Thursday, August 11, 2005

Trying to Keep Records Pure Could Prove to Be Futile

Trying to Keep Records Pure Could Prove to Be Futile


TORONTO, Aug. 5 - For all the reverence that baseball's record book receives - few volumes are treated so sacredly - the sport has, historically, never been inclined to penalize the convicted or admitted cheats within it.

Consider Gaylord Perry, who from 1962 to 1983 unabashedly threw pitches slathered with Vaseline while winning 314 games and earning entry into the Hall of Fame. Or Norm Cash, a slugger for the Detroit Tigers, who in 1961 admittedly corked his bat and hit an impressive .361 with 41 home runs and 132 runs batted in; in his next 13 seasons in the major leagues, he never finished with a batting average above .283.

Their numbers live forever in encyclopedias and on various lists, as if they had been accomplished squarely within the rules.

But with the recent 10-day suspension of the Baltimore Orioles' Rafael Palmeiro, who tested positive for using steroids, the debate was joined once again over how, or even whether, to enter steroid-tainted achievements in the record books.

One might expect that the disclosure would outrage the records committee of the Society for American Baseball Research, a worldwide organization of nearly 7,000 intent on maintaining the integrity of baseball's historical record. The group held its annual meeting here.

The members of this committee are known for two things: caring deeply about home runs, batting averages and other statistical details; and, just as starkly, never agreeing on anything. After all, these are the people who argue for days about a double here and a putout there, and whether Ferdie Schupp of the New York Giants actually posted the National League's lowest earned run average back in 1916 - a jaw-dropping 0.90.

The group of about 50 experts, mostly middle-aged men wearing the jerseys or caps of their favorite team, almost immediately reached a consensus on the steroids quandary. Perhaps more reflexively than most baseball fans who were stung by Palmeiro's suspension, most of these seasoned numbers buffs remained resignedly pragmatic when determining how steroids should be dealt with in the record book.

Sports statistics are elevated to almost iconic status. They are as identifiable as any face or corporate logo. But to these committee members, they remain unalterable facts, simple if not pure.

"We're not moralists," said Lyle Spatz, the committee's chairman. "We count which players hit such-and-such home runs, not whether they quote-unquote deserved them."

David Vincent, who specializes in information about home runs, brought up Whitey Ford, who admitted to throwing doctored baseballs late in his career. "Where's the moral indignation there?" Vincent said.

When talk turned to how baseball's playing conditions have evolved - from night games and integration to artificial turf and tiny strike zones - one member sarcastically suggested that all 20th century hitters be thrown out because fielders now wear gloves.

All sports have learned that trying to unring the bell for any reason, cheating or otherwise, has always been a rather clunky exercise, one that not only rings hollow but is often rescinded decades later.

Baseball can lay claim to the most awkward instance of all, the handling of Roger Maris's 61 home runs in 1961. That year, the season had been extended to 162 games, 8 games more than when Babe Ruth set the record of 60 in 1927. Baseball officials, wanting to protect Ruth's majesty, decided to list both Yankees as record-holders. (Contrary to legend, an asterisk by Maris's name was never used.)

But soon after baseball became used to the 162-game schedule, fans and officials realized that the distinction was long obsolete. In 1991, Fay Vincent, the commissioner of Major League Baseball at the time, officially removed Ruth's name and left Maris alone, confirming that in sports, even mental asterisks have half-lives.

The higher home run totals posted recently - particularly the 70 by Mark McGwire in 1998 and the 73 by Barry Bonds in 2001 - have grown troublesome because of questions about the role steroids might have played. McGwire's "I'm not here to discuss the past" testimony to a Congressional committee in March led to suspicion over what that past included. Several months earlier, The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Bonds, speaking to a grand jury investigating the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, had admitted to unknowingly using a banned substance.

Around that time, Bud Selig, the current commissioner, said that he could not even consider altering the record book because "there have been no players convicted of anything." He added, "That's a question that if there's a necessity I'll look at something in the future."

McGwire, who retired in 2001, and Bonds, who has not played this season because of injury, have not been cited by Major League Baseball as having failed a drug test. But with the news about Palmeiro - one of only four players to reach 3,000 hits and 500 home runs - the issue became more real and immediate.

"I want to know exactly what happened," Selig said Friday through a spokesman for Major League Baseball. "I want to know all the facts. Then I'll make a decision."

Major League Baseball's approach in the past has been to do nothing at all, even after a clear admission.

Cash, the Tigers slugger, admitted his deception in a magazine article, a wink-wink mea culpa that others have used after they believed the statute of limitations on their crimes had expired.

Ford, who played 16 seasons with the Yankees, and another pitching star from the 1950's, Preacher Roe of the Brooklyn Dodgers, claimed to have thrown illegally doctored baseballs. Roe's first-person exposé in Sports Illustrated carried the headline, "The Outlawed Spitball Was My Money Pitch," but no adjustments to their records have been made or seriously suggested.

Who knows how many times Richie Ashburn of the Phillies in the 1950's bunted safely because the third-base line at Philadelphia's Shibe Park was purposely sloped? In 1968, when Mickey Mantle was tied with Jimmie Foxx at 534 career home runs, Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain is said to have offered to throw Mantle the next pitch wherever he wanted. Mantle then hammered the ball over the fence and moved ahead of Foxx.

Usually, amateur sports go through the often clumsy process of removing or altering records stained by foul play, with the Olympics at the forefront. Jim Thorpe was stripped of his gold medals from the 1912 Games after it was revealed that he had played professional baseball in 1909 and 1910. (They were officially returned in 1982, almost 30 years after his death, after the purity of amateurism had eroded.)

In the modern era, failing a drug test results in immediate forfeiture of medals and records, the most famous example being the sprinter Ben Johnson in 1988.

For many years, college basketball expunged records of entire teams because of the transgression of one player. The 1971 Villanova basketball team, for example, reached the Final Four with a star forward, Howard Porter, who was later declared ineligible for having signed with an agent before the tournament. Villanova's listing in the record book was erased, or, in N.C.A.A. parlance, vacated. Little League Baseball has followed the same course with teams later discovered to have used players older than rules allow.

"We were named champions something like three months after the Little League World Series," said Sean Burroughs, the star of the team from Long Beach, Calif., which was awarded the 1992 Series championship after the Philippines was found to have ineligible players. Burroughs is now a third baseman in the San Diego Padres organization.

"We won, but it's not like we jumped up and down on the field," he said. "It was kind of weird."

The revisionist impulse, to purge unsavory memories, derives from basic human instincts, according to Dr. William S. Pollack, a psychoanalyst and an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

"There's an urge for revenge and retribution toward the people who let us down, but there's more to it than that," he said in a telephone interview. "Deep inside we want to forget that these bad things happened, that our trust in someone was betrayed. We look to the gods because we feel so frail, right? Removing them from the history is a way to pretend the person didn't exist."

On Thursday night, members of the Society for American Baseball Research records committee, which has no relationship with Major League Baseball, reconciled their feelings and agreed that little could or should be done to denote any player's use of illegal steroids. Members cited how many artificial factors - like smaller ballparks, harder bats, smaller strike zones, legitimate weight-training and, yes, fielders wearing gloves - have affected statistics since the days of Alexander Cartwright. Determining how a player may have benefited from steroids, they said, would be a foolish exercise, particularly with no effort to revise the totals of players like Cash, Ford and Roe.

Moreover, they said, one of baseball's longtime allures has been in its perfect, double-entry bookkeeping; every home run by a hitter is yielded by a pitcher, every stolen base by a team is one allowed by its opponent. Taking away whatever portion of home runs Palmeiro might have hit under the influence of steroids, a figure impossible to determine, would immediately throw this delicate balance out of whack.

"We hate the idea of the asterisk or removing records because they're examples of simple-minded thinking that caves in if you think about it for 10 minutes," Bill James, the renowned baseball statistics expert and a consultant for the Boston Red Sox, said during the meeting.

Players have always broken rules, the experts said. Using steroids may also be a violation of federal law, but it was quickly noted that Babe Ruth was not exactly sober for all 637 of the home runs he hit during Prohibition.

"A record's a record," David Vincent said during the meeting. "A number doesn't have any moral value. People do."

"Or don't," several members added.

Courtesy of the New York Times.

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