We’re all entitled to believe what we want to believe. There are people out there who insist that Roger Maris is still the single-season home run champ and Hank Aaron is still the all-time home run champ. I hold no more of a grudge against people who think that stuff than I hold for someone who thinks that Dick Sergeant was the better Darren on “Bewitched.” As long as they concede that it is only their opinion, and not a matter of fact or official standing, no worries. Which, in the case of Bonds and the record book it is not, nor will it ever be according to Bud Selig:
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig will not consider changing Barry Bonds’ records following the slugger’s conviction on obstruction of justice last week … “In life there’s always got to be pragmatism,” Selig said Thursday at his annual meeting with the Associated Press Sports Editors. “I think that anybody who understands the sport understand exactly why.”
We understand it because, even before there were steroids, there were differences in context across eras. Some that just sort of happened (big ballparks, dead balls), some were imposed by the wrongdoing of men (steroids, segregation). While we can make a lot of adjustments, we can’t quantify the exact amount that any given record was affected by different conditions with anything close to precision. The margin for error in such adjustments is larger, in most cases, than the differences between two similar accomplishments separated by decades. In light of this, to mess with the record book in any official way is madness. Appropriate to its name, let it simply record what happened.
By the same token, it is madness to insist that the record book represents the Alpha and Omega of player analysis and appreciation. Intellectually I can acknowledge that Barry Bonds’ accomplishments were artificially enhanced to some degree. I can even conclude that Hank Aaron’s accomplishments — by virtue of his era, the challenges he faced and what I believe about his drug use — were more impressive than Bonds’. But that doesn’t mean that Bonds’ feats weren’t amazing to watch, nor does it mean that they were 100% illegitimate. They were what they were and we have all manner of means to put them into context, be it statistically, aesthetically, morally, anecdotally or any other “ly” you can think of. And the “lys” that have less to do with the raw numbers and more to do with the narratives are the things that interest me the most anyway. Let’s talk about the difference between Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron. Let’s not just compare numbers and veto those we don’t like.
Barry Bonds happened. So did Roger Maris and Hank Aaron. So too did Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the guys who manufactured baseballs in 1904, the chemist who first came up with an anabolic steroid and whoever it was that decided the mound needed to be 20 feet tall in Dodger Stadium in the 1960s. The record book is the least interesting thing to me in all of that.