Monday, July 16, 2007

Cheating is a baseball tradition

Barry Bonds, who's just four home runs shy of Hank Aaron's career record at this writing, is in Chicago this week for a four-game set between his San Francisco Giants and the Cubs.

The city's boo-birds and sports moralists doubtless are ready for the occasion. They say it'll be an injustice when Bonds breaks Aaron's record. They say the guy is a cheater who took performance-enhancing drugs. They say he's a disgrace to the game.

I say screw the whole lot of them.

Even if Bonds has been a cheater -- although he's never formally been charged as such and has never flunked a drug test -- his sins are only part of baseball's colorful mosaic of cheating, which goes back to the sport's earliest days. Hell, even Albert G. Spalding, the Rockford product who turned baseball into the National Pastime, cheated with his utterly fictitious story that the game was invented by Abner Doubleday. There's no evidence that Doubleday ever even saw a baseball game, much less came up with the idea.

The history of baseball is one long story of cheating and unfairness and inconsistencies that should warrant a giant asterisk of qualification on the whole damn book of records. Consider, for example, that Hank Aaron was the first black player to hit more than 700 homers mainly because black players were barred from the major leagues through most of the first half of the 20th century. If Josh Gibson, the fabled Negro League star, had been given the chance, might he have hit even more homers than Aaron did? We'll never know.

We'll also never know whether Babe Ruth would have hit 714 homers if the live-ball era hadn't dawned early in his career. And then there's the question of the even-livelier-ball era of more recent decades. And the question of who would have hit more or fewer homers if the dimensions of baseball parks were standardized. And the question of how many homers actually were hits that bounced off the field and over the fence back when that was the rule.

Countless other questions arise with regard to the lowering of the pitcher's mound by one-third in 1969, and with regard to the not-so-uncommon practice of pitchers illegally doctoring the ball with saliva, Vaseline, emory boards, sandpaper, thumbtacks and who-knows what-else.

There are questions that arise with regard to bats illegally filled with cork or superballs, or with regard to groundskeepers secretly altering the playing surface to benefit the home team, or with regard to spies in manually-operated scoreboards illegally stealing signs from the visiting team. There are questions about the effects of the designated-hitter rule in the American League and the advent of artificial playing surfaces.

There are lingering questions about the effects of gambling on baseball. And about the effects of multimillion-dollar contracts, which allow players to indulge in physical-fitness regimens that poorly-paid baseballers of yore couldn't afford to pursue in light of their off-season jobs.

Perhaps the most ridiculous reason to begrudge Barry Bonds the career record for home runs is that he's reputed to be a jerk, a sullen, unsociable fellow. Hey, does the name Ty Cobb ring a bell? By all accounts, he was a truly awful person. And how about all the racist players who gave Jackie Robinson a bad time?

So, yeah, go for it, Barry. Baseball somehow will survive the unfairness of it all.


Anonymous said...

Good post Rascal.

It bothers me is how steroids potentially used by home-run hitters is the only thing the American public gets angry about (calling for the Bonds asterisk).

I don't think Lance Armstrong got this treatment for reports of blood doping. And almost no one cared when 2006-07 sack man Shawn Merriman got busted for steroid use.

It seems like America only cares when its being used for home runs.

Can't explain why. Can you?

MR. BASEBALL said...

Rascal you are way off base on this one. First of all, most of your examples have nothing to do with cheating. Spaulding for whatever reason lied about Doubleday. The lack of black ballplayers was a social injustice reflective of society, but it had nothing to do with cheating. The lively ball, ballpark dimensions, the DH and playing surfaces also had nothing to do with cheating. Should we also fault today's players for making more money and staying in much better shape than the old timers? The doctoring of balls was indeed cheating, but does that mean we should ignore other instances? It's never been legally proven that Bonds took steroids, but look at the facts. In his grand jury testimony he says he never knowingly took steroids, although others claim he did use the cream and clear, steroid substances that he rubbed into his skin. Here's an athlete who's compulsive about taking care of his body, and he claims he didn't know what these substances were, when everyone else around him did. The changes in his body were classic examples of before-and-after steroid use. The evidence is overwhelming. And you can include Sammy Sosa here too. I do agree with anonymous. Why do other sports, especially football, get away with this? For some reason the off-field criminal behavior of football players is tolerated much more than baseball or basketball.