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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Babe and Barry

I promised myself that I wouldn't write anything on this topic and was actually feeling pretty proud for not having done so thus far. Given what I've written on the topic previously and the polarization that this issue engenders, I've spent the last three weeks or so concentrating on the historical trends in hit by pitch data as well as watching the Cubs struggle to score runs.

But, with 714 approaching I can't resist any longer. My plan had simply been to ignore 714 and 715 (as I have Barry's ESPN show) because in my mind the entire Bonds persona has become a freak show. But then I read this article from Dayn Perry who reminds us not to get too sentimental about Ruth. After all Ruth was a drunk, a philanderer, a bad teammate, a glutton, ad infinitum - facts which journalists of the day ignored. Interestingly, I heard the author of the new Ruth biography Leigh Montville interviewed on an MLB radio podcast this morning and he noted that Ruth's grand daughter believes that Ruth also had ADHD.

While I have no problem with Dayn's article (and he even brings Yankee Stadium park factors into the discussion which you gotta love) and agree that we shouldn't get all upset about Bonds passing a guy like Ruth, I think some have used Ruth's moral failings to try and excuse Bonds' actions. The two men and their situations are totally separate issues and should remain so. My distaste for what's going on is rooted in what Bonds has done, not what Ruth did. The overwhelming evidence - the kind that lets reasonable people make judgments every day - clearly indicates that Bonds cheated. Attempting to excuse him because Ruth may have been a louse much of the time makes no sense. As to what the unenhanced Bonds might have done, my opinion on the subject is similar to this quote by Cory Lidle.

"What he could have done without performance-enhancing drugs--which he hasn't been proven guilty of [using], which I'm not buying--you can maybe take what he had done in his prime, before his head started growing at an enormous rate, and just make those projections. Say that, 'This is what he could have done.' Maybe it's 550 home runs. I don't know. It definitely wouldn't have been anything close to 700."

What's more dicey in my opinion is the view espoused by some that Ruth's feats should be downgraded because he played in an era before integration, night games, the slider and all the other changes in the game since the mid 1930s. That train runs both directions, however, as Bonds had access to (legal) medical care, better equipment, and simply the accumulation of knowledge that goes with any activity as it is refined over time. Even without steroids Bonds' career has been lengthened by the operations on his knee and treatment he's received on his elbow.

I have no doubt that if Bonds and Ruth were to match their hitting skills Bonds would be by far better. An interesting analysis of this question was performed by Nate Silver in a chapter of Baseball Between the Numbers. There Silver creates a league difficulty factor based on Davenport Translations by examining the performance of players in successive seasons. He then uses these factors to translate statistics across eras. His analysis of Ruth concludes as follows:

Ruth's career EqA would be .274. He probably would have made the All-Star team a couple of times, with an EqA in his best seasons approaching .300. But he'd be remembered as merely a good player and certainly wouldn't be a credible candidate for the Hall of Fame. In modern terms, Ruth might be a Tino Martinez (career .274 EqA) or Raul Mondesi (.278).

And this idea holds for all players of the past. It's simply a fact (akin to athletes in other sports such as basketball or track and field although not as severe) that most major league players today are better than most players of the 1920s and 1930s - which is why in the end the argument seems kind of silly. Players should be judged in their own context.

But on a different note I ran into this article that tells the stories of two kids who witnessed Ruth's final three homeruns in his visit to Forbes Field on May 25th, 1935.


Studes said...

Dan, not to be argumentative or anything (who, me????), but doesn't your comment that "players should be judged in their own context" apply to Bonds, too?

Bonds's context includes a large number of high-profile players taking steroids with MLB turning the other way. What's more, the guys who successfully took steroids were making millions more than Bonds was, with public adoration and no repercussions to boot.

I am not a Bonds apologist -- the guy did do something illegal -- but I would hold MLB officials most accountable for his behavior the same way I would hold the execs of Enron most accountable for the behavior of some of their accountants.

Dan Agonistes said...

Your're never argumentative are you?

Well, my comment about context was meant to apply to questions of evaluating performance and statistics but since you brought it up...

While the context of major league baseball included players taking steroids and the commissioner's office and the player's union turning a blind eye, it's not as if there was any question about the legality of what they were taking (Winstrol, HGH, designer steroids, and testosterone decanoate as has been reported for Bonds) regardless of whether or not MLB had a policy in place (I give a lot more leeway to players who only took andro and creatinine since those are substances much more mainstream in nature).

The fact that Bonds et. al. didn't advertise what they were doing and denied it for so long is proof enough that they are morally culpable and understood that what they were doing was cheating. "Everyone else is doing it" just won't fly. MLB and the player's union are certainly at fault as well but their responsibility in no way affects that of the players. Just because MLB, player's union, and the media acted as enablers doesn't mean that the players are any less responsible.

Whew. Stepping down off the soap box now... :)

Studes said...

I understand what you're saying, and I like to think I follow the same strict code of ethics in my own life. Well, I like to think so...

But if 25% to 40% of players were taking steroids, and getting away with it for over 10 years, and being financially rewarded for it, there was more of a problem at the top then the bottom.

How do you feel about players taking greenies? That is just as illegal as steroids, isn't it? I know that effect on the body isn't the same, but does that imply that there should be a different moral standard for them?

Like I said, I'm not argumentative at all...

obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

As willing as I am to blame team ownership/management, I think that they have proven that they are pretty toothless with regards to trying to control the players for many years now.

I blame the players union and players' agents for not getting more done. The union just lets players get away with anything and everything and never tell them, "well, you did do a terrible thing, be a man and accept your punishment." The players' agents are also at fault in my eyes because it is their fiduciary responsibility to watch out for their players' interests, hence the Boras Experience that he sells, but what's more fiduciary than steroid boy getting a big contract because of enhanced stats that makes my player look like chump change.

In particular, I blame Boras because he must have known and did nothing. Look at all the stuff he does to sell his players in that portfolio/prospectus that he puts out. Even ordinary fans knew the rumors and inuendoes about steriod usage, so he must have known at some point. And he represents the top players in the game. So that leaves two scenarios: either his players are all clean or he knew that one of them used.

If they were all clean, he should have been pushing to get the MLB cleaned up because this usage should either cost his clients money in terms of less bidders because they spent their money on steroid users or flexibility in that the team his client wanted to join went instead for a steroid user. And given his thoroughness in his practice and the political clout he has within the union, if he were leading the charge, I think the union would have at least considered bending on testing, particularly if Boras had made it a public battle.

Howver, if one of his players was a user and he knew, then he is obviously culpable.

And greenies has had a huge effect on the career stats of players, it allowed players who should have been weakened by fatigue to perform near peak performance, allowing them to accumulate more stats, both by playing more games than they were capable of and by playing closer to peak than they would have. And this has been affecting stats since probably WW II. And they are just as illegal and, worse, there appears to be more widespread usage, though not universal usage.

And one accused user is Willie Mays, should his accomplishments be denigrated as well? Even when most observers would rate him as probably the most complete position player ever in the game?

Every stat in baseball has a human stain on it, whether it's Ty Cobb's cleat first dirty slides getting him another steal, or Gaylord Perry's spitball earned HOF plaque, or Mark McGwire's use of Andro which drew zero attention from the media in terms of investigating if there's fire to go with that smoke. No matter how you slice it, Bonds is still passing a milestone, he is making baseball history.

If anyone has a problem with it where they need to do something with the stats, then it should go beyond a "let's lynchmob Bonds' stats" mentality and follow that to it's logical conclusion. Or you can just ignore it, that's valid too, but this is baseball, for bad or worse, it is still hitting the pitched ball, and as shown by all the users caught so far, if you don't have much talent, it don't do much good for you.

And even if Bonds might have been juiced, there's no proof that he benefited that much from it. Someone recently calculated what Bonds stats should have been had his career path followed other stars fade pattern and had him do much worse. However, I think that was flawed because he's not like other players, even before the alleged usage, and there have been players, like Darrell Evans, Ted Williams, and Hank Aaron, who experienced a power boost in their late 30's similar (just not as extreme) to what Bonds experienced. Only they should have been used as a guide as to how Bonds might have done, if one is to do analysis like that. And that would reduce the differences that guy found.

Likewise, should we question all three players' stats as well, they did something that was quite out of the ordinary for their times, for any times, there are just very few players who have ever boosted their HR power in their late 30's like these players.

Studes said...

"MLB and the player's union are certainly at fault as well but their responsibility in no way affects that of the players. Just because MLB, player's union, and the media acted as enablers doesn't mean that the players are any less responsible."

By the way, I don't disagree with this statement. To me, the question is whether Bonds deserves the antipathy he has received, given the environment in which he played and the history of illegal activities that were implicitly condoned in MLB. I'm not suggesting Bonds should be "let off the hook" in a moral sense, but I'm saying that our emotional reactions (and our moral interpretation of his performance) should be tempered by the environment in which he played.

I'm also suggesting that Bonds's actions were the tip of the iceberg throughout MLB history, and that it's inconsistent to judge him harshly without also judging hundreds of other major leaguers the same way.

Dan Agonistes said...

Does Bonds deserve the antipathy? No, not more so than other players like Palmeiro and McGwire. However, my reaction leans more towards apathy than antipathy. I just want him to go away, as I would with any other player who was about hit a major milestone that was tainted. Had the Palmeiro story gotten out before his 500th homerun and 3,000th hit I would have felt the same way.

But of course nothing about Bonds is simple and part of the antipathy that fans feel is that he's justly perceived as a nasty guy. The sideshow he's become turns apathy to antipathy in a hurry.

When I first read about Willie Mays allegedly taking greenies I was also disgusted as I was in reading Ball Four (for the first time last winter). While the affect isn't as great the offense is just as bad. Those guys were/are undermining the core product that baseball is selling - fair competition. Some have argued that Pete Rose's gambling was a much worse sin but I don't really buy that. They both make it so the fan can't trust what he sees and therefore should be treated the same.

In the end the entire 1993-2006 era will be judged pretty harshly I think. A confirmation of that will be McGwire is viewed by the writers next winter. My hope is that Gwynn and Ripken go in together and McGwire doesn't make it.

Anonymous said...

Dave, you keep ignoring others points, do you discount other cheaters numbers like you do Bonds ?

Yes, we know greenies doesn't enhance performance like steroids though, this is pretty logical given the fact that to reap from steroids benefits it actually takes hardwork, where as greenies it takes nothing but opening your mouth to pop a pill. Still, they have been proven to enhance performance in all sports, and yes, even baseball. There have been reports of pitchers increasing pitch speed after taking a greenie.

That said, it sounds very hypocritical of you to be constantly bashing bonds for passing aaron, when aaron himself, has admitted to using greenies to enhance his performance.