Not With a Bang But a Whimper
June 29, 2007
With apologies to T.S. Eliot, Sammy Sosa's 600th home run didn't exactly permeate headlines and water cooler talk for days on end. In fact, with ESPN and blogs and media everywhere today, Sosa's milestone was relatively quite despite its achievement of rarity.
Purposely waiting over a week to fully ingest Sosa's achievement and its impact on the average fan, it appears that the people have spoken, and they are not interested. Every baseball fan who has ever attended a game seems to have an opinion on steroids in the game and what to do with the suspected cheaters and their stats.
Here is the reality: Sammy Sosa hit 600 home runs. Barry Bonds will soon have more career home runs than any player in MLB history. Mark McGwire hit more home runs in a single season than anyone else, then Barry Bonds topped that. None of these players ever failed a MLB drug test. We all have our suspicions, and some of us may even claim to base them on fact, but that is not the point. The numbers are real, the events occurred and therefore will be inked in the record books. Despite the efforts of a stubborn few, you cannot change the past through use of a whiny voice.
What can and will change is our reaction to these records and milestones. For the traditionalists pulling their gray hair out debating how to "deal" with the steroid era, my answer is that the fans are already dealing with it. The indifference fans show to the long ball speaks volumes more than any asterisk in a record book. If a home run is hit and there is no one there is acknowledge it, is it significant any longer?
Steroid users certainly don't need defending, but players the public believes were users shouldn't be singled out in the record books. Cheating of many varieties has occurred since box scores were first recorded, but so many fans want to wipe out the existence of achievements of this generation simply because records were broken. We don't know what players were taking, using, or doing generations ago, but many ex-players will verify that cheating was not uncommon in one way or another.
When a pitcher intentionally scuffs a ball or uses Vaseline or grease or a batter gets caught using a corked bat, it is brushed off as "part of the game" or "getting an edge." Scuffing a ball has a DIRECT impact on the game (or at bat or even pitch), while illegal drugs have an indirect effect in that the player still needs to perform, yet we are insistent on speaking from our soap box on the latter.
It can't be proven if a marginal player who finishes with 235 career home runs was a steroid user, but fans don't care if he should have only hit 100 home runs or if the 25th man on a roster would be flipping burgers without steroids, even though it all has an even greater effect than desecrating a record book. The "clean" pitcher with marginal stuff but a good head for the game never gets a big contract because everyone else is cheating the system. The "clean" utility player with a heart of gold and defense to match never makes it out of AAA because the drug infused slugger with less natural talent "proved" he could top double digits in home runs. Someone is always affected, but that doesn't mean the statistics don't count.
In the end, it's not the numbers that matter but rather the context in which they take place. Fans show their appreciation for what is perceived as a true achievement and are not afraid to display their indifference or disdain when they feel they are being duped. Hank Aaron passed the iconic Babe Ruth in 1974 and fans still talk about it over 33 years later. Cal Ripken's night in Baltimore with "2131" hanging in the outfield felt "real," and the fans ate it up. Pete Rose's 4,192nd hit felt like an earned achievement and viewers everywhere appreciated the history in it. Events happening after these historic shouldn't prevent us from reminiscing about achievements we feel have been earned. Records will be broken, but history need not be forgotten.
Baseball went crazy for the home run race in 1998 because we thought it was worthy of history. Today it feels different, so when a player does what only 3 only players in history have done (600+ home runs), we read about it as it scrolls across the news crawl and go about our business. When Bonds passes Aaron, much more will be debated about Bonds' character than about his achievement. Fans are speaking with their silence, and that should be enough, records be damned.