Monday, May 15, 2006

The color of homers

Warning - first-class ranting here. (w/t to WunderKraut)

I had an old old website (pre-blog) in which I tried to make sense of Barry's juiced numbers from 2001. The only analogue I could find was a fellow named Steve Madden, ironically a Pirate, whose cartoon numbers defied description: something like .390, 62 hr, 167 rbi, crap like that. Of course, the reason that Madden's numbers were cartoonish was because that's literally what he was. His monster year came in 2024 on High Heat Baseball. And, this being HHBB, the pitchers weren't smart enough to walk him in the early innings with men on.

I'd like to say that I smelled a rat when Sosa and McGwire were off to the races (no pun intended) in 1998. I'd like to say that McGwire's stretch from 89-94 in Oakland made any renaissance suspect. This would be untrue. It was a myth we could still indulge, that of the proud athlete rising back up and showing his old form for one last glorious run. Hadn't he rebounded before the trade to St. Louis? Hadn't he hit 49 homers as a rookie?

Yes, and yes. Only in hindsight does it seem odd that we thought of that as the true player, and not the man who spent a substantial part of the time hitting .230 when he wasn't injured. The rookie phenom was the flash in the pan - the other guy was a mainstay. In fact, McGwire was probably much more in the Kingman/Balboni mold until the andro. And according to Game of Shadows, that's why Bonds - one of the five best players on the planet before '98 - decided to give in and juice up. Below are his numbers if he'd chosen to retire instead:

..G. .AB. Runs Hits .2b 3b .HR .RBI .BB. .K.. .SB .AVG .SLG
1898 6621 1364 1917 403 63 411 1216 1357 1050 445 .290 .556

Hall-of-Fame lock, I'd say. But the siren song was too much for him, as for so many others. I did some reasearch a way way back and found, not only that the top numbers were rising, but also the middle numbers. (Scroll down to the table. This trend held last season as well, with 77 guys hitting at least 20.)

So, coming back to our original ranting - are we all a bunch of Jim Crows for giving McGwire the pass, and not Bonds? Of course not. McGwire had a good chance of duping us at the time - but fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. (Fool him limitless times, shame on Skip Bayless.) McGwire's singing the Fifth Symphony in front of Congress left the erstwhile Bunyan looking much more like a big blue ox, so it's not like he (or Jason Giambi) are suddenly getting a wink and a nod. Same with Raffy Palmiero, whose career ended in a maelstrom of jokes conflating the drugs he endorsed with the ones he actually took.

My thoughts here keep coming back to Ken Griffey. He, too, was incandescent - and then he, too, was injured, and sent from AL to NL. He's rallied, hitting 35 homers last season. He's a guy that people root for, who has genuine love for the game, who keeps coming back, and who seems alone among the myriad current-day sluggers in that he seems to have done it with his own prodigious talent and not pharmaceutically.

The real color to note here is green. Palmiero had already met the 3000 hit and 500 homer milestones; as a result there was nothing else the Orioles could gain from his continued employment. Bonds, however, still has the Ruthian Ghost, and perhaps Hammerin' Hank by year's end. Therefore the Giants will use Bonds as blithely as he used the juice, much as baseball at large has done until last season. The dragon has a leash, and after his fire is spent, it will be safe to discard him - but not before. That's not racial, its just reality.

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