The other day, a WNYC announcer, giving the day's local news highlights, mentioned that Alex Rodriguez had hit his 600th home run, but it came with an asterisk, she said, because he'd admitted to steroid use as a Texas Ranger.
After regaining control of the car and my supreme annoyance, I decided not to call the station to complain that there are no "asterisks" in the record books.
I was thinking about that when I turn to today's "News Analysis," in which long time sports writer Harvey Araton admires
how strongly Aaron hit towards the end of his car and approaching Ruth's record. By implication, a negative comparison with the "ethically" impure Barry Bonds, and the perhaps physically declining Alex Rodriguez (despite being the youngest to reach 600, his HR pace is significantly down this year, kind of a small sample to start giving up on the guy now).
Rodriguez’s 600th home run, slugged off Toronto’s Shaun Marcum on Wednesday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, made him the seventh, and youngest, player to achieve that milestone. Now he begins the climb toward 700 before — barring impairment or shocking deterioration — taking aim at Babe Ruth (714), Aaron (755) and Bonds (762).
But how will Rodriguez get there — in a slugging frenzy, like Bonds, or as a 40-something designated hitter, hanging on as much for the record as for his paycheck?
Remember how Aaron’s career achievements were portrayed as Bonds obliterated baseball’s geriatric slugging standards and ultimately a nation’s believability? Compared with a 37-year-old who clubbed 73 home runs in 2001, Aaron was mildly derided as an earnest toiler who never hit 50 in any one of his 23 major league seasons.
Re-examined in the light of subsequent steroid revelations and admissions, Aaron’s assault on Ruth becomes more impressive than anything ever seen during the recent era of lying eyes.
“Two of Aaron’s best years for homers were at age 37 and 39,” said David Vincent, a home run historian for the Society for American Baseball Research. “He hit 47 in ’71 and 40 in ’73, the year before he passed Ruth. He doesn’t necessarily fit the mold for sluggers in their late 30s.”
Actually, Aaron broke the mold, hitting 203 home runs in the five seasons after his 35th birthday and 245 over all, second in that category behind the presumed-to-be-chemically-enhanced Bonds. By comparison, Willie Mays hit 37 at age 35 and never again topped 28. Ken Griffey Jr. hit 35 at 35 and went steadily downhill. Reggie Jackson hit 39 at 36 and faded like a California sunset.
After Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa taught us to trust no one over 35, it became too easy to overlook Aaron’s stunning late-race sprint on Ruth — who, for the record, also fared pretty well as a quasi geezer, hitting 49 home runs at 35 and following up with 46, 41 and 34.
Look, I have great admiration for Mr. Aaron, who grew up under Jim Crow and came up through the Negro Leagues. I remember being utterly shocked as a boy by the death threats he received as he approached Ruth's record. Giants walked among us. Even if they were Braves.
But to write about the accomplishments of his Sunset Years and take pot shots at McGwire and Sosa as cheating geezers seems odd. If you are going to extol the man for "having some of his best years" in the early 70s, and not mention the fact that the pitcher's mound was lowered by five inches in 1969 because averages and power numbers weren't high enough for MLB leadership 'cause we know fans love the long ball, is not being very honest.
Also and...I'll be honest myself and note that power numbers did not magically climb immediately following the lowering of the mound, as I learned today in this study the magnificent Joe Posnanski brings to our attention, as power numbers did in 1918-1920 ("jackrabbit ball"), 1976-7, and 1987 -- years long before the appearance of steroids in baseball. I only mention to remind us that there are all manner of ways we know MLB can affect numbers (expansion teams, size of the stadiums built in the 90s, the construction of the baseball itself -- remember the "dead ball era?"), and we know the players themselves can through a variety of means (the hardness of the bats they choose, better conditioning -- Aaron, whose off-season conditioning, we're told, was "run, run, run," apparently knew the importance of the lower body in hitting better than many of his peers, etc.).
What we don't know is what effects steroid use have had.
F'rinstance, Araton mentions that three of Rodriguez's best seasons corresponded with the three in which he admits to using steroids as a Ranger*. What Araton doesn't feel necessary to mention: balls fly out of the stadium in which Rodriguez played his home games those years because of its proportions, Texas heat, and windscreen. Meanwhile, Yankee Stadium -- built for the left handed Ruth -- is supposed to be death to right handed power hitters, such as Rodriquez.
So, let's drop the asterisk talk and tales of moral superiority.
* Which is only partially true. His third highest year was 2007, as a Yankee, after testing had begun.
Labels: a-rod doesn't suck, baseball is cruel, giants walked amongst us