Friday, April 15, 2011

Bonds, Manny and Fallacies

The federal government was able to pin one charge against Barry Bonds and that was obstruction of justice. They were unable to get a jury to convict Bonds of lying to a grand jury. Was that a victory for the feds? Was that a victory for Bonds? The answer is hardly on both counts. Bonds, unless he appeals, is now a convicted felon. The government might decide to retry Bonds on the hung charges. If they do so, it will be a further waste of federal resources. The verdict came down within a week of the news that Manny Ramirez tested positive again and retired rather than take the one hundred day suspension. Since then, dozens of writers have marked their lines in the sand on issues such as the Hall of Fame and these two players' legacy. As someone who has loved the game for almost fifty years, this writer must too draw that line.

The evidence of the use of performance enhancing drugs is overwhelming. For anyone in this day and age to believe otherwise is misguided. Equally misguided is anyone who believes that the players we think we know about were the only ones who used the substances during their careers. If you decide to take the slippery slope of listening to Jose Canseco, usage was rampant and those we think we know about are just the tip of the iceberg of who used during their careers. The safest thing to say is that we'll never really know the full extent of who used and who didn't. Even if someone leaked all the names on that famous list of those who had tested positive in 2003, we still wouldn't know because those were only the ones that got caught by the test.

Another safe statement is that usage was widespread around baseball by both those who hit the baseball and those who pitched. But what we end up here are a handful of scapegoats, who also happened to be among the top performers in the game. These whipping boys for the sins of many cause all the prose that is thrown out over the Internet and in news copy day after day. Count Bonds and Manny Ramirez at the head of the class in this category.

The argument that these guys were "cheaters" is a strong one. No one can deny that those who used PEDs were at the very least, circumventing the rules. That's a nice way of saying they cheated. The argument that there was no testing is a weak one. Yes, it casts the net of blame wider to include owners, the union and the players. But it still doesn't negate the argument of cheating.

But there is another argument that is worth considering. And that is that if more than half of the players were using, how come all of those players didn't shatter home run records or win 300 games or hit 600 homers? For every successful user such as Jason Giambi, there was an unsuccessful one such as Jeremy Giambi. It didn't make everyone great. It may, at most have made the great...well...greater.

Athletes have always done whatever they could to get an edge. Does anyone think that PEDs were the only transgression in the long line of history? If you believe that, then you believe that the White Sox of 1919 were the only ballplayers that ever took money to affect the outcome of a game. Do people really believe those White Sox acted in a vacuum. If you do, then perhaps you should read this interesting article. We'll never know, but a lot of early baseball was probably mishandled with gamblers' money.

But just like in 1921, baseball found itself with a problem and fixed it. Same as today. Other writers have made a case for "greenies" or other medication that helped ballplayers stay "sharp" before the PED era. There is evidence that one of the most famous homers ever hit may have been aided by a team accomplice in centerfield flashing the signs. Gaylord Perry is in the Hall of Fame though he has admitted cheating. Did Joe Neikro learn to scuff baseballs in a vacuum? Was he that much of a genius? How do we know his Hall of Fame brother didn't do the same thing?

Nolan Ryan pitched for a long, long time. And he was effective a long, long time. Do we know he never cheated? Do we know with certainty that all of the recent inductees into the Hall of Fame never cheated? What we have here is a generation of players that got caught.

There are two issues that are the most problematic that Bonds and Manny cause us to focus on. The first is the record book and the second is the Hall of Fame. Both suffer from rose-colored glasses and the fallacy that baseball remains the same over time. Let's take each of these issues separately.

First, the record book. There is no doubt that until this point, the numbers in that record book have been held in awe. And now for the first time, we are faced with a challenge to those hallowed numbers. But even that is not a true statement. At the time Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's home run record, the talk of an asterisk was very prevalent due to the fact that Roger performed his feat in 162 games instead of Babe's 154.

The Maris-Ruth controversy only shows the lack of honesty there is in comparing play from one era to the next. When Maris played, the league expanded and there were many more pitchers in the game who wouldn't have been with less teams. Ruth played when African Americans were banned from baseball. Performance enhancing drugs are just one factor in the numbers being put up today. There are more teams than ever before providing more mediocre pitching (and hitting if you look at it conversely). Plus, the baseball isn't the same from era to era. Oh, the commissioner might tell you otherwise. But we know it was different prior to 1920. We call that the "Dead Ball" era. How can you have a defined era and say confidently that the ball hasn't changed periodically since?

So the record book that we all cherish and love is a fallacy and always has been. How can Babe Ruth be vaulted higher than Home Run Baker when they didn't play the same game? Sure, the record book does give us some hints on who the best players are over time. But to think that it was ever fool proof is nonsense. Boog Powell just might have been a better player than Jason Giambi. So as much as it pains this writer's sensibilities. it may be a good thing for the record book to become less holy.

The problem with the second issue (the Hall of Fame) is similar to the first. We have that ridiculous clause in the voting rules that talks about the integrity of the game. The clause assumes that none of the Hall of Fame players that played before 1919 ever took a bribe. It assumes that racism is treated differently than other evils. It assumes that players such as Ruth were bastions of goodness. It's all a bunch of hooey. Did Bob Feller report all his income on those barnstorming tours with black teams? We don't know. Is Pete Rose the only player that ever bet on baseball? We don't know. Was Gaylord Perry the only pitcher who doctored the baseball?

The only thing the Hall of Fame should do is include players who were the best players at the time in history for which they played. Period. That means that Pete Rose is in the Hall of Fame and Shoeless Joe, and yes, it means that Manny Ramirez and Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmiero and anyone else are Hall of Fame players. Period. And if the present Hall of Fame can't do that, then there should be a movement to create a new institution that does. The alternative is leaving out some of the greatest players of the game and having their places taken with lesser talents. Then you have a meaningless institution.

Contrast baseball's hallowed Hall of Fame with the NFL. O. J. Simpson is in the NFL Hall of Fame. Jim Brown hasn't stayed always on the right side of morality issues. He's in there. Lawrence Taylor is in there. He's a registered sex offender. How many football Hall of Fame players are there that took steroids? It's not about morality. It's about who the best players were in their era.

Does this Fan think that MLB should ban steroids? Well, yes. What about blood replacement methods? Geez, who knows. The game should always strive to create as fair an environment as possible. But all that said, it's never been completely possible and there are too many gray areas to make it black and white. Bonds apparently became envious of lesser talents getting so much media attention. His ego drove him to his supposed choices. Manny Ramirez is a player in a long line of players from the Dominican Republic who took any edge to get out of that poverty situation and were helped in many ways by unscrupulous scouts that made those choices easier. Growing up in that culture leads to way of life and a confusing sense of right and wrong. But Manny Ramirez was one of the best players of his era. End of story. Bonds was the best player of his era. End of story.

Bury the record book as a measure for all time greatness. And bury the silliness of baseball writers deciding the morality lines in America. Those cats are long out of the bag. They may never have been in the bag in the first place.

1 comment:

Dan McCloskey said...