Thursday, September 07, 2006

Ryan Howard reminds us what a mess we are in

755, 714, 660, 586, 573. I memorized those numbers when I was kid. Any serious baseball fan over the age of twelve knows what they represent.

Between 1976 and 2001
Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Robinson and Killebrew held the top spots on the all-time home run list with those frozen totals. During the late eighties Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt were poised to challenge the top five but both retired just short -- it seemed out of a respect for the magical numbers they chased.

In 2001,
Mark McGwire ended the 26 year reign of 755, 714, 660, 586, 573 and etched his name in the top five. Barry Bonds soon followed and eventually Sammy Sosa joined the all-time party. Along the way the three sluggers also wreaked havoc with two even more mythical numbers that had stood for even longer -- 61 and 60.

These men didn't just break the single season home run record, they obliterated it. Multiple times. Like the 38 years it stood were a joke.

Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and their bulbous heads are also the poster-children for the steroid age.

The statistical playing field between different baseball eras has never been level due to segregation, the height of the mound, different sized ballparks, expansion and the emergence of the Latin player, among other things. But there is something particularly insidious about the steroid era.

It wasn't so much that a great slugger like Bonds hit 73 home runs, it was that a slap hitter like
Luis Gonzalez hit 57.

Now that
Ryan Howard is making his charge up the all-time single season home run list there is a debate over whether baseball should acknowledge him if he passes 61.

I'm pulling for Howard to hit as many home runs as he can, but it will be hard for me to get too excited if he gets to 62 because I won't know what it means.

In the public discussion about Howard, Bonds, 73, 61 and steroids everyone agrees that Howard at 62 would be significant, but I still haven't heard a satisfactory explanation as to why. It is telling that in this age of know-at-all sports punditry nobody even pretends to have an answer to this riddle.

Numbers are the life-blood of baseball, connecting everybody who has ever played the game. They are what makes baseball by far the most interesting professional sport for a fan. Especially a long-time fan.

The steroid era has made these numbers, once so meaningful and clear, into something profoundly confusing. It is always sad when this happens. Even sadder when an event like Ryan Howard's incredible second season --which should be celebrated -- is what ends up driving that point home.

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