Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Bonds Of Verity.

In a recent USA Today column, writer Christine Brennan made the case that Bud Selig needed to take the action of stripping Barry Bonds of the all-time homer mark and return it to Hammerin' Hank Aaron, and strip Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa of their "records" that shattered Roger Maris' single-season homerun total of 61. While some of Brennan's rhetoric came across as a bit extreme, she did bring up the entirely valid point that when Olympic events are found to have been compromised by PED's, the IOC simply strips the offender of the record and the medal. She said nothing about Hall-Of-Fame implications, or about what should or should not be done with other players either convicted or suspected of steroid use. Mainly she was calling out the Commish on the premise that milestones like the ones in question ought to be in the history books under their untainted (and in her eyes rightful) owners.

It's amazing that this angle of the Steroid Era hasn't gotten more play. While I recall a mild quotient of public outcry when the records were actually broken, it seems like much of the ensuing press and op-ed coverage has revolved around protecting the sanctity of Cooperstown, as opposed to the records themselves. I'd like to salute Christine Brennan for her suggestions, and humbly add that she didn't go quite far enough in offering an all-encompassing solution to MLB's struggle with the historical placement of its most inglorious period.

Of the primary four North-American sports, baseball is the one where records matter the most. In the NFL, NHL, and NBA, the record setters are heavily dependent on their teammates to reach their lofty historical aeries. John Stockton's prolific assist totals probably don't happen without Karl Malone to feed the rock to inside. Joe Montana's greatness probably looks a little less great if the 49ers had never drafted Jerry Rice. But in baseball, especially with hitting and pitching records, it's up to individuals to define themselves. There's no such thing as an "assist" on a homerun, no offensive linemen opening a seam for the fastball to reach the plate. And because of this uniqueness, despite being a "team game", baseball's records are the most well-known and recognized in sports, even by casual or non-fans. Allow me to demonstrate.

Remember when Brett Farve broke the record for consecutive NFL starts? Me neither. I honestly only know he holds that record because the media brought it up every time we had another will he/won't he come back scenario. How about Ray Allen breaking Reggie Miller's all-time three-point record? I do remember that, mostly because a) I'm a basketball junkie, b) it just happened this season, and c) I live in Boston where things like that swarm all local media and dominate barroom talk for about a week after they happen for a Beantown player. But unless you're a hoops fan, you probably barely registered it. (Some of my closest sports-addicted friends just shrugged. "Meh. Big deal.") By contrast, the media went psychotic when it was hyping and chronicling the McGwire/Sosa race to break Maris' record, and Bonds' chase of Aaron's. They did the same thing when Cal Ripken, Jr. finally broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive starts streak. It wasn't just ESPN and SI, either. The weeks leading up to those events were covered by every news organization in the western world, from CNN to CBS and everything in between. Put it this way: my mom isn't what you'd call a "student of the game" (though she is a fan), but when those various milestones were in jeopardy, she knew exactly what was going on, and how monumental it was.

Baseball's individual records resonate like nothing else. It's a phenomenon unique to that game and that game only. Despite what TV ratings and revenue numbers will tell you about the NFL having usurped the "National Pastime" throne, every sports fan over the age of fifteen could instantly identify the numbers 61 (Maris' single-season homer record), 755 (Hank Aaron's career homer total), and 56 (Joe DiMaggio's consecutive-game hit streak). Honestly, I don't even know what the final numbers were for Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa, and I don't care. As for the "legitimate" records, I didn't have to look any of those up. They're too indelibly ingrained in my fan-psyche. But I'd have to go to Google to tell you how many career TD's Jerry Rice caught, or how many Brett Favre threw, or how many goals Wayne Gretzky scored in the NHL, even though I know that those people are the all-time leaders in those categories. (I don't have to look up Kareem's all-time NBA point total of 38,387, but again: I'm an NBA junkie.) The point is, the great records of baseball, the ultimate hallmarks of individual dedication and skill in sports, continue to hold sway over the public imagination. They are symbols of what we can achieve at our best, when the confluence of talent, focus, and sheer force of will reaches its apex. They absolutely do not belong in the hands of charlatans and cheaters, no matter how brilliant their careers have shined. So here's what needs to happen:

First, Bud Selig and MLB need to adopt Christine Brennan's suggestion, and re-award the single-season and all-time long ball records to Maris and Aaron, respectively. In addition, Andy Pettitte's post-season victory record (19) needs to be rescinded and officially given to John Smoltz, who holds the second-highest mark at 15 playoff wins, since Pettitte has admitted to past steroid use. History owes these men their due, and they ought not be deprived because some already-great ballplayers decided they needed to improve themselves through dubious means a generation or three later.

And second: we need to let all of the cheaters, liars, and scoundrels into the Hall Of Fame. (Yes, this article has partially been a convoluted excuse to get to this point, but hopefully I've made some other salient arguments along the way.) Isn't Cooperstown supposed to be an evolving museum, a malleable shrine to the history of baseball? And we're going to leave most of a generation of players out of it because they cheated, despite impacting the game in hugely important ways?

Picture the following scenario: sometime in the next 10-15 years, I get married and have a kid. When he or she is old enough to have been imbued with a deep and abiding love of sports, and to exhibit the first vestiges of a legitimate attention span, we make our first trip to Cooperstown. We pass an enjoyable few days meandering about the place, soaking in all the moments, personalities, teams, and historical significance The good and the great. And the bad. (I'm looking at you, Ty Cobb.) We marvel at Jackie Robinson's courage, Nolan Ryan's dominance, and Lou Gehrig's spirit. We linger over old pictures of Murderer's Row and grainy video of Bobby Thompson's "Shot Heard 'Round The World." We gaze in awe at Albert Pujols' career numbers, and admire accounts of the '04 Red Sox incredible breaking of an 86-year curse. And, of course, we reverently peruse the history of the Braves' 14 consecutive division titles. (I'm from Atlanta, deal with it.) On our way back to the car, I notice my child has an odd look. Face scrunched, deep in thought.

HK (Hypothetical Kid): Daddy, was baseball not very good when you were little?

Me: Um, it was actually great. I collected tons of baseball cards, which you're unfamiliar with, but trust me they were cool once. I went to games and cheered my heroes. I got a game ball from Roger Clemens one time.

HK: Who's Roger Clemens?

Me: He was one of the greatest pitchers of his generation.

HK: He wasn't in there.

Me (sighing): I know.

HK: Well, I was looking around. There's almost no one from when you were growing up. I just thought maybe the players were bad then, that's all.

Me: Well ... they weren't bad ballplayers, but a lot of them were bad men. (Insert long, rambling explanation of the Steroid Era here.)

If the current mentality regarding this issue holds, what you just read is a highly probable scenario. Presumably, real estate in Cooperstown is not so prohibitively expensive that MLB can't buy a little more. They ought to build a new wing on the Hall Of Fame for the Steroids Era. Explain exactly what happened, and why everything that transpired is suspect; but have the great players in there. And while we're embroiled in my imaginary scenario, let's put Pete Rose in too. His plaque can read like so: "One of the great competitors of the game, holder of the all-time hits record. Bet on games as a manager and disgraced himself and the sport." How hard is this?

And when all the exhibits are up in the new "Steroids" wing, just so I don't have to explain this whole mess to my future HK, here's one thing we make damn sure of: The career numbers of Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Pettitte, A-Rod, and everyone else confirmed or highly suspected of cheating, are marked with huge, 159-point font that reads: INVALID. Roger Maris and Hammerin' Hank deserve nothing less.

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