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— A Timely Look at Transactions as They Happen
Thursday, January 14, 2010
The Big Yawn
One of the world’s worst kept secrets was finally revealed this week. Mark McGwire used steroids during his playing career.
The earth-shattering revelation served as a tincture to a rather slow news cycle and soon we got to hear what everyone thought about the biggest outrage since the Black Sox threw the 1919 World Series. Or was it the Crusades? We got to hear what Hank Aaron thought about the news. We got to hear what Lance Berkman and Claire McCaskill thought about it. At this point, I feel a little cheated that the government hasn’t leaked exactly what the Underwear Bomber thinks of McGwire.
So, what exactly does this signify for the validity of home run records and baseball history? Nothing.
Numbers play a big part in baseball. Sabermetrics has become increasingly popular over the last 15 years and numbers like 4256 and .400 capture the imagination of baseball fans without any further explanation. Numbers tell stories, they preserve memories of games played that nobody now remembers, and many fans have memories of poring over box scores.
Numbers, however, really aren’t important in of themselves. Without being placed in context, a number is meaningless. Hitting .400 and winning 20 games means something different in 2009 than it did in 1909.
So, when I hear about numbers and sanctity, my eyes glaze over. Numbers know no sanctity, no morality. Babe Ruth’s 60 comes from a drastically different time and set of circumstances than Roger Maris’s 61. The same differences exist between 61 and McGwire’s 70.
In Ruth’s time, anabolic steroids were unheard of, though Pud Galvin experimented with monkey testosterone and there are stories, perhaps apocryphal, about Ruth injecting himself with extract from sheep’s testes. Suffice it to say, there weren’t many distributors of the high-quality enhancers we see today and players didn’t have the sophisticated training regimens designed to take advantage of the drugs.
But Ruth also played in a game in which many great players were excluded from participating. He played at a time when teams didn’t scour the four corners of the world for talent.
This is the context for 60.
Fast forward to 1961. Baseball has just expanded, both in teams, and in talent, thanks to the integration of players that would have been kept out in Ruth’s time. There was no Balco in 1961, but performance-enhancing drugs did exist, in an age where “Better Living…Through Chemistry” was a popular advertising slogan. Amphetamines, now banned by every international body, were just becoming popular in baseball, providing the players’ coffee with an oomph that hazelnut-flavored creamer just can’t match. Steroids became rampant in sports, starting with the introduction of Dianabol, the first American mass-produced anabolic steroid, in the late 1950s.
Bodybuilding wasn’t big in baseball at this time, but it would be naive to conclude that the players that did lift weights simply didn’t know about the widespread use in football, weightlifting, and other sports of the time. We even have anecdotes of various veracity, from Zev Chafets’s assertion in 2009’s Cooperstown Confidential that Mantle was injected with a steroid/amphetamine concoction to Koufax having anything and everything injected into his arm so that he could take the field to former pitcher Tom House’s admission of using steroids in the 1960s, complete with outing unnamed teammates and opponents.
This is the context for 61.
Now we’re up to 1998. Steroids are now developed in highly sophisticated laboratories. Players have access to the highest quality workout enhancers around and compete with each other to try to newest and greatest concoctions. Even the possibility of making changes at the genetic level sounds more like science fact than science fiction.
This is the context for 70 and later, 73.
So, what does this all mean?
MLB has made great strides in recent years at finally negotiating a proper drug testing regiment, with some of the stiffest penalties in American sports. Forget asterisks and footnotes and simple crossing out of inconvenient numbers. There’s nothing mutually exclusive about celebrating the great home run seasons of Ruth, Maris, McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds. Mark McGwire’s abilities can be fully appreciated without required a diminishing of Roger Maris. One can appreciate Barry Bonds without Babe Ruth rolling over his grave.
But numbers? Pure? There’s no such thing. Never was, never will be.
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