Howard's pursuit of Maris is clean fun

September 27, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Though there are still a few playoff spots to be decided, the most intriguing story line in the remaining days of baseball's regular season revolves around Ryan Howard and his long-shot run at one of the most hallowed records in sports.

In a game that loves its past, we're forced to skip over an entire chapter in the history books, the one titled "Too Good to Be True." Despite whatever whispers you might be hearing or whatever nagging doubts you might be having, all indications suggest that Howard is helping to write the next chapter, the one about a clean athlete giving honest pursuit to the single-season home run record.

"In my mind, I feel Ryan Howard's clean." That's not Howard's mom talking; it's what Rich Maris told His father is Roger Maris, whose single-season home run record was stolen by grave-robbing pirates.

So how do we comfortably explain Howard's bashing so many homers in his first full season in the bigs? It seems we can point to a couple of factors: Howard is just that good, and his competition is just that bad.

The impact that performance-enhancing drugs have had on baseball's sacred stats is inconclusive and most likely inflated. I'll continue to point to expansion as the true explanation for increased offensive numbers over the past decade and a half.

But let's focus on Howard, who might not be competing in a steroid era but is still swinging away in a period of watered-down pitching. Or more pointedly, let's focus on those pitchers he has faced in his chase for 60.

His 58 home runs have come off 51 different pitchers. More than one-third (18) of those 51 can be considered borderline major leaguers, having spent at least part of the current season in the minors. Two of the pitchers who gave up homers to Howard have been designated for assignment this season, and six have been involved in trades.

Twelve homers came off pitchers who didn't even throw 50 innings in the majors this year. One guy pitched only 5 2/3 innings this season. And another made one big league appearance, lasting just three innings.

Overall, Howard's harem of opposing hurlers has an average ERA of 5.07, more than a half run higher than the major league average (4.52).

I don't pose these figures to detract from Howard's accomplishments, but rather to offer an alternative explanation for doubters who can't fathom how a ballplayer can even flirt with Ruthian figures without a three-story pharmacy hidden in his locker. After all, it has been 45 years since someone hit a legit 60.

The truth is, there are 80 to 100 pitchers on major league rosters every year who would have been playing minor league ball before the majors expanded in 1993 and 1998. Howard had the benefit of being able to face many of them.

It's a shame a casual fan might flip through the channels, notice Howard's name on ESPN's crawl and assume that big-time stats equal big-time cheating. It's far too easy to view Howard as a slugger obscured in the dark shadow cast by Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. They're the only three who've ever topped Maris' mark, and all three have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs.

As the days wane in the season and as Howard makes a final push for 60 and 61, I suspect the whispers will grow louder. Without concrete evidence, no one has forcefully labeled Howard a user yet, but the insinuations are there.

"Given history, how are we supposed to tabulate Howard's skyrocketing homer tally without a twinge of doubt?" Gregg Doyel wrote on this month.

Doyel also pointed a suspicious finger at Howard's growth in the past few years - both his heavier frame and his improved home run ratio. Apparently, 26-year-old ballplayers aren't supposed to get bigger or better.

Howard's accomplishments should be appreciated. And I really think they are. Those who know Howard, who've watched him, who realize that he didn't materialize out of thin air (in fact, he led all of professional ball in homers while playing Double-A and Triple-A in 2004, and last season had more homers than any other rookie), these people have a better grasp of the season-long homer display.

With just five games remaining, Howard probably won't break Maris' mark. But he certainly could become the only slugger to hit 60 home runs who actually passed a drug test (he was tested three times in the minors). Call me naive, but until there's reason, Howard shouldn't be admonished.

Major League Baseball won't stop any games or throw any ceremonies if Howard does break the asterisk-free record, but I hope that doesn't diminish the accomplishment. Howard is not a product of the steroid era. If anything right now, he sure looks like a victim of it.

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