The powerful pull of statistics

Numbers just part of the story in judging Bonds

Commentary

Bonds' 714th

May 21, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

For those who delight in baseball statistics like a gourmand savors fine cuisine, Barry Bonds equals a heavenly lobster mousse laced with the bitter aftertaste of brussels sprouts.

He gave many of us the greatest ecstasy we've known, and yet we can't reconcile him.

When Bonds was going great guns a few years back, each week seemed to produce another statistical revelation. My favorite came from Dayn Perry of Baseball Prospectus, who figured that for a starting pitcher to reproduce Bonds' value in 2004, he would have to post a 0.77 ERA over 247 innings. Think about that for a second.

Forget the career records Bonds was chasing. We loved the sheer dominance. For the first time, I felt I knew what it must've been like to watch Babe Ruth out-homer entire teams in 1920.

Now that Bonds has reached the Babe's 714, however, that warm glow is gone. Even during the good times, he was a suspected steroid cheat. But there seemed to be wiggle room in his case. After a heap of grand jury testimony and the release of Game of Shadows, that room seems almost gone.

"I think it's an ugly, ugly period in baseball," said Allen Barra, a longtime sportswriter and lover of baseball numbers. "It's not going to do us any good at all. It will create a lot of sour, unwinnable arguments. It's a cold, wet corpse dropped on baseball's porch."

If Barra sounds jilted, he's not alone. Bonds, and before him Mark McGwire, fired our imaginations. And to feel like all that wonder was wasted on something inauthentic, well, it hurts.

Bonds' peers take a different view. The steroid questions don't seem to have diminished their awe at his accomplishments.

"In my mind, absolutely not," Orioles right fielder Jay Gibbons said. "The guy has hit 700-plus home runs. Anybody who has attempted to hit a ball in this game, ever, knows how hard that is. I can't even fathom what he's done. He's the best player I've ever seen."

Orioles reliever LaTroy Hawkins played with Bonds last season and said he thinks the slugger has been victimized by a witch hunt.

"I think people lose sight of how difficult the sport really is," Hawkins said. "There are a lot of people making decisions and making comments that really don't know anything about the actual skill level it takes. But everybody's entitled to their opinion. You just have to live with what it is today. I hope he hurries up and breaks it."

Hall of Famers from Joe Morgan to Willie Mays also have declined to judge Bonds negatively, though Morgan has made it clear he believes home runs are easier to come by these days. But Jim Bunning (now a U.S. senator from Kentucky) has said Bonds cheated and deserves no record.

In the face of such emotion, bleak and effusive, can we rationally assess Bonds' 714 and its place in the annals?

This subject strikes close to my heart, because I grew up loving baseball statistics. I'd pore over the records of old and imagine how lovely it would've been to see those great seasons with my own eyes.

And I'm not just talking Ruth's 60 homers or Ted Williams' .406 batting average. I loved the idea of Rogers Hornsby - a second baseman! - hitting .401 with 42 homers and 152 RBIs. Or Chuck Klein, a guy nobody talks about anymore, hitting .386 with 40 homers and 170 RBIs in 1930.

Eddie Murray was the greatest hitter I had ever seen in person, and his career highs were a .330 average, 33 homers and 124 RBIs. How could these guys have been that much better than Eddie?

Well, they weren't. One afternoon when I was 13, I traipsed into a Manhattan bookstore and found a bargain copy of the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. Inside, I discovered a new way of thinking about the game, one in which identical statistical lines posted in 1930 and 1980 could mean drastically different things.

Baseball has always experienced statistical swings, favoring offense one decade, returning to neutrality the next and smiling on pitchers the next. The 1930s, I learned, were a time of remarkable offense. The National League hit .303 in 1930, making Klein's .386 a little less impressive. Pitchers thrived in the late 1960s. Thus Bob Gibson's 1.12 ERA of 1968 was remarkable but not as staggering as it must've seemed, because the National League hit .243 that year.

That relativism has helped me enormously in thinking about the latest offensive craze. Should we accept the numbers as meaning the same thing they would have in 1985 or 1975? No. But that doesn't mean we should dismiss them. We simply need to understand that all home runs are products of a particular context.

For example, we know that Ruth and Aaron were very different players. Ruth swung the league's biggest bat, swung it harder than anyone else and hit majestic shots reputed to be the longest ever struck in towns across America. He played in a segregated league in a time when his long-ball style was something new and exciting.

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