What is it about our National Pastime that we love so much? Why does the heart of every fan become filled with hope in the springtime and then end with the harsh reality of winter? The reasons we love the game are diverse. But one thing that makes the grand ol’ game so magical is the numbers. If you don’t like stats, then this is not the game for you.
Yes, there have been minor rule modifications. Yes, the game has changed over 150 years. But, for the most part, it has remained the same. A 300 hitter means the same today as it did 50 years ago. A 20 game winner carries the same adulation, no matter if it’s Tom Seaver or Sandy Koufax. 300 wins is a milestone if your name is Glavine or Mathewson. 200 Strikeouts is 200 strikeouts, be it Randy Johnson or Walter Johnson. But suddenly, in the midst of yet another Steroid flare-up, the stats themselves are called into question. The very nature, the very history of our game, is in a gray area.
In 1920, eight members of the White Sox were banned for life, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, the man who has the 3rd highest career Batting Average. Commissioner Landis handed down lifetime suspensions for allegedly ‘throwing the World Series.’ It was a dark day when the holiest event of the entire season, the pinnacle of what every player wants and every fan hopes for, is called into question. But ultimately, this was just eight players.
In the 1980’s, Collusion affected the game. By owners making a secret pact not to sign free agents, it was an attempt to break the union and send players scrambling back to their original team for less than what they could have earned in the free market. As Union President Marvin Miller pointed out years later, this was, in effect, ‘fixing the pennant race.’ Unlike the Black Sox Scandal which only involved 8 players, Collusion affected the pennant race, the very essence of Baseball in the summer.
Now we are facing the story that wont get away: Steroids. Today it is A-Rod. Last year it was Clemens and Pettitte. Before that, it was Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro. As Mets fans, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that none of our big name stars have been implicated. We can all chide our Yankee friends about Clemens and “A-Roid.” We all can blame our loss in 2000 on the fact some Yankee stars were playing at an altered level. But the possibility is there. The thought is in the back of our mind. If Jose Reyes shows up in Florida more bulky, more muscular and then proceeds to hit 35 HR’s this year, is he on Steroids? Or is it just old-fashioned weight training and the fact that the rumors of Citi Field being a ‘launching pad’ are true? However, while it may be good for the Mets that none of our main players have been accused, it is bad for baseball.
There are not many things more exciting, more revered, more loved, more worshipped, than the Home Run. There is nothing in professional sports that can bring a collective crowd of 50,000 fans to their feet quicker than a ball hit far and deep. But yet, even something as wondrous as this is now being smeared. As kids playing the game we love, what did we all picture ourselves doing? Stealing a base in the 7th game of the World Series? Making a diving catch? Or hitting a walk-off HR a la Joe Carter?
In my opinion, this can be worse and have far reaching effects, more so than other scandals. The fixing of the World Series is now seen as a one time incident. Collusion amongst owners is not really something we worry about. But there are plenty of people out there who refuse to recognize Barry Bonds as the true Home Run king. Right or wrong, this is a fact. In 2009, the possibility is very real that some of the best known stars in the history of the game, those who put up the best numbers, will not be allowed into Cooperstown. Barry Bonds hit 762 career Home Runs. Mark McGwire hit 70 in a season and 583 over 16 years. A-Rod will quite possibly reach 600 by the end of this season and he will only be 34.
The All-Time HR leader (Barry Bonds), the man who is 9th in career wins with 354 (Roger Clemens), and even the All Time Hits leader (Pete Rose, but not for steroids) may only wind up getting into the Hall of Fame if they pay admission like the rest of us. I’m not saying this is right or wrong. Just sad.
Now, this holy list, this sacred group of names, has been tarnished. Of the Top 12 HR hitters of All-Time, 5 are questionable: Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Alex Rodriguez. They don’t have an asterisk. But they do have a question mark.