerian racists! Go get 'em Cockburn!

What makes Santina's essay so unconvincing, moreover, is his erection of the strawman of the unknown black athlete.

Hell, he quotes numerous white players hailing African-Americans in the baseball Hall of Fame as some of the best in their craft, ever (Satchell Paige, Josh Gibson, et al).

Does anyone, especially baseball "purists" seriously doubt their accomplishments? No! In fact, purists take great pains to uncover long-hidden game summaries (Negro League baseball was notorious for poor record keeping, which is what makes some of the accomplishments incomplete; no one is sure, for example, how many games Satch really won or lost).

To solve the problem of the records, the Hall of Fame lists BOTH records from MLB and the Negro Leagues in their archives.

Because I'm a diehard baseball fan and a former athlete from an all-African American high school, I've always pressed hard for a full HOF accounting of Negro League accomplishments. Like Santina, I truly believe the Negro Leagues were every bit as good as MLB, with some players clearly superior to their white counterparts.

That said, the BALCO scandal has little to do with race and everything to do with crime. If it's proven that Bonds, McGwire or Sosa used steroids during their record-breaking runs, then not only should there be no asterisks next to their names, but their very names should be removed from the rolls of accomplishments, as if they never hit the HRs.

11:04 AM

 
Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

I don't agree with the premise that the current steroid fixation is based on race. (The problem with Bonds in general is his seemingly disagreeable public personality.) It is also fair to note that the substance McGuire used may have been banned by the Olympics but not by Major League Baseball, so, assuming he did not use steroids, he did not break baseball's rules. (It is worth noting however that most Americans and much of the sports media seemed to be rooting for McGuire over Sosa when they battled each other to break Marris' record.)

However, the larger point to be made is that it is often ludicrious to compare records set in one era to those in another, and the way many baseball fans pore over statistics as though they are infallible and absolute measures of accomplishment is equally ludicrious.

I don't care what happens to Barry Bonds. But quite frankly I don't care much what happens to baseball either, which is perhaps why I feel the way I do on this issue. Professional sports are entertainment. And watching Barry Bonds or Mark McGuire hit one out of the park is entertaining, regardless of how they did it.

11:53 AM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always suspected that the public acclaim McGwire got during the home run record was based on a longer distinguished career and a very public role in trying to halt child abuse. That bought him pub Sosa, who was speaking a foreign language and didn't have the pedigree at the plate McGwire had, couldn't get.

Don't get me wrong, I believe there was a certain amount of xenophobia and racism that attended the '98 race for the HR crown, but it also seemed to me that the public liked both men.

Anyone who has spent time in the Cubs' locker room, however, would tell you that Sosa isn't the affable, smiling clown MLB marketing makes him out to be. And McGwire was as much a pampered, surly millionaire as Bonds appears to be.

My problem with Bonds is that I always considered him a first-ballot HOF player for his all-around game. He was a brilliant strategist, masterful hitter and outstanding fielder, the Tony Gwynn with pop. The rise in HRs sort of diminished his game, ironically, and turned him into a puffy, steroid-bloated robot.

Beyond the money that scaffolds the game, I nevertheless admire the accomplishments of the men on the field. It doesn't make their work "pure" in any way, but I like the game.

12:36 PM

 
Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

I don't believe I'm alone in thinking that MLB shares some blame for encouraging fans to value power over finesse. Witness things like the All-Star Game's homerun competition.

1:36 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

MLB certainly has marketed the home run. The difference between "purists" and MLB, of course, has broken along two lines, one MLB can control to a great extent, and one it can so lesser effect:

1. The size and dimensions of baseball parks. The post-modern park is evolving into a fat drain of revenue streams. You have the vast asphalt parking lots, the overhanging luxury boxes, the special corporate sections and the added on expensive fun of concessions, games, etc. that are designed to make going to the park an "experience" beyond the mere and quaint enjoyment of the game itself. To encourage a fan-friendly type of game, the dimensions and sizes of the parks have been designed to favor power hitting, including at PNC (where you have an anemic, singles- hitting team playing in a power hitter's ballpark. Brilliant McClatchy!). MLB not only encouraged this unfortunate departure from a balanced game that included, apparently absurdly, such archaic notions as fielding, pitching, catching and base running, but lobbied to get such long-ball factories built. While there have been improvements (no baseball game should ever be played indoors, on AstroTurf or in a stadium configured for football), the triumph of the longball has been bad for the fan in the stands and the vast majority of players. It's been a boon, however, to the dim-witted fop who rarely watches the game but, sometimes, catches it when it's on TV. Any simpleton can understand a home run, you see, but how many get the sweet science of the suicide squeeze?

2. The revolution in speed, endurance and size of the modern athlete created by nutrition, advanced weight training and, unfortunately, steroids. MLB could never control innovations in weight training or legal nutritional supplements. Of course, baseball always has had large, bulky power hitters (Ruth, Mantle, Aaron, etc.), and making a certain number of other players bigger and stronger would raise home run totals. But steroids best serve the marginal player, someone with OK bat speed (that hasn't been improved by steroids, yet) but most likely without the other skills (termed "tools" in baseball parlance) that would give him a decent, un-cuttable career in MLB. This certainly has been the trend in the NFL, professional bicycle racing, track, etc. Typically, it's not the stars who use steroids or other performance enhancing drugs (they've been blessed enough by genetics and dint of hard work), but rather the middling wannabe who just wants to get on a team.
The BALCO scandal, of course, gave many of us pause because we saw, for the first time, true stars turning to the juice. Bonds and Giambi, for example, were already established winners. They didn't have great power numbers, but they were good, and the athletes would have enjoyed long, Hall of Fame sort of careers on any team. Ditto with Marion Jones. There was no reason for these people to cheat. So why did they?

That's why I think the essay you mentioned is so limited. Rather than concentrate on Cap Anson, I think we should explore the deeper moral failings at issue. Balco isn't about race. It's about a desire to be the best, even when you're already the best. This is a novel approach to humanity, where supermen supersize themselves even more, to compete not merely against their peers, but to push the envelope of what the human body can do.

This is a deeper issue, one that perhaps Nietzsche or the prophets of the Bible or Koran, or a mind like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, should tackle.

It's such a Promethean gesture to be Barry Bonds today. What drives this compulsion to become as a god? To be, physically and mentally, what no man has ever been before? It's almost Homeric, and with it there is the accompanying sense of tragedy in the best sense of the Greek dramatics.

Maybe sports writers and "baseball purists" are the chorus, reminding him as scolds his true nature as a man. Rather than changing the issue to excuse his behavior (Cockburn), we should be listening to the chorus for a change.

Rather than stage dressing, maybe they're our collective consciousness, and Bonds is our tragic, flawed antihero.

4:08 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

MLB certainly has marketed the home run. The difference between "purists" and MLB, of course, has broken along two lines, one MLB can control to a great extent, and one it can so lesser effect:

1. The size and dimensions of baseball parks. The post-modern park is evolving into a fat drain of revenue streams. You have the vast asphalt parking lots, the overhanging luxury boxes, the special corporate sections and the added on expensive fun of concessions, games, etc. that are designed to make going to the park an "experience" beyond the mere and quaint enjoyment of the game itself. To encourage a fan-friendly type of game, the dimensions and sizes of the parks have been designed to favor power hitting, including at PNC (where you have an anemic, singles- hitting team playing in a power hitter's ballpark. Brilliant McClatchy!). MLB not only encouraged this unfortunate departure from a balanced game that included, apparently absurdly, such archaic notions as fielding, pitching, catching and base running, but lobbied to get such long-ball factories built. While there have been improvements (no baseball game should ever be played indoors, on AstroTurf or in a stadium configured for football), the triumph of the longball has been bad for the fan in the stands and the vast majority of players. It's been a boon, however, to the dim-witted fop who rarely watches the game but, sometimes, catches it when it's on TV. Any simpleton can understand a home run, you see, but how many get the sweet science of the suicide squeeze?

2. The revolution in speed, endurance and size of the modern athlete created by nutrition, advanced weight training and, unfortunately, steroids. MLB could never control innovations in weight training or legal nutritional supplements. Of course, baseball always has had large, bulky power hitters (Ruth, Mantle, Aaron, etc.), and making a certain number of other players bigger and stronger would raise home run totals. But steroids best serve the marginal player, someone with OK bat speed (that hasn't been improved by steroids, yet) but most likely without the other skills (termed "tools" in baseball parlance) that would give him a decent, un-cuttable career in MLB. This certainly has been the trend in the NFL, professional bicycle racing, track, etc. Typically, it's not the stars who use steroids or other performance enhancing drugs (they've been blessed enough by genetics and dint of hard work), but rather the middling wannabe who just wants to get on a team.
The BALCO scandal, of course, gave many of us pause because we saw, for the first time, true stars turning to the juice. Bonds and Giambi, for example, were already established winners. They didn't have great power numbers, but they were good, and the athletes would have enjoyed long, Hall of Fame sort of careers on any team. Ditto with Marion Jones. There was no reason for these people to cheat. So why did they?

That's why I think the essay you mentioned is so limited. Rather than concentrate on Cap Anson, I think we should explore the deeper moral failings at issue. Balco isn't about race. It's about a desire to be the best, even when you're already the best. This is a novel approach to humanity, where supermen supersize themselves even more, to compete not merely against their peers, but to push the envelope of what the human body can do.

This is a deeper issue, one that perhaps Nietzsche or the prophets of the Bible or Koran, or a mind like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, should tackle.

It's such a Promethean gesture to be Barry Bonds today. What drives this compulsion to become as a god? To be, physically and mentally, what no man has ever been before? It's almost Homeric, and with it there is the accompanying sense of tragedy in the best sense of the Greek dramatics.

Maybe sports writers and "baseball purists" are the chorus, reminding him as scolds his true nature as a man. Rather than changing the issue to excuse his behavior (Cockburn), we should be listening to the chorus for a change.

Rather than stage dressing, maybe they're our collective consciousness, and Bonds is our tragic, flawed antihero.

4:09 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

By the way, here's how an economist looks at the stats, pre- and post-steroid use:

Comparing Bonds to Caminiti
I thought of another interesting way to look at stats to see how steroids affect performance. Luckily, we have one player whom we know took steroids, and when he started. Ken Caminiti's 1996 performance for the San Diego Padres was his best season, and it won him the MVP. And two years ago he revealed that during this season he also took steroids. And though he continued to use steroids after this year, he claims that his use was nothing like 1996. So, what happened to Caminiti's OBP and Iso-Power during this season in comparison to what he had been doing? How does this compare to Bonds?

K.Cam. OBP Iso-Power1996 0.408 0.2951993-95 0.351 0.184Change 0.057 0.111%Change 16.2% 60.6%B.Bonds 2000-03 0.517 0.4391987-99 0.413 0.280Change 0.104 0.159%Change 25.2% 56.8%

Yikes! The percentage changes are a little too similar to my liking. Certainly, this means very little, but it is interesting. I am being a bit unfair to Bonds by selecting his whole career, while only picking out a few years for Caminiti. I did this because there careers were very different. Caminiti was never close to the player Bonds was (note Caminiti's one big year was about the same as Bonds's pre-2000 career) so I tried to pick out a slice that was more comparable to Bonds. One other important note is that Caminiti says steroids destroyed his body, causing him to leave the game; Bonds is still going strong. However, Bonds was never arrested for using crack cocaine either.

Thanks to Baseball-Reference for the stats.

Get it at fishinghat.blogspot.com/2004_03_01_fishinghat_archive.html#107852194437452484

On the same site, you can get a nifty argument for a mathematical model for comparing players from various eras (look at how they performed against their peers, duh).

4:59 PM

 

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