Sports Outside the Beltway

Bonds Passing Ruth: So What?

Chuck Klosterman has a thoughtful piece in ESPN The Magazine about what Barry Bonds’ passing of Babe Ruth’s legendary 714 home run milestone will mean. (As an aside, I find it interesting that people continue to fixate on Ruth, even though most of his records, including this one, have long since been broken).

Barry Bonds Unbreaking Myth ESPN Cover The reason we keep statistics — and the reason we care about statistical milestones — is that we assume some sort of emotional experience will accompany their creation and obliteration. These moments are supposed to embody ideas that transcend the notion of grown men playing children’s games; these moments are supposed to be a positive amalgamation of awe, evolution, inspiration, admiration and the macrobiotic potential of man. But the recent success of Bonds contains only two of those qualities, and maybe only the first.


At this point in history, no one considers baseball as popular as football or as culturally relevant as basketball. But baseball is still the intellectual game; it’s the game most compelling to the likes of Ken Burns and George Will and Yo La Tengo, and that’s at least partially due to the quantitative import of its record keeping. Baseball is the only sport where numbers always seem meaningful, and it’s the only sport where a numeric comparison between players of different eras is even halfway reasonable. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored almost 7,000 more career points than Wilt Chamberlain did, but no one would ever suggest that Abdul-Jabbar was the superior, or even comparable, offensive force. Baseball is the only game where categories like batting average and slugging percentage have objective meaning, and it’s the one sport where specific cumulative plateaus (3,000 hits, 300 wins) are regularly used as guidelines for the Hall of Fame. It’s the only game where sabermetrics could exist and be taken seriously. Unlike football and basketball, baseball exists within a hard reality.


Steroids, and Bonds in particular, have probably changed that forever. Performance-enhancing drugs create two problems for baseball’s bean counters — one of which is predictable and one of which is not. The first, obviously, is that they enhance performance. The second is that these performances are enhanced to a degree that’s completely unclear. In the case of Bonds, it would appear that the improvement has been profound: At an age (37) when his skills should have been diminishing, he hit 24 more home runs than he ever had before. But that still tells us very little about the specific impact of steroid use.

There is no way to quantify the intangible components of injecting yourself with drugs that make you better. How much of this increased production was due to Bonds’ newfound sense of mental invincibility? How much was due to the realization by opposing pitchers that Bonds was: (a) totally juiced up and therefore (b) impossible to overpower? Moreover, it’s not like steroids magically turn spray hitters into Magnus Ver Magnusson; they mostly help hitters (and pitchers) recover faster from workouts, which allows them to train harder and more often. Does this mean “the cream” and “the clear” made Bonds into a freakish superman, or does it mean they merely allowed him to become the natural superfreak he always had the potential to be? These are questions we can never answer.

Certainly true. But that won’t keep us from talking and writing about it.

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I really think that this whole steroid story is blown out of proportion. Not only are they assuming too much regarding the effects that these enhancers have on players, but they also are completely ganging up on one particular player. That’s not right. It’s time to look at this more pratically. Let’s keep things in perspective. Bond’s great career numbers show that steroids did not change His performances. Yes, He had a fluke season, but so did Ruth with His 60.

Posted by Mark Catanzareti | May 16, 2006 | 04:16 pm | Permalink

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