Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Against Verducci


In his Feb. 16 Sports Illustrated column, Tom Verducci skewered Alex Rodgriguez and accused him, among other things, of trampling on baseball's sacred records: "Linked to drugs are two thirds of the MVP winners from 1995 through 2003, five of the top 12 home run hitters of all time and three of the four players ever to smash 50 homers in a season more than twice."

As I've suggested before, home run records, for years, were dominated by players who emerged just after the dead-ball era. Hitters took advantage of both a livelier ball and of pitchers who pitched complete games on short rest.

But many other records are linked to specific eras, too. Consider the single-season RBI leaders: the top ten were all set between 1927 and 1937. Was there something special in the Moxie?

And twelve of the top twenty single-season stolen base records were set between 1887 and 1891. Bad catchers? New cleats? Or were they drinking the original cocaine laced Coca-Cola (first sold in 1886) to help them get that extra step?

The 1960s saw a spate of outstanding pitchers (Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale). Were they helped by the fact that the mound was higher then (it was lowered to 10 inches--and enforced at this height--in 1969)?

The point is, every era had its records, and there is usually a certain part of the game that teams exploit for offensive or defensive advantage. Eventually rules change or the opposition catches up and closes these loopholes. Clearly, the "steroid era" has produced its share of home runs. And I think we should view the steroid era as just that: one more era in the long evolution of baseball.

Back to Verducci: In his article, he notes that "union COO Gene Orza tipped Rodriguez about upcoming tests, [leaving us] with the image of the union as facilitators of the Steroid Era." But he goes on from their to blast Rodriguez. Certainly, the union deserves more of the blame. Certainly, MLB owners deserve more of the blame (they too glibly blame the union for all the problems while they were equally profiting from the home run fest). And certainly, fans deserve more of the blame: we were tuning in, buying tickets, buying jerseys, all the while knowing something was amiss. When HR records started dropping faster than Casanova's pants, even the least attuned fan suspected steroids were behind it. But many of us, including me, watched anyway.

In Verducci's defense, he was lied to by Rodriguez and is justifiably grinding an axe. In my defense, I don't think anyone should take steroids to improve athletic performance and Rodriguez is getting what he deserves by being dragged through the media mud.

But the blame should certainly be shared by more than a few scapegoats.

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