Thursday, August 09, 2007

Thoughts on the Asterisk

Want to add my two cents on the asterisk question. The hard part is keeping straight exactly what the asterisk is being applied to. Is it the home run record? Is it the claim that Bonds is one of the greatest ever? Is it his claim to being Hall-of-Fame worthy?

Jeff Maynes is exactly right that comparing players of different eras is often an act in futility, although as Hanno is fond of saying, you can compare apples to oranges...they're both round, they're both fruit... Baseball is baseball (deep tautology), but that doesn't mean the game isn't different in important but non-essential ways. The 90s and early 00s just happen to be different in a big, let's say, an unnaturally suddenly very BIG way.

If someone gets ahead by cheating, then they generally are not to be considered one of the legendary players since it was not his skill that made him what he was. But what is to count as cheating? It cannot simply be breaking the rules. Sometimes, as in fouls late in the game in basketball when losing by a small amount, breaking the rules is necessary for playing the game well. Then what is it?

The conflict about Barry Bonds is the conflict we have between two definitions of cheating. On the one hand, cheating is when you do something that brings an increase in performance without a similar increase in effort or skill. Corking a bat, for example, allows one to hit the ball farther without being stronger or any more skilled at hitting. It is in this way that we consider performance enhancing drugs to be cheating. Shots that would have been long fly balls to the warning track are now suddenly back a few rows in the stands. Jeff Maynes notes the sudden jump in numbers and there's little doubt that some of that is attributable to more than hard work in the batting cage and weight room in the off-season.

On the other hand, the other definition is acting counter to what Fred D'Agostino calls the "ethos of the game." Every game has a set of unspoken rules. Those unspoken rules tell you a number of things including when it is acceptable to break a spoken rule. Contrary to what your mother told you, sometimes "because everyone else is doing it" does make it ok. Games, especially organized leagues, run according to a social contract that is as important than the rules of play, and you can be technically following the rules of the game and break the contract (hitting too hard in a friendly touch football game) or breaking the rules but following the contract (everyone is entitled to the occasional mulligan).

In the 90s, the players, the owners, the fans, everyone who was a party to the social contract governing Major League Baseball was more than happy with McGuire and Sosa pounding the ball out of the yard at unprecedented rates. I was in Baltimore when lead off hitter Brady Anderson suddenly hit 50 dingers after it looked like he sat on the air hose at a gas station or accidentally found some of Popeye's spinach. Fans paid more to come to the games to watch more long balls, owners paid higher salaries to those hitting them, and players knew that everyone else is doing it. Juicing was part of the ethos of the game.

Of course, a game's ethos may violate a larger sense of fair play and that's why we try to clean up baseball, professional cycling, Olympic swimming, track and field,... But Bonds was one of the best of his generation, playing as that generation did. So we are left with the dilemma of having something that was cheating in that it derived superior results without superior effort or skill and something that was not cheating because it was within the bounds of the ethos of the game at the time. The tension comes about when we try to compare the achievement across time, a question that is always problematic, but made more so now that we feel the need to adjust down their numbers in order to make them really comparable. The question of the asterisk is two questions: (1) by what factor do we need to modify the numbers to make a fair comparison, and (2) how much responsibility can we lay on an individual for playing according to the unspoken rules of the time which we now hold to be unsportsmanlike, but which we were happily a party to when the homers were flying.