Sixteen years ago, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract was published. It’s full of James’ legendary wisdom and insight, but one bit that I come back to, over and over again, is this:
When a young player comes to the major leagues and has success right away, writers will almost always write about what a fine young man he is as well as a supreme talent. Never pay any attention to those articles or those descriptions . . . Sportswriters, despite their cynicism or because of it, desperately want to believe in athletes as heroes, and will project their hopes onto anyone who offers a blank slate. The problem with this is that, when the player turns out to be human and fallible, people feel betrayed. It is a disservice to athletes to try to make them more than they really are.
The baseball establishment has gotten on board with most things James has said over the years, but it still constantly ignores this passage. The latest example of it can be seen in the coverage of Yankees slugger Aaron Judge.
Yesterday Bill pointed out the silly hyperbole which is beginning to sneak in to Judge’s coverage. Today John Harper of the Daily News writes the column I’ve been anticipating for a few weeks now:
. . . it was Maris who hit those 61 home runs in 1961, famously breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 60. And while Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds have since obliterated that number, their totals are so egregiously steroids-tainted that, in my mind and I believe millions of others, Maris’ 61 still stands as the unofficial record.
Wouldn’t it be something if Judge took a serious run at that?
It’s a paint-by-numbers piece if ever there was one. A healthy dose of criticism of the players of the 1990s and 2000s followed by a whole lot of “what a fine young man this Aaron Judge is,” all in service of a “baseball truly needs this!” and “it’d be a great story!” jazz.
It’s bad enough that we continue to see this kind of shade thrown on guys like Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and their contemporaries. The PED era was what it was, but my memory of it, and the memory of almost everyone who isn’t a tut-tutting sports writer, is that it was a lot of fun. Those homers happened, they counted and they provided a lot of entertainment for a lot of people. Think whatever you want about the record book and the ethics of it, but don’t assume for a moment that the majority of people who enjoyed baseball of that era are demanding that their memories be saved from some dark shadow.
The worst part of it, though, is sportswriters seem to forget how often they have played this game. And how naive they look to have played it in hindsight. Remember this story about Alex Rodriguez from the New York Times in 2006?
The cause of Bonds’s physical changes has been endlessly scrutinized; he has repeatedly denied knowingly using steroids, and baseball only began testing for them in 2003. The worst accusation against Rodriguez is that he bragged too much about his workouts in an interview last spring. Whatever people think of him personally, the legitimacy of Rodriguez’s performance has never been questioned … If he continues to avoid injury, the home run record could be his. If Bonds is the man whom Rodriguez is chasing, it is safe to say baseball will be rooting for him.
Tyler Kepner wrote that. He’s one of baseball’s smartest and best writers and even he couldn’t resist the lure of the [relatively] blank slate and the promise of a Great Clean Hope presented by Alex Freakin’ Rodriguez of all people. It’s almost impossible for sportswriters to resist it whenever a new talent bursts onto the scene.
If we have learned anything in the past fifteen years or so we’ve learned that that talking up ballplayers as ideals of wholesome virtue is idiotic. We don’t know them, not really. They’re all human. They all have faults and foibles. Some — like Albert Pujols, who James referenced in that passage 16 years ago — defy the odds and manage to remain citizens in good standing. Some remain that way during their playing career and then are revealed later to be guys who are not so great. Some, like Alex Rodriguez, fall off that pedestal onto which they were placed while still in their prime. Since we don’t know them, we don’t have any way of predicting who will and who will not turn out to be good men. Hell, even the ones who seem to be good may simply be great at hiding dark secrets.
The point, however, is not that we should be cynical and suspicious of everyone. The point is that we should not put people we do not know on such pedestals in the first place. Placing them there is an exercise in baseless hero creation and knocking them off — with disingenuous claims of personal betrayal — is an exercise in self-righteousness. It’s unfair to them and it’s, at best, naive of us. More often it comes off like cynically contrived theater.
Aaron Judge is having a fantastic season. He may have a fantastic career. He is unquestionably the most enjoyable part of 2017 so far and I hope he continues to do what he does because it’s damn fun to watch. Yankees fans are lucky to see him every day and they should not, for one moment, be expected to stifle their excitement, let alone question Judge’s character. He’s a baseball player and they should be allowed to enjoy his baseball feats without worrying about it.
But nor should they, or anyone else, put anything more than that on Aaron Judge’s shoulders. Just because John Harper or some other sportswriter has unresolved issues about past heroes turning out to have feet of clay doesn’t make it Judge’s problem. And it certainly shouldn’t give him more responsibility to them or to the game of baseball than he already has.