Eyes on Sports:
Another expert weighs in
by Greg Koabel
An opposing view on the Bonds debate
Now, I’m not a Barry Bonds apologist. And I certainly don’t want to open up the whole steroids debate again, personally I’d rather just talk about baseball. But when someone describes Barry Bonds as a “speedy contact hitter” before 1998, I’m sorry, I just have to say something. Yes, the man who led the league in slugging percentage on three separate occasions before he was 28, and who finished below seventh in the league exactly once in his career, was a “speedy contact hitter.” There’s also the span of time in which he had the best OPS four years in a row, winning three MVPs during that time. No, not 2001-2004, but 1990-1993. Barry Bonds was the best player in baseball, including in terms of power, long before the allegations of steroids. Now this isn’t to suggest that Barry Bonds hasn’t taken some kind of performance enhancing agent, I’m not sure any reasonable person would make that case. But he still deserves the truth.
As for the matter of the record book. Baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, has a deep significance attached to its statistical records. However, there often seems to be confusion about what this means. The record book is not a tome written in stone, to be consulted to settle any debate between two fans. It is the jump off point, rather than the final word. When Roger Maris eclipsed Babe Ruth’s homerun records, no one claimed the record book now clearly stated Maris to be the better slugger. Or even after Aaron passed his all-time total of 714, most will agree that it has not diminished Ruth’s status as the best home run hitter of all time in any way. My point is that no statistic in the record book stands on its own, but there are mitigating factors attached to all numbers in the book. Sure, Bob Gibson’s ERA of 1.12 in ‘68 is impressive, but isn’t Pedro’s 1.74 of 2000 in the heart of the homer era compared to the year of the pitcher a little more so? The record book is exactly that, a record of all that has happened. As much as some seem to want to erase them from their memory, it happened, he hit those homeruns. But what we need to keep in mind is that the record book does not say Barry Bonds was a better home run hitter than Hank Aaron or Babe Ruth. It does not say he’s the best hitter of all time. What the record book says is that he has hit 708 home runs. That is all.
What you can change is your interpretation of what the stats in the record book mean. Before Babe Ruth came on the scene, home runs were few and far between. Baseball was an entirely different game, with entirely different stats. Looking back now, we take that into account when we assess the accomplishments of players like Ty Cobb or Honus Wagner. Now there is the fundamental difference that Cobb and Wagner were effected by the environment they played in, which they could not control, whereas Bonds personally created his own change of statistical context. However, I don’t think it’s the job of the record book to remind us of that. In fact, I think the media is doing a great job of reminding us of it, and to ask the record book people to pitch in by erasing it all would be overkill. If, 20 years from now, you look back through your Total Baseball Encyclopedia with your kid and he asks who this home run champ Barry Bonds is, you can say, “oh, he was this cheater who used drugs (that baseball technically hadn’t even banned because they tacitly approved of their ability to win fans back with homeruns) in order to get ahead, these other guys on this list were actually much better hitters.” You’d probably be in the majority by saying that, except for the smarmy bracketed stuff. Anyway, the point of this long winded diatribe is that anyone who demands the record book be altered because of Bonds’ actions, and thinks that Bonds taking over the homerun title from Hank Aaron is unfair or detrimental to the legacy of Aaron, obviously doesn’t understand the function of statistics for the avid baseball fan.