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I get a laugh out of the indignant sportswriters and sports talk callers/hosts who bemoan the state of baseball and insist that records are tarnished and deserve an asterisk. This subject came up again with the news that Rafael Palmeiro was suspended for steroid use.

It's short-sighted to rail on today's players--many of whom have not been proven guilty of taking steroids--and not take a look at baseball's not so glorious past. We might want to place an asterisk near many records, and perhaps some plaques already on display at Cooperstown.

A few examples:

Gaylord Perry. Known as the "Vicar of Vaseline" and the "Sire of Spitballs", Perry admittedly illegally doctored baseballs to enhance his perfomance. He is in the hall of fame.

Bob Gibson. Nothing against Gibson--surely one of the greatest pitchers to ever play the game. But his 1.12 ERA in '68? Maybe it should have an asterisk because he pitched on a higher mound in huge parks with a huge strike zone.

Pre-1947. Before the color barrier was broken. Certainly the competition was nothing like it was after it. Maybe all those records should have asterisks.

Pre-1920. Spitballs were actually legal then. Not to mention the ball was mush. No night games. Astersisks for all!

Joe DiMaggio's 56-game Streak. Once a teammate was afraid he would hit into a double play so he asked the manager if he could bunt. He did indeed sacrifice and Joe belted a double. There were also some very questionable scoring decisions made that enabled the streak to continue. In the link above, one pitcher tells how he couldn't walk Joe D even though the situation called for it. Asterisk.

Lou Gehrig's Consecutive Games Streak. This has been broken by Cal Ripken Jr., but Gehrig repeatedly played in games for one inning just to keep the streak going. Battling an injury on one occasion, Gehrig batted leadoff and was listed on the lineup card at SS. He batted in the 1st and left. Jonathan Eig's "The Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig" describes such situations. It is an excellent book--highly recommended. But Lou gets an asterisk.

Ichiro's 262 hits. Played a lot on turf and in a 162-game season. Sisler did it all on grass and in 154. Asterisk.

We could do this all day. Here is an excellent article that describes the inaccuracy of many records, and some shoddy plays that helped them achieve them. This is not to say today's power numbers are not tainted. It's obvious there have been many whose numbers were pumped up by being juiced up. But it's just like any other era. Sammy Sosa didn't become a great player because of steroids. They might have helped and helped a lot. But Sosa became a great player when he learned to manipulate the count to his advantage and draw walks and hit to RF instead of trying to pull everything. Mc Gwire hit 49 dingers in his rookie season. Is it really a stretch to think that experience and better conditioning could have enabled him to break Maris' record, which of course, also had an asterisk? Even without roids? How do you go about deciding whose records receive an asterisk and whose do not? How many homers/strikeouts/consecutive games were due to chemical enhancement and how many were not?


Anonymous said...

I know it's boring, blog-wise, to agree, but I couldn't concur more. Every era in baseball has its particular contexts--which you did an excellent job of detailing--and to asterisk one would mean to asterisk all, which would mean no need for asterisks at all. (That the initial Maris asterisk was ever introduced is one of the more shameful episodes in baseball history, in my opinion.)

Is it unfortunate that this now-ending era will be identified as the 'Roids Era? Well, yeah, it's less than ideal for those who love and respect the game. But it is what it is. And anyway perhaps the best measures for players are the ones relevant to their specific time anyway. For example, Relative ERA (I believe that is the name) compares a pitcher's ERA to the league ERA, computing how much better or worse than the league a pitcher was. As an example, Gibson's 1.12 ERA in '68 might not be as impressive as one of Maddux's years in the '90s because the NL ERA in '68 was something ridiculous like 2.87 or whatever.

Similarly, Sammy and Big Mac, as much I may have grown to loath them as total phonies, no matter what they were ingesting, they outperformed their peers and did things that the rest--playing under the same situations and rules (or lack thereof)--didn't. That there is a strong corresponding spike in Sammy's BB total--I believe he remains the only Latin player to draw 100BBs in a season (did it twice)--points out that it was more than just the Flinstone vitamins that helped him clobber all those homers. There was talent and genuine baseball skill improvement, things which should never be asterisked, no matter how mad we get at our sports figures for not being angels.

The Zoner said...

Nicely put. One article I read on Gibson did touch on relative ERA. And you were right on about league differential. After reading the Gehrig book, Ruth was so far and away better than any other player that if pressed I would have to acknowledge him as the greatest player ever. Or Steve Swisher.

BigD said...

I have a problem with any asterisk with regards baseball records. I understand the intent is to offer some sort of explanation as to discrepancies of games played, era played, mound height, etc. But it is an insult to me and other baseball fans that "they" feel we do not have the mental capacity to compare players. And isn't that all we are doing? It is not a math problem with a definitive answer. It is subjective based on MY opinion. I don't need your asterisk.

So who are "they"? They were called sports reporters, because that is what they did, report on the sports. Now they are sports writers, telling me what I need to think.

How does Hank Aaron not get unanimous selection into the Hall of Fame? What baseball expert thought that baseball's all-time leader in HR's needed one more year of eligibility to get his vote? It is flexing of the ego muscle. The "I'm bigger than the game" attitude.

One sports writer was making the argument that Palmeiro (pre-suspension) did not deserve Hall of Fame entry because he built up large numbers based on longevity alone. There have been thousand's of ballplayers who have played baseball, yet isn't Palmeiro one of 4 in history to have 500+ homers and 3000 hits? If it were so easy, why haven't more ballplayers done it?

Jayson Stark recently wrote a good article on what he is, a guy who covers baseball, not a cop. I can make judgments for what I believe, thank you. Keep your asterisks. Don't tell me what to think.

The Zoner said...

You nailed it--and opened a whole different can of worms-- HOF voting. Exactly--how in the world could Aaron not get 100%? I smell a new post...

JAVD said...

Like the grassroots