In drug haze, view clouded when it comes to Bonds' feats

August 13, 2004|By JOHN EISENBERG

BARRY BONDS is 26 home runs shy of Babe Ruth's career total.

He is also caught up in a steroids scandal that hasn't touched him but is veering awfully close.

Let's say, for the sake of discussion, that he passes the Babe and also eventually is found to have used banned steroids. What happens to his home run statistics and the rest of his records?

Are they wiped out? Tagged with asterisks? Or do they stand, leaving the Babe and every slugger other than career leader Hank Aaron ranked behind a drug cheat?

The answer isn't as simple as you think.

Logic seemingly would dictate that his records shouldn't stand if he was breaking the law. But this is baseball, where logic sometimes flutters like a knuckleball.

Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs in 1998 while using androstenedione, a hormone supplement later banned, yet there is little talk of putting an asterisk by that performance. Commissioner Bud Selig recently dismissed the idea.

True, andro wasn't banned until after McGwire's great season, so he technically wasn't bending the rules as he hit 70.

But either way, his accomplishments won't be thrown out, and neither will Bonds' even if he is later shown to have used steroids.

Active players who break rules typically just face a suspension, as Sammy Sosa did last year when he was caught using a corked bat.

Sosa's career records aren't going to be tossed because of that incident, are they? No way. One corked bat incident doesn't make someone a lifelong cheater.

And one failed drug test doesn't make someone a lifelong user.

What if a revelation about Bonds came after his career? (Remember, we're strictly hypothetical here.) Well, it's hard, if not unfair, to deal in hindsight with retired players' statistics. There are just too many uncertainties.

Unless Bonds offered the dates and times he used steroids - how likely is that? - we wouldn't know when he took them or how many homers were affected.

Overall, it would be impossible to differentiate between steroid-aided homers and those hit without help. And shouldn't the latter stand? They were legal.

The whole line of reasoning ends up in a murky place. That's always the case with issues involving drugs and sports, where perceptions are constantly shifting.

For instance, did you catch the news about Baltimore-reared Olympic sprinter Bernard Williams testing positive for marijuana? You probably didn't because the headline was buried below drug revelations deemed more important. An athlete using a little pot doesn't seem to matter much now.

But can you imagine the fuss Williams' test would have caused, say, three decades ago? An Olympic star testing positive for pot on the eve of the Games would have been regarded as a national disgrace.

Opinions, values and science are always changing, often radically and in unforeseen ways. As the Williams case demonstrates, today's steroids and performance-enhancing drugs might be viewed far differently in 30 years. They might be seen as dated or ineffective compared to more recent enhancements.

They might even be legal. Or no longer in existence.

Who knows where this cynical game of chemical cops-and-robbers might lead?

But either way, throwing records into the mix is a dangerous precedent, and unlikely to occur.

The game that Bonds plays is essentially the same as the game Ruth played, so in that sense, statistical competitions between them are fair. But while the game may be the same, so much else is different that asterisks all but overwhelm the competition.

Ruth didn't have to play against African-American and Latin players, for instance. So he faced a shallower talent pool than Bonds.

Asterisk.

Ruth also didn't have to endure night games, today's suffocating media hordes or coast-to-coast overnight flights.

Asterisk, asterisk.

But on the other hand, Ruth played when there were just 16 major league teams, so Bonds is hitting homers off some pitchers who would have been in Triple-A when Ruth played. Ruth had it much harder in that sense.

Asterisk.

Comparing stats from different eras quickly becomes complicated that way, with many mitigating factors.

Hitting home runs is easier now than then in some ways and harder in others, and steroids are just another factor to consider. Another asterisk.

They weren't around for players in Ruth's era, but does their alleged help sufficiently offset the harder task of having to face Latin pitchers?

There is no way of quantifying such factors. No way of knowingly identifying the impact of any of them on home run totals, especially in hindsight.

And thus, there is no way of fairly disavowing or disregarding the records of a great slugger such as Bonds.

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