[Editor’s note: Despite the introductory paragraphs, this is not another post about Barry Bonds. Like the game itself, the issues are bigger than Bonds.]
Remember Barry Bonds? Of course you do. The strange thing is that without any home runs to date, Bonds has temporarily receded from our consciousness, especially among Phillies faithful who have a lot more on their minds at the moment.
No doubt Bonds will resurface when he hits the first ball into McCovey Cove and the chase for 714 and 755 resumes. But even when he does and inevitably passes the first of these milestones at the very least, the record won’t mean much to us anymore. That’s the real fallout from the steroids era, a sabremetric shift if you will, away from traditional strongman records to park factors and Win Shares and the like.
Whatever your perspective, it’s especially hard to care for statistics that seem tainted or, at the very least, suspect. Ho hum, another fifty home run season by so-and-so. We can largely thank Mssrs. McGwire, Bonds, Sosa et al for this transformation. Until they arrived and cast doubt on power numbers, succeeding generations cared deeply about the relative performances of their contemporary heroes compared with those of the legends of the game. Now, as in so much else within American life, statistics have become even more impersonal and rootless.
This notion has slowly occurred to me for some time as I witnessed and lamented the fungibility of rosters and wholesale migration of players from one team to another, often in successive seasons. We still root for the home team but less so for the individual players who will be here today and more than likely gone tomorrow or the next day. It’s only natural to hold back. The uniform, not the individual inside it, must be the object of our desire if we are to preserve our dignity if not our mental health.
Somehow the new statistics emphasize the universal not the individual. Home run statistics are individual, win shares are not by definition. Go ahead, name the all-time leaders in win shares in each league.
Something has been lost in the one sport where the numbers matter most. For all the Pythagorean calculations applied to bat and ball today, things simply don’t add up for me. You can assemble a team based on money ball theories or old-fashioned scouting or some combination of the two, but in the end the players are merely rented for a few seasons. Bring in a new guy and give him so-and-so’s old number. Don’t fall in love with Chase Utley; he’s going to leave at the first opportunity. And what does it matter anyway if he doesn’t have a high enough relative range factor.
This notion was brought home to me forcibly in another way only last week when Ken Griffey passed Mickey Mantle on the All-Time Home Run List. (For once, a home run did not immediately evoke steroids; Griffey has always been seen as clean.)
That news item affected me far more than the bigger milestones Bonds threatens to pass shortly. The reasons are many and in some respects personal. Mantle was a prominent baseball figure during my youth, a palpable presence made very real when I saw him play against my hometown Orioles. Every year Mantle began the season a threat to overtake Ruth’s single-season record for homeruns that stood until his teammate Roger Maris barely superseded it in his asterisk fashion and McGwire, Sosa and Bonds positively brushed both aside as they leapfrogged to new enhanced heights.
Mantle played his entire career for the Yankees, indeed became the symbol of the franchise for many years. Each season began with Mantle a fixture in centerfield for New York like DiMaggio before for him and Ruth and Gehrig before him. Those days are gone and in some respects it is a good thing. Baseball players are no longer indentured servants albeit well-paid ones, free to sell their services after at a certain stage of their careers to the highest bidders. Still I remain convinced the continuity and commitment were good for the game because as Roger Angell put it so aptly many years ago, where else in life but baseball can we watch the individual fortunes of our heroes ebb and flow daily and permit us to care so deeply?