Thursday, April 27, 2006

They Might Be Giants

Games 20 & 21 - Mets

Mets 4, Giants 1
Mets 9, Giants 7 (11 inn.)
Record: 14-7

I wasn’t able to catch last night’s action, as I was in DC with Rob taking in a concert. (Guess which show?) Looks like I missed a dandy, with enough good in the destination (a huge extra-inning win after blowing the lead) to outweigh the bad in the journey (Brian Bannister strained his hamstring, David Wright made a crucial error, and Billy Wagner was taken out by that fellow with the 11 5/8 cap). Most of the Township seems to be in agreement on one thing: the Mets of yesteryear lose this game 10 times out of 10.

That the “new, new Mets” did not lose has been filed away in our Reasons to Believe folder. Just one game, sure, but it’s another sandbag on the wall of confidence.

Dee-Dub raised some eyebrows among the faithful not only for another costly bungle at the hot corner but also for a thinly veiled potshot at Carlos Beltran’s frailty. I was wondering how he’d take to all of the Golden Boy adulation; if this is the extent of how David Wright breaks bad, I think we can let it slide, no? Before any more is made of it in the clubhouse, though, let’s replay an old tape of Monsignor Mike Piazza: “Play baseball.”

Some exciting match-ups loom over the weekend. The Mets head to Atlanta in hopes of reversing the result of the Shea series – the only series they’ve lost this season. Tomorrow night’s Pedro v. Smoltz showdown has some major potential. Glavine and Trachsel have been moved into the next two slots, bumping Victor Zambrano out of the Braves series because of what Willie Randolph called “seriously sucking.” I’ll be honest: I’m excited about this weekend’s games. Almost as excited as my brother-in-law Patrick, who suggested that the Mets could “bury” the already-5-games-out Braves. Well, as much as you can bury someone in a foot of dirt, but I relish the notion anyway.

The next three days of Mets games could be riveting enough for me to actually be glad I’m tuning in instead of spending time in a sunny haze at JazzFest in New Orleans. That’s probably something of a stretch, but you loyal readers should at least be glad it means my next week’s worth of posts aren’t incomprehensible, sparse, babblings. Moreso than the usual twaddle, that is.

* * *

In permitting Barry “Big Sur-ly” Bonds to smack home runs numbers 710 and 711, the Mets have nudged me into addressing a man and a topic we at MLC have generally avoided. The media chatter about Bonds and steroids is deafening, despite the fact that it’s inevitably speculative and hypothetical at this point. Opinions on the matter generally fall into the categories of either trite or insane. I will attempt to capture a bit of both. Hey, if Wags fans him yesterday, we’re all out of here without further damage. Blame him.

I’m pretty sure we all agree that steroids are a bruise on the otherwise juicy peach of a game of baseball. I think we also share the notion that Bud “With My Head in the Sand I Just Can’t” Selig and the rest of the masterminds at MLB did everything but buy the drugs for the players by looking the other way for more than a decade. We’re glad to see that testing is finally taking place, we still don’t think it’s even close to being sufficient, and we have no clue what to do about the statistics of the last 20 years. Let’s just consider these a given in this discussion.

Oh, unless, of course, you are John Hieleman at New York magazine. My dad sent me this article, in which Hielemann suggests that we shouldn’t ban steroids in baseball. His article seems to be based on the fact that lasik surgery is legal and the supposition that surgeries of the future will enhance the body in much the same way that performance-enhancing drugs do. He missteps frequently, from suggesting that “the physical risks of steroids—taken under a doctor’s supervision and not in excess—are relatively mild” to touting “better coaching and parenting” instead of a steroid ban to completely ignoring the fact that steroid use is a federal crime whereas surgery is not. There is some tongue-in-cheek humor contained within, but nothing to lead me to believe that the entire article is a farce. Which means that it’s idiotic.

Among the statements that irritated me were proclamations like “The truth is that all the talk in baseball about the sacredness of its records is little more than another tactic in the long-running campaign waged by its overseers to mystify the game. To treat baseball as if it were something more hallowed than mere entertainment.” While there may be some truth in that statement, every baseball fan worth a damn buys into this practice 100%. Long-standing records and the players who set them are considered venerable, which seems silly to outsiders but makes every bit of sense to those sucked in by baseball’s charms.

A quote the author uses dramatically is “If fans like spectacular plays made possible by performance-enhancing drugs more than the loss of historical comparisons and the risks borne by the players, [then] allowing enhancements makes sense.” Again, this only serves to expose him as one of the mindless masses, one of the “fans” by virtue only of holding the ticket and not via any sort of dues-paying. There ought to be a creed for the die-hards, something that details, among many other facets, how our enjoyment of the game and the number of long home runs and blips over 100 on the gun are share no proportionate tie. The beauty of baseball isn’t in the flash and sizzle, clearly. The 11-9 slugfest, much like Top 40 radio, reality TV, designer drinks, and implanted breasts, entices hordes of peripheral fans with its accessible nature and eye candy but fails to impress us – that core contingent labeled “purist snobs” but who simply have the passion and patience to delve a bit deeper into the pastime.

There’s little point in continuing this barrage on such a silly article, but it did help to clarify in my own mind what my aggressive stance on the steroid issue is. I have a couple of points that I’ve not seen articulated, which isn’t to say they are therefore unique.

1. A New Record Book. Like it or not, casual fans, baseball’s record book is the sport’s Old Testament. There are historical accounts of baseball more colorful, descriptive, and telling than this compilation of long lists of accomplishments, but like America’s Constitution, this is the document most quoted, misquoted, and referenced in arguments. The problem is, of course, that there is zero context within these numbers. Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Mike Schmidt, and Ken Griffey Jr. are all listed in a row as if they were peers in the same era, no matter that there was virtually no overlap of the four careers. And as much as baseball prides itself on being a game that has remained true to tradition over its history, it simply isn’t a fair comparison from generation to generation – especially in more recent times.

That Barry Bonds is about to pass Babe Ruth warrants attention, but even steroids aside, it’s not a one-to-one numerical accomplishment. With ballparks, balls, league size, and, yes, illegal drugs all tampering with the modern numbers, it’s just not a valid comparison, yet the sports world accepts it at face value. Sadaharu Oh’s 868 homers aren’t taken into any consideration when baseball records are discussed, but that figure has as much relevance as Bonds’ 711 or any other in today’s game.

This is why I believe in a revised record book, one that stresses the value of being the best of a particular time in history. I will give Bonds this: he is by far the best steroid-assisted home run hitter of this period. Bar none. Beyond focusing on different eras, when the inevitable quest for all-time domination comes about, league-adjusted numbers that take into account all that differs over the years can be drawn up with relative ease. Baseball boasts (kind of) the most geeks per capita of any major sport; don’t tell me it’s too complicated to execute. A new acronym appears every year that represents some stat with supposed insight into a player’s value. If the brainpower plugged into baseball statistics were channeled into economic growth, we have a surplus by the All-Star break. We can do it. I want a new, revised record book with entries that reflect with some certainty how the numbers stack up against players of different eras. This way, and only this way, can we celebrate the accomplishments of players in “The Steroid Era” without asterisks, exclusions, or just a whole lot of head-shaking doubt.

2. Keep Digging Up the Past. There has been some debate as to whether anything can truly be gained by rummaging around in players’ pasts to find evidence of steroid use. I’ll make this point quickly: at this moment, the threat of being caught red-handed with a positive drug test is almost no threat at all. The drugs usually can’t be detected; hell, human growth hormone isn’t being tested for at all. The stiff (finally – thanks, Bud) punishments would be a good deterrent if there were a chance of getting snagged, but there isn’t; all the teeth in a shark’s jaw mean nothing if he’s in a cage. What can bring these guys down, though, are investigations into such activity. Someone will always flip when squeezed by the right authority, and that will have guys sweating. Jason Giambi can take all the HGH he wants and it won’t show up in the lab, but he can ill afford another go-around of abuse if some scrub with a little scoop on him gives him up. And by digging into guys’ pasts, guilty players will never feel out of the woods. Look, there has to be something to make guys think twice. They will not do it on their own, that much we know.

3. Barry Bonds Is Being Singled Out, But Not Unfairly. Barry Bonds’ portrayal of himself as a victim may make for good reality television (a contradiction in terms), but it doesn’t actually have any proximity to the realm of truth. He is being singled out for a crime hundreds (or thousands?) of baseball players have committed, but it’s not because he’s black. It is because he is close to overtaking – by the archaic methods of record-keeping (see above) – the Babe’s once-sacred apex, but there’s more to it than that. He can’t understand why America embraced Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa (another person of color, mind you) but turned its back on him. It’s very, very simple. Mark McGwire is a nice guy. Sammy Sosa seemed like one at the time. The world responded accordingly. You, Barry, are a Grade A douchebag. You are recognized as a douche the world over, except in France, where douche means “shower.” There you are a merde-tête. And so we root against you. I don’t like the jackass in my office to get the promotion, I don’t like the conniving bastard politician to win the presidential election, and I don’t like the arrogant prick of an actor to take home the Oscar. When Good Things Happen to Bad People is a pet peeve. There’s no conspiracy, there’s no racist agenda (except by the bigot letter-writers who actually serve to make you seem a better guy), and there’s no victimization here. It’s grade school backlash against a bully, and you’re the cheating, lying, whining, pouting, no-good bully here. Except the recess bell just rang, and there’s a gang of schoolkids looking to see you bleed this afternoon. Batter up.

So that’s my foray into the world of steroids. And that’s all I have to say about that.

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