Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Other Asterisk

Wonderful: a new home run record on par with the accomplishments of Louis Pasteur and the application of penicillin in medicine. Barry Bonds should be proud, even if his legend should be surrounded with a cloud of suspicion.

However, I would draw attention to other aspects of Bonds' accomplishment. Baseball has been making it easier and easier to hit home runs, building smaller stadiums and changing rules in favor of hitters. In an era where all baseballers (such an old fashion word) could enjoy the boost and repair of steroids, hitters, not pitchers, have been able to enjoy their benefits more thoroughly. Good pitching has become a rare and precious commodity, turned over to cadres of relievers as early as the fifth inning. Perhaps the more significant of this weeks milestones has been Tom Glavine's 300th win, something many sports analysts is unlikely to happen soon, if not ever again. This era has sacrificed many aspects of the game in favor of the cheap thrill of the long ball. Other aspects of the game, like pitching, but also defense and "little ball," have diminished by comparison.

Perhaps the case has been made better by Bill Jenkinson. In The Year Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs, he argues that had Babe Ruth played his 1923 season in contemporary stadiums by contemporary rules, he would have had an additional 40-50 home runs. Many gargantuan blasts were contained by the cavernous stadiums in which Ruth played, and eyewitness evidence shows that many very long flyballs that became outs would have easily cleared fences that barely reach 400 feet in centerfield.

If Barry Bonds deserves an asterisk in his name in the record books, than so does "most home runs, career." Baseball as trivialized the long ball in the last twenty years, and consequently, trivialized its own traditions and legends. It will add context to the era, one in which the home run totals were super-sized but the reputation of baseball diminished.

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