Steroids, Spitballs, and Dirty Records
Steroid abuse will define the way history regards baseball in the early 21st century. For better or worse, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are judged alongside “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and Pete Rose on the list of all time baseball pariahs. The most recent shoe to fall does so from the once golden foot of Alex Rodriguez. As the youngest player to reach 500 career home runs, he stands the greatest chance of any active batsman to challenge Bonds’ for the all time number. Those among the baseball faithful have long seen A-Rod as the chance to restore asterisk-free veneration to the record that Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron built.
Records in any sport must be viewed against the appropriate historical backdrop to avoid anachronistic platitude. Cy Young’s many career pitching records came entirely during the “dead ball” era — during which time it was not uncommon practice for pitchers to spit, scuff, gouge, or otherwise alter the surface integrity of the game ball to affect its trajectory in flight. This practice was eventually outlawed before the 1920 season, which consequently was also the first year Babe Ruth played for the Yankees, bat .376, hit 54 homeruns, and began his quest to single-handedly save the game. Viewed in this context, are Cy Young’s accomplishments to be thrown out, because he might have gained an unfair advantage utilizing the rules of the game at the time?
Baseball did not enforce mandatory steroid testing in baseball until 2003. Barry Bonds alleged abuse occurred before this time. Yes, steroids have been banned since 1971, but with a no-testing policy, baseball had effectively turned a blind eye to performance enhancement and reaped the profits that dynamic power hitting players have always provided.
Is juicing the same as Cy Young dropping a loogie to weird up the pitch? No. Is Barry Bonds’ greatness entirely the product of steroids? No.
Bonds is 35th on the list of all time strike outs, behind such sluggers as Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey Jr. (who both have hit over 600 career home runs) as well as Jim Thome and Mickey Mantle (well over 500 each). Unless human growth hormone, horse testosterone, uranium, or whatever he has been pumping into his veins serves to improve his eye for a pitch, then, as fans, we have to differentiate the baby from the bath water or risk losing both.
At the end of the day, the achievements of Bonds and the rest of the juicers need to be judged through the lens of historical context. When Alex Rodriguez eventually usurps Bonds at the top of the home run mountain, he should be commended for his accomplishment.
Sure, everyone would rather he did it the old fashioned way, like Ruth, on hot dogs and beer as opposed to human growth hormone and BALCO. But times change and we fans need to stop viewing the game from under our rose colored caps or give up all together and live in the past.
Finals MVP: Righting Russel's Wrong
This year at the all-star break, Bill Stern, commissioner of the NBA, announced the award given each year to the MVP of the NBA Finals will be named after 11-time champion Bill Russell. The award was symbolic for a number of reasons but none more important than the fact that Russell himself never actually won a finals MVP.
For his first 10 championships the finals MVP award simply didn’t exist yet. But in Russell’s 11th and final NBA Finals, Jerry West beat him out, despite Russell’s Celtics beating West’s Lakers in 7 games. It is the only time in league history that the Finals MVP was awarded to a player on the losing team.
While I’m thrilled that the NBA’s all-time greatest player is being immortalized in this way, I can’t help but feel there’s still something wrong with the way the MVP is determined. Should it go to the most indispensable (valuable) player, the best player, or something else entirely? Was the league wrong to award the MVP to West when his team lost? We need to change the title of the award from Most Valuable, to most Outstanding Player.
Last year’s season MVP was Kobe Bryant, without whom the Lakers would have been a pretty awful basketball team. He was invaluable. But LeBron James had more points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, and fewer turnovers. In virtually every measurable category, LeBron was better, yet Kobe was awarded the MVP.
The problem with rewarding a player for being Valuable is that there’s no good way to reward overall skill. Take last year’s Miami Heat. They won just 15 games, and were unquestionably the worst team in the NBA. Ricky Davis, a mediocre player at best, was the only Heat player active in all 82 games, and ranked first or second in nearly all significant individual stats. Clearly a player who led his team in virtually every category should win the MVP, right? Well no, and frankly that’s as it should be.
By changing the wording on sports’ highest individual honor, leagues and fans can better come to consensus, ensuring the right player wins. There will still be controversy. Even an MOP might have gone to West over Russell, but changing the name better reflects the intent of the award.