The Final Season: The Live Ball Era 2.0

Nationals 5 – Braves 4; CJ: 1-4

Yesterday I declared it the ‘Year of the Pitcher’ (assuming a few more no-hitters and/or perfect games are thrown). I also mentioned how I felt it was a nice contrast to the ‘Live Ball Era,’ and, given the past few years of impressive pitching performances, maybe we are moving into a sustained balance of hitting and pitching.

Naturally that got me thinking about the ‘Live Ball Era.’ And I should clarify first that I’m referring to the speculative ‘Live Ball Era’ that happened after the strike and not the one immediately following the ‘Dead Ball Era.’ And I believe it’s still termed ‘speculative’ because no one has ever proven its existence or admitted that the balls were juiced. There was, without a doubt, an increase in the number of homeruns hit in the later half of the ‘90’s and into the ‘00’s, but no one has ever proven that the baseball was, in fact, more tightly wound, and that it was a contributing factor.

And maybe they weren’t. I’ve heard reasonable arguments as to why it wasn’t the ball. One is that pitching talent was diluted after expansion happened for the second time in five years. In ’93, MLB added the Rockies and Marlins, followed by the Rays and the Diamondbacks in ’98. That means 100 new roster spots, roughly 50 of those for pitchers. I could see how that would thin out the talent, but there’s a lot of talent out there. Plus, couldn’t you say it would have the same effect on hitting? Wouldn’t the total number of homeruns hit in the league go down while only a few talented homerun hitters see a spike in their numbers? In the reality, the number of homeruns hit consistently increased from 1997 to 2001. Even the untalented hitters were hitting homeruns off the talented pitchers? Maybe, but is that all there is to it?

How about lighter bats? Or players wearing protective armor to lean into their wheelhouse? Maybe the bats, but that equipment has all but disappeared. We’re still missing something.

Now for the elephant in the room: steroids. Probably the largest contributor. However, even guys that I don’t think took steroids – like Chipper Jones and Fred McGriff and Derek Jeter – all experienced a spike in their homerun numbers in the late ‘90’s. How do you explain that?

Most likely, it’s a combination of these three: diluted pitching, steroids, and juiced balls, which I do believe MLB used after the ‘94 strike. I think it was a conscious decision, and I think it was meant to do exactly what it did, get people excited about baseball again by giving them a massive, never-ending fireworks display. And the reason I believe this is because of what I alluded to at the start of this post: MLB had juiced balls before with great success.

Many fans have heard of the ‘Dead Ball Era,’ a time early in baseball when not a lot of homeruns were hit. From what I understand of what I’ve read and heard, this was due mainly to the style of play. There was a lot of “get him on, get him over, get him in” strategy at work, or small ball. Sac bunts, stolen bases, slap singles. That was pretty much all they had.

The belief is also that, because baseball was young and, therefore, broke, they kept using the same baseballs over and over again, game after game. Now, the more you use the ball, the softer it gets, which leads to more give when it makes contact with the bat. That makes it harder to hit the ball long distances. The surface of the ball absorbs more energy from the bat then reacts against it. Think about trying to hit a flat tennis ball. Not a lot of air in it, so it just sort of collapses against the racket strings instead of staying firm. Didn’t know you were getting a science lesson today, did you? (In reality, that explanation is probably pretty poor. Ask Google. It will explain it much better.)

Anyway, so not a lot of homeruns, yet people still liked seeing them. So, the theory for the first ‘Live Ball Era’ is that there was a conscious effort on the part of baseball owners to use newer balls more often and to even start rotating in new balls during games, a concept that hadn’t been tried before. Historians think this led to an increase in homeruns, particularly by Babe Ruth, and, thus, more people became fans of baseball.

Now for my theory. I think baseball, being a sport that is strongly connected to its history, understood it had a problem with fan interest post the ’94 strike, and saw a potential solution in their past. How do they get fans back? Score lots of runs. How can you score lots of runs? By hitting lots of homeruns. And how can you ensure lots of homeruns? By deciding to have baseball manufactures wind the balls tighter.

If you wind a baseball together more tightly (more string wrapped around the rubber center), you make the ball denser and harder, thus more explosive when it comes into contact with the hard surface of a bat. (Or did they do something to the leather? I don’t know. I’m just a conspiracy theorist.) That makes them easier to hit long distances.

If it was intentional, it worked. MLB today is flush with cash and has consistently high attendance. They aren’t king, that’s still the NFL, but they’re a solid second in the professional sports world.

But was it a good idea? Was it the right thing for MLB to do? To knowingly jeopardize all their historical statistics and make them less significant just to sell a few more tickets? I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say ‘No’ because I enjoyed all the homeruns being hit. I remember looking forward to watching Baseball Tonight to see how many homeruns were hit a day. I loved the ’98 race, as I’ve said. But, today, I don’t know. It helped save my favorite game, but at what historical cost? I guess that’s up to each fan to decide.

The Final Season: Pitch On, Pitcher!

Arizona 3 – Atlanta 2; CJ: 1-2, 2 BB

Andrew Cashner of the San Diego Padres had a no-hitter going tonight that he took through one out in the 7th inning. If he’d thrown a no-hitter, he would have been the first Padre ever to throw one. But, alas, Carlos Lee broke it up with a single. Still, it got me thinking about how many great pitching performances there have been this season.

If he had thrown one, that would have been the fourth no-hitter this season, and that’s not counting the two perfect games thrown this year. The second of those came courtesy of San Francisco’s Matt Cain against the Astros on June 13th. (And please refrain from the well-anyone-can-dominate-the-Astros comments. They’re still a big league team.) He gave up no hits, no walks (obviously), and he struck out 14. Fourteen! Not a bad night. Just another outing, I suppose. The first perfect game this season was thrown by Philip Humber of the Chicago White Sox back in April. He got the no-hit train moving for the season.

If we see a few more no-hitters this year, I’m officially declaring this year The Year of the Pitcher. (And, yes, I have the authority to do that. In my mind.) Cain’s perfect game runs the total of perfect games/no-hitters up to five for the season, and we’re not even at the All-Star break. That’s a lot, trust me. (And at least none of them was against Atlanta. They seem to get no-hit every year. Like I like to say, ‘On any night, on any day, they can make any pitcher look like Cy Young.’)

But you might say, ‘Year of the Pitcher? We just saw a season with two perfect games and five MORE no-hitters. (Seven total.) This year isn’t that impressive.’ True. Back in 2010, we saw a pretty dominant year of pitching. After all, before that season, there had been 18 perfect games thrown in the history of baseball! Eighteen! And there were two that season alone, courtesy of Dallas “Don’t step on my friggin’ mound A-Fraud” Braden and some other guy that pitches for some other team. (Roy Hallady, Phillies.) I can’t argue with that. That’s a lot of top level performances by pitchers in one year. Except… again, we haven’t reached the All-Star break this season! Could we see another perfect game? And how many more no-hitters?

I have to admit, I kind of like it. As I’ve said a few million times before, I grew up a Braves fan, so I’m very used to the pitchers duel, and I love them. The rising tension of who will blink first. The artistry of making hitter after hitter look like they’ve never picked up a bat before. They’re a thing of beauty.

And I feel like we’ve been in this sustained hyper-reality where the baseballs are the size of grapefruits and everyone’s swinging turbo-charged metal bats. It was, dare I say, a little much on the offense. Granted the steroids helped, as did the ‘Live Ball Era,’ but it’s nice to see a little more balance. Nice to see some pitchers getting their dominance back. (I also believe the curveball is the prettiest thing in baseball, so, yeah, I like pitching.)

So keep it up pitchers. Here’s hoping we see five more no-hitters this season. Maybe even another perfect game sprinkled in. Maybe even the Padres can finally get one. After all, the Mets found another miracle.

The Final Season: The All-Star Game

Braves 6 – Diamondbacks 4; CJ: 1-3, HR (6), 2 RBI (28), 2 R, BB

Voting for this year’s All-Star game ends tomorrow night, so I went ahead and voted today. First time I’ve voted for the game in a few years, actually, but since it’s Chipper Jones’ last year, I didn’t want to miss my last opportunity to vote for my girlhood hero to play in the Summer Classic.

I always try to take the voting seriously. Don’t vote just for Braves players, or the same guys every year. I try to evaluate the stats and make an objective decision. I also only vote once, not the 25 billion times (or something like that) you’re allowed to vote. I take my one vote seriously, and I’m going to stand by the integrity of my selections. They don’t need me voting 25 times to win. They’re good enough to get in with just my one vote. I think.

Okay, and, yes, I did vote mostly for Braves. I honestly try not to because I know not all of them necessarily deserve to be there, but when it’s time to select, I feel like it’ll be bad juju for them if I don’t. For example, what if I vote for somebody other than Brian McCann and that player goes on to have a better second half than McCann, leads his team to the playoffs, and pounds my Braves into next season just because I gave him my vote of confidence? It could happen. I find it’s best to just avoid the stress of such potential situations and vote for the players on my favorite team. Makes sense, right? I didn’t vote a Brave in at shortstop, though. I think Andrelton Simmons hasn’t been up long enough to deserve a spot. That’s feels more fair than potentially terrible for the Braves.

I’m also careful not to waste my vote. After all, I’ve determined I only get one and that’s why I feel fine not voting for a guy like Matt Kemp. Numbers looks great, but he’s still on the DL, and it sounds like there’s a chance he won’t be back in time for the game. I can’t risk that wasted vote.

I actually enjoy voting for the American League side a bit more. I can truly approach it honestly and objectively and try to pick the players that have earned a spot in the game. I suppose I could go with the sabotage strategy but that seems silly. Plus there are plenty of legit AL fans that will vote for, let’s say, Robinson Cano at second (who I voted for), thus canceling out any fake write-in votes for, say, Ellen DeGeneres.

When I pick, I weight average the most. It’s my deciding factor when two players’ slugging numbers are too similar. I’ve always thought average was a good indicator of someone’s overall success at the plate. You can hit 20+ homeruns, but if those are your only hits and your average is .180, does that make you an All-Star? For me, no. So I compare stats, but I also think about whether or not a player’s team is in contention (plus) or if the player has never been to an All-Star game before (another plus). I tend to lean towards guys that haven’t been before.

And, yes, I voted for Jones. He may, or may not, be deserving this season, but can I say I voted based on career achievement? Sort of like Martin Scorsese winning the Oscar for The Departed? Why not one more time for the old timer? Yes, his season totals are down from the totals that got him into All-Star games past, but they’re not terrible. How about this? How about we add together all his stats from the years he didn’t make the team? Then he’d be the best in the field by far! That makes total sense.

As far as the game itself, I’m not overwhelmingly excited about it. Not for any particular reason. I’m just never that excited about it, maybe because for most of my baseball fandom the game hasn’t meant anything. It didn’t matter who won or lost until recently, and even though they added home field advantage during the World Series for the winner, I still don’t see it as meaning anything. Probably because the Braves haven’t been in the World Series since then.

But even without that, I never got excited for the ‘big’ matchups. I suppose I could blame that on interleague play, but even then it’s not like Ichiro Suzuki faces Roy Halladay every year. Well, I mean, not anymore. He used to when Halladay pitched for the Blue Jays. Maybe that’s it. It’s because guys jump teams and leagues so much that I we rarely see big matchups that have never happened before. When all else doesn’t sound right, blame on greedy players, I say.

Anyway, it never got me excited. That being said, I certainly enjoy it more than any other sports All-Star game. Football’s appears to be so pointless they’re doing away with it. And basketball? Well, this may sound crazy, but I can only watch so many dunks before I lose interest.

And it’s still fun to watch the baseball All-Star Game and the Homerun Derby (that I still get excited for), and to cheer for the National League. All the pomp and circumstance around the game is entertaining, the way they get announced and look like they’re all having fun together. I guess I just don’t have the date circled on my calendar is all.

But I would like to see Chipper make one last team. Do you know there’s only one MLB park he hasn’t played in? Kansas City Royal’s home, Kauffman Stadium. And guess where the All-Star game is this year? That’s just too perfect, isn’t it?

The Final Season: The Iron Man

Atlanta 8 – Arizona 1; CJ: 3-4, R

So interleague play just ended, as did, subsequently, Chipper Jones’ interleague career. In this past stretch, the Braves took on the AL East and went a modest 8-10. That means they played the Baltimore Orioles and that got me thinking. Did you know one of Chipper’s favorite players growing up was Cal Ripken, Jr.? And did you know Mr. Ripken, Jr. played long enough that he was one of my favorite players, too? Maybe Chip has as good of taste as I do in baseball players.

Jones apparently liked Ripken, Jr. because, growing up in the last 70’s and 80’s, Chipper wanted to be a short stop, and, at that time, Cal was considered one of the best in the game at that position.

For me, I liked him because I was in awe of him. The “Iron Man.” The guy that showed up to work every day for over 15 years.

But before we get to that, know that Ripken, Jr. was a pretty darn good player even without his impressive streak. His other stats would probably still have gotten him into the Hall of Fame. He finished with over 400 homeruns and over 1,500 RBI’s and, by the way, over 3,000 hits. So he could hit a little, too. And he could field. He won two Gold Gloves, a couple MVP’s, a few silver sluggers, and the Rookie of the Year award.

Yeah, he could play baseball, which, as I started to write above, he did for 2,632 straight games. On top of all the accomplishments I listed, that one record will be his legacy, and it probably won’t be broken for a very long time.

Of course, with him playing in that many games, it’s really unnecessary for me to write that he was a good player. If he wasn’t, his name wouldn’t have been on the lineup card that often to begin with. Not a lot of journeymen or lifetime sub-.250 hitters are considered as players to pencil in everyday for 15 straight years. But Cal earned his spot in that line-up until the day he decided to take a break.

There are actually some people who scoff at his achievement. Big deal, they say. It’s baseball. It’s not like it’s a contact sport or one where injuries are common place. A guy can easily play every day with a few bumps and bruises. In fact, you’re a wimp if you don’t. And perhaps they’re right. There are the freak occurrences in baseballs, like getting beaned in the head or fouling a ball off your foot just right to break a bone, and you can also tear ligaments or muscles, but you’re not at risk of it on every play like football players.

But I think the fact that Ripken, Jr. never suffered such a major injury speaks to his work ethic and his ability to keep himself in shape. Again, I don’t know him personally, so I can’t judge his character or his behavior off the field, but if I had to guess, I would say he worked hard to keep himself in good physical shape off the field. (And he didn’t bulk up much, so probably no ‘roids to help.)

Sure there is probably some luck thrown in to escape injury, but, to address the assumption above, it’s certainly not easy to play baseball every day. That’s like saying a marathon is easy. Yeah, but they don’t compare, you might say. A marathon at least has constant movement. True, it may seem like baseball is just standing around for three hours, but it’s a loooong season of standing around. Baseball is every day, regardless of if you just flew overnight from the West Coast and got in at 4:00 in the morning. It’s inevitable you’re going to get tired, and when you get tired, you start to do things like lose your technique at the plate and start to slump or, worse, make yourself susceptible to injury. And even if your injuries are minor, you better believe they slow you down. Try swinging a baseball bat with a sprained wrist or running to second with a tweaked knee. It’d be like working at a computer all day with a sprained finger. You’d feel it.

Yet, through the tiredness and the bumps and bruises, Cal kept playing. It’s not easy to run a marathon, and it’s not easy to play baseball every day, yet Ripken, Jr. managed to do it for 15 years in a row. If it was easy there would be a lot more people with numbers close to his and there aren’t. You know who holds the record in the National League? Steve Garvey with 1207, which is less than half of Cal’s record. And he’s fourth all time.

That’s why I admired him so much. His toughness. That’s also why, if I can be mean for just a second, I find it strange that Chipper admires him, yet he sits so easily. Those minor injuries Cal played through Chip seems to want nothing to do with. I suppose that just means Mr. Jones is, well, normal. He does what most players do when they’re banged up. In that sense, Cal was a freak, but I’ll always admire what he demanded of himself, that he play everyday and just suck it up when it got difficult. Truly a unique, special accomplishment.

The Final Season: Baseball Movies

Boston 9 – Atlanta 4; CJ: DNP

Lazy Sundays are perfect for watching baseball. But if that’s not an option, they’re also perfect for watching baseball movies. Hollywood seems to love to make movies about baseball, and, for the most part, they’ve done a pretty good job of it.

What’s my favorite? Probably Bull Durham, although the Sandlot is a close second. But I think Bull Durham is the most realistic portrayal of what it’s like to be a baseball player, or at least a minor league player. I like that there’s no fantastic Hollywood ending. The team doesn’t suddenly start winning and bring home the Minor League World Series trophy, or whatever it would be called. They win some, they lose some. Their star gets called up. The other star gets cut as a result. There is a cutesy, romantic ending, but for the most part it’s just about the daily grind of being a ballplayer. The bus trips, the small town bars, the girls, and the rundown stadiums. Nowadays, some minor league parks look as nice and comfortable as big league ones, like the Round Rock Express’ Dell Diamond, but I’m determined one day to find a dusty, old ballpark and to watch a bunch of kids play their tails off trying to make it to the next level. Just because of Bull Durham and its portrayal of that environment. As the opening monologue says, I view those parks, and all parks really, as the “church[es]” of baseball, and their only ones that feed the soul day in and day out. So, yeah, I like Bull Durham a lot.

My favorite movie as a kid, though, was The Sandlot. I thought it was hilarious. Still do. I loved its nostalgic undertones, the way it depicted how kids all over the country got together to play baseball at that time. I know my dad loves the Sandlot for that reason. It reminds him of being a kid, getting into trouble with the other boys in his neighborhood and playing on their own sandlot. On the surface it’s about some kids playing baseball and getting into a pickle, but it’s more about the role baseball, and sports, can play in a kid’s life, how they’re an opportunity to make friends and to learn what you’re capable of. It’s about the confidence you can gain from sports. Even if you’re horrible at them, it’s the tiny victories – the one hit, the free throw – that can still make you feel invincible. But what I like most about The Sandlot is how it reminds me of being a kid.

Other baseball movies I like…. The Natural. How great does Robert Redford look in that? And how about that last scene? (Spoiler alert) He hits that homerun into the lights, and the sparks are raining down on him as he’s finds redemption and cleanses his soul through the big hit. Beautiful.

Also love Field of Dreams. I know some people loathe it, but I love it. All of it. Minus, if I’m honest, the last scene with his dad. When Kevin Costner gets choked up while asking to have a catch, it doesn’t ring true with me, doesn’t strike a genuine tone, so I’d just as well do without it. But James Earl Jones’ monologue in that movie is one of my favorite monologues ever. Not just him telling Ray that people will come, but what he says about baseball, how it’s what ties us to our past and how we’re unconsciously drawn to it – man, can I relate! I’ve often thought about printing out that monologue and hanging it up somewhere in my house. It’s just so wonderfully written and, of course, impeccably delivered. Great movie.

Not all baseball movies are serious. There are some funny ones, too. I love Major League. I don’t think it’s particularly accurate, but its goofiness always makes me laugh. Maybe it is accurate, as far as day-to-day life in a clubhouse and dealing with a crazy owner. It does get Hollywood cheesy at the end, though, with the team pulling out the miraculous victory. That’s my only beef with it. Bob Uecker has some great lines, though, as do some others. To this day I have the urge, when someone hits an obvious homerun, to say, “Too high.”

I also love The Bad News Bears, particularly the language the kids use. Another movie with great, great lines. And I know this will sound strange, but Walter Matthau can teach any kid I have to play baseball anytime he wants (RIP). It’s another one that, unlike Rookie of the Year or Little Big League or Angels in the Outfield, keeps the story close to reality, and it’s what I imagine most Little League teams look like. They can’t hit, they can’t field, but with a little love and support and beer, they manage to pull off a few victories. That and they have one player who is head and shoulders above everyone else. Tell me that’s not what real Little League teams have. My favorite part is at the end, after they realistically loose, and the shy, booger-eating spaz tells the team they just lost to (named the Yankees – bonus points filmmaker) to take their trophy and stick it straight up their a**. Perfect ending.

Baseball seems to lend itself well to film, more so than any other sport, I think. The tension that builds and builds and builds in games is so dramatic, and there’s no release through the constant movement and collisions of other sports. It’s a game that lends itself to the quite turmoil so popular in cinema. And that’s why I love it. And most movies about it.

The Final Season: The ’98 Homerun Race

Boston 8 – Atlanta 4; CJ: 1-4, RBI (26)

Yesterday I wrote about steroids in baseball, and in that post I mentioned briefly the ’98 homerun race. As I wrote in regard to steroids in baseball, I also perceive that race differently now than I did as a kid. I was 16 years old then (ok, not exactly a kid but young enough), and I was at the height of my baseball love. Chipper Jones’ imperfections were not public yet, and he was a routine All-Star and genuine superstar. Maddux-Glavine-and-Smoltz were winning Cy Young’s back-to-back, and the Braves were just plain winning. All the time. It was great.

Then along came Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and homerun statistics started dropping like Central-Texas lake levels in summer. Most homeruns hit in a month, most hit at this point in the season, most by the All-Star break, etc. And the whole thing was great fun to watch! Homerun totals were on the rise, as the “live-ball era” was in full affect, but no player had yet to seriously flirt with Roger Maris’ 61. And now here were two guys doing it at once, just like Maris and Mantle had done in ’61.

Man, I enjoyed that season. I remember they seemed to hit them in bunches. They wouldn’t hit any in a few games, and then they’d go nuts and hit 5 in their next 7 at-bats. It was crazy like that. It almost always led SportsCenter, and I got to listen to Keith Olberman and Dan Patrick make all their quips about how far into the night the balls would travel.

It was exciting. Who was going to set the record? Would they both do it? Who would do it first? How many would they actually hit? You couldn’t wait to see every night where they were. And McGwire was this shy, seemingly nice guy that didn’t want any attention – the Maris of the two. And then there was Sosa, this loud, goofy kid that liked all eyes on him, sort of like Mantle. And they openly cheered for each other to succeed, even if they were in the same division. And, just like before, the soft spoken, focused guy did it. Well, did it first and ended up with 70 total. Awesome.

At least I thought it was awesome at the time. I look at it a little differently today, considering how both were essentially proven to have been on something. Mac openly, Sammy denying it. And maybe Sammy didn’t do it, but his physical transformation, combined with his unwillingness to speak about his own past to a congressional committee, doesn’t add up in his favor I don’t believe. Add in his confrontation with Rick Reilly over a surprise drug test, and the equation is pretty lopsided.

Speaking of that committee, the one that also got Roger Clemens, McGwire looked particularly deflated as he sat there getting, essentially, berated by the members of it. Usually when Congress does that to corrupt businessman, I don’t care. They have it coming. But this time, it made me sad to see.

But it made me angry more. Not at Congress (although I still don’t understand why they stepped into all this) but at the players. I was so angry at them for doing this. For cheating baseball. My baseball. For thinking they could cheat without consequences, without hurting anyone. And for taking records they didn’t deserve.

But, as I started to explain yesterday, I’m no longer angry. Just sad. For example, I just shake my head when I remember the “andro” controversy during the ’98 season, when McGwire claimed it was just a supplement after the reporter spotted it in his locker and asked him about it. Turns out it was a little more than that. For one, it had already been deemed illegal by the Olympics, who are usually on the frontlines of the battle against performance enhancing drugs. And sure enough, MLB later banned at for being, essentially, a steroid.

But I remember being so caught up in the homerun race that I didn’t care. I accepted it. I thought, well, if it isn’t banned by MLB, then it’s ok. He can take it. Besides, I just want to see him hit homeruns. I remember some of my friends questioning it, and I would argue it away, saying “It’s not against the rules.” And that was that for me.

I feel worse for the older fans, my dad’s age and older. Guys that grew up loving baseball like I did, only they watched Mantle in his prime. And Mays. And Aaron. Man, oh man, to have been alive then. They saw real homerun hitters. What it must have been like for them, sitting back and watching these behemoths, these giants with bulging muscles, taking down homerun records they saw made. Do they feel cheated? Disgusted? Angry? Sad? Robbed? Could they enjoy it as much as I did? Did they watch with as much excitement and joy as did? Or did they know, in the back of their minds, that something wasn’t right about this? I wonder. I should ask my Dad I suppose. I feel cheated, and I didn’t even see Mantle play. So I imagine the older generations did just a bit.

I still say, in some ways, it was a great season, even if it’s now tainted. It got me even more excited about baseball than I had been before, and I wasn’t the only one. The ’98 season did a lot for the game, helping it to regain some much needed popularity. It helped people fall in love with baseball again, and I really enjoyed watching it. I still like watching the replays of the homeruns. They make me smile, but then I step back, and I’m saddened by it again. But that’s baseball. Gotta take the good with the bad.

The Final Season: Just A Part Of The Game

Atlanta 4 – Boston 1; CJ: 1-5

Lost in my excitement of writing about Yankee Stadium earlier this week (Good Old Yankee Stadium and Me), among other things, was the news that Roger Clemens was acquitted of charges he lied to a congressional committee about not using steroids. Subsequently, you could also interpret that as meaning he didn’t use steroids, but that, I suppose, isn’t so cut and dry.

Anyway, that announcement got me thinking about steroids in baseball, and my complex reaction to them. I’ll say this first: I don’t like steroids in baseball. I don’t like how the users cheated both themselves, as they have to accept and live with what they did, and the game. Yet, I don’t personally feel cheated. Let me explain.

Did I enjoy watching all those homeruns being hit? Yes. Did I enjoy watching Mac and Sammy go at it in ’98? Yes. Did I enjoy watching more runs being scored? Yes. So, in that sense, they didn’t cheat me as a fan. They cheated me I suppose as a fan of baseball history, but not as a fan of today’s game.

But they certainly cheated the game. Baseball, unlike any other sport, values its statistics, holds them as sacrosanct. Baseball sees its statistics as a unifying force, connecting the past to the present. The game, after all, has stayed mostly the same over the last 100 years. Yes, mounds have moved back and up, fences have gone in and out, and baseballs have been juiced and dead. But don’t think baseball doesn’t keep close track of these changes. There’s the ‘Dead Ball Era’ and the ‘Live Ball Era,’ lest we forget in whose favor the hand of fate was slightly tilted. All serious baseball fans know the story with the 61 homeruns Maris hit. That danged asterisk was on it until after he passed. Until pretty recently, actually.

Why? Because baseball’s statistics are a great equalizer. Players might have played 100 years ago, but it’s generally accepted that if they hit .350 in 1905, they can hit .350 in 2005, or something close to it. That .350 never leaves them, and they are forever considered good hitters and forever compared to all the good hitters that followed.

Thus, players who used steroids skewed the statistics. Can we really have an outfielder who never hit over 25 HRs in his career in the 50 homeruns-in-a-season club and not think, well, he did it in the ‘Steroid Era’? In that sense, the ability to compare across time is tainted and questioned. We no longer know where to put them in relation to everyone else. Are they really that good?

I say… maybe.

I love Ken Burns’ documentary on baseball. At the beginning of the film, the narrator says something that is so true and so right, it changed the way I looked at the ‘Steroid Era’. He says, among other things, that baseball is a game that tolerates cheating. And I couldn’t argue with that. Whether it’s spitting on balls or scuffing them up. Pretending to be hit by a pitch when you’re not. Allowing the ump to call a guy out when you knew he was safe (a form of cheating, I say). Stealing signs. Letting fly balls drop to turn a double play (was cheating until a rule got to it). Corking bats. A lot of these things now have rules against them, but I bet most of them weren’t proactive rules. (I guess like most rules.) But the point is baseball players are always looking for ways to get an advantage. It seems to be as much a part of the game as bringing the third baseman in on a bunt attempt.

In my time, looking for an advantage came in the form of steroids. And baseball, like, Burns said, tolerated them. Everyone in baseball had to know Jose Canseco wasn’t naturally a body double for The Hulk. Also, it wasn’t like steroids were a new drug never before used by athletes. They were banned all over the place in athletics. But not in baseball. Not only did they no ban, they didn’t test for it. What is that? I’m going to encourage you not to do it, but if you do, I won’t punish you for doing it. For years baseball essentially looked the other way.

So, if the game is going to tolerate it, how am I supposed to see the players as having cheated the game? Plus, given the game’s cheating history I listed above, wasn’t it always being cheated? In little or big ways? And is one form of cheating so much worse than another? Little or big, it’s still cheating, it’s still questioning the integrity of the game.

That is why sometimes I think, why should I care about steroids in baseball? Sure I have more respect for those players that didn’t use them (or have yet to have been proven to). But who’s to say they weren’t doing something else.

So in that sense (follow this logic), the statistics are impurely valid. They are impure, and they are invalid because every player in history was up against some form of cheating or was cheating himself. The statistics were never pure, because from Ty Cobb to Pete Rose to Derek Jeter, hitters were facing baseballs with imperfections, be it spit on them, gouged, or juiced. But the statistics are valid because, whether you were Christy Mathewson or Clemens, you were facing an obstacle outside the rules of the game. Even if it wasn’t the same one, you still had to face one.

Again, I don’t like cheating. Understand that. I would love to believe that all the players were clean and the balls equal, but I just think that’s naïve. If it wasn’t steroids, it would be something else. So, in my mind, I can’t get worked up over it. It was what it was. Part of the game.