Friday, June 19, 2009

Don't bother giving baseball a purity test

Further to the point made four months ago that baseball's shame over steroids "will serve to liberate it from the conceit ... that baseball is the best game of all because of its record book."

Bill Simmons has drawn a lot of eyeballs with a column attempting to define what was the purest era in baseball from a statistical and competitive viewpoint. He settled on 1988-92, a era of modest offence (someone could win the batting title hitting .313, or win the home run crown with 36, as Fred McGriff did for the 1989 Blue Jays), which "now seems Jonas-level pure, after the fact. Cocaine had become passé, and the number of suspicious statistical guys -- we could create the word "'roidy" here, just for kicks -- was a handful, at best. Er, worst. They clearly didn't damage the game any more than the spitballers, scuffers and corked-bat guys of earlier eras."

Craig Calcaterra, the ShysterBaller, weighed in:
"(Simmons) may be right, even if the definition of 'pure' is a bit unclear and maybe not that useful. What is useful, however, is Simmons' highlighting the fact that, at just about every single point in baseball history, there was something, be it drugs, or rules, or racist policies or whatever, that altered the statistical and competitive landscape. Some of them -- and I'm thinking segregation here -- were borne of even more malice than the cheating of the steroids era.

"Simmons' observation puts lie to the notion, so popular in recent years, that the steroids era's greatest evil was that it somehow sullied a heretofore pure record book. There was nothing pure about it, and certainly nothing consistent about it. Lefty Grove would have been a Hall of Famer whenever he played, but there's no escaping the fact that a lot of the guys he got out wouldn't have been able to sniff the big leagues if black players had been allowed in the game. Bob Gibson would likewise be celebrated, but his 1.12 ERA in 1968 would never have happened if he was pitching from a modern mound in a modern retro-park. We talk about baseball's wonderful continuity all of the time, but things have changed in radical ways over the years, and no one has ever presented any evidence to convince me that steroids impacted things any more radically than did high pitchers' mounds, huge strike zones, segregation and dead balls." (Emphasis mine.)
It is gratifying to see that meme filter up to someone who deservedly has a larger platform. The point is the obvious. The game was never perfect, and it's good to rid yourself of the idea that baseball was once this perfect, incorruptible game or that it was better when you were younger. It's a mental construct which seems to come up a lot in hockey, too. People believe the NHL was somehow better when 57-point teams could almost make it to the conference final, as the Maple Leafs almost did in 1986.

Here's what this site said in February, when the excrement hit the aerofoil device over Alex Rodriguez:
"Rodriguez breaking the home run record... good thing: Contary to what you might have heard, Rodriguez has not destroyed the game's history. His shame will serve to liberate it from the conceit, kept up by self-appointed gatekeepers such as Bob Costas, that baseball is the best game of all because of its record book.

"Those of you who have also watched all 18½ hours of Ken Burns' Baseball, six times over in the past 15 years might remember this part. At one point, Costas says the grand old game stands alone since you can rhyme off numbers such as 56, 755, 4,256, .406 and everyone will get the reference. In other sports it is, "How many yards did Jim Brown have when Walter Payton passed him? How points did Wilt Chamberlain have when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar passed him to become the all-time leading scorer in the NBA?"

"Statistics are a good backup for confirming what you saw or filling in what you missed. It's mostly a reflection of the competition player faced, the conditions (i.e., segregation, scouting, home ballpark), the way the game was played at the time and whether he was fortunate enough to enjoy a long career. Everything needs to be put into context, not just the Steroid Era.

"The failure to understand is this is why Dick Allen, who played in the low-scoring 1960s and early '70s, is not in the Hall of Fame ... Oh, and remember, anyone who played before the game was fully integrated, their numbers are a bit suspect too."

It cannot be stressed enough that this is not an attempt to usurp credit. That's a bit like the end of the Family Guy "Blue Harvest" episode
Chris: "Didn't Robot Chicken already do this three months ago?"
Peter: "I wouldn't worry about it, Chris. I don't think people are even aware of that show's existence."

Baseball has never been pure (Craig Calcaterra, Circling The Bases)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Baseball is the best game just because it's the BEST GAME. All the others don't require nearly the intelligence combined with athletic skill. It's amusing to listen to people talk about how the "good Canadian boys" aren't on performance enhancers, which if you've ever known more than a half dozen elite hockey players, is complete BS. It just happens to not be the "sacred game" with such a spotlight (and US Congress) all over it. Guarantee you that after football, baseball AND hockey have been rampant in performance enhancers, even if you believe that in many cases it's meant as a recovery tool and not flat out cheating.....