I love the crack of the bat, the stolen base, and the hot stove, but the aspect of baseball that keeps me hooked is the numbers.
The numbers are what separate baseball from other major sports. Sports fans don’t tend to get too excited when a quarterback breaks a touchdown record, and they hardly notice a basketball player making dozens of consecutive free throws.
But baseball is different. The numbers 714, 755, 762, 56, 4,256, .400, 2,632, 59, 191, 130, 61, and 73 are ingrained in the minds of every baseball fan.
These numbers, some of them current records and some of them broken records that had endured for decades, are the backbone of the game. However, the steroids plague that has swept through baseball is threatening to render many of the numbers accumulated from the late 1990s to early 2000s meaningless.
While I wholeheartedly agree with Commissioner Bud Selig that players who took performance-enhancing drugs during this era have “shamed the game” and that those players should be suspended or ultimately banned, I believe that the statistical accomplishments of players during this era must be kept in the record books for the betterment of the game.
The numbers put up by admitted and presumed steroid users should stand because of the scope of drug use during the steroid era and the importance of the these numbers to the history and future of the game.
Many have called for the expulsion of, or at the very least an asterisk next to, the names and statistics in baseball’s record books created by the steroid era’s record-breaking home run hitters. Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez have become the faces of the steroid era as they thrilled fans with scores of home runs.
However, pinning the blame on this cast of admitted or presumed steroid users and striking their numbers from the books would penalize just a few while many others were cheating with PEDs.
Beyond the element of injustice surrounding invalidating the accomplishments of a few and ignoring lesser players is the fact that the vast scope of PED use during this era makes deleting statistics a complicated game.
Take, for example, Eric Gagne’s record-breaking streak of 84 consecutive saves. Gagne was named in the Mitchell Report as a buyer of Human Growth Hormone. The streak is no doubt tainted, but how many of the players that Gagne retired to end a game were using PEDs? How many were clean? We will most likely never know.
If we delete Gagne’s saves, it would be difficult to justify not invalidating the statistics of, for example, the starting pitcher who gave Gagne a chance to pick up the save when we do not know if the pitcher was using as well.
Thus, I do not believe that Gagne’s and other admitted or presumed drug users' accomplishments can be rejected without fully understanding the extent of drug use across the league.
The steroid era has polluted baseball, but pretending the era did not exist by erasing the numbers is not the answer.
Cheating—or, euphemistically, trying to gain an advantage—has been a part of baseball since its inception. Pitchers have tried to get outs by using sandpaper, Vaseline, and just about anything else they can get their hands on to doctor a baseball, while hitters have used corked bats and stolen signals to improve their chances.
I am not defending steroid use by claiming that it is equivalent to rubbing sandpaper onto a baseball, but it feels hypocritical to void the numbers of a steroid user when a Hall of Fame pitcher like Gaylord Perry has admitted to scuffing baseballs.
Barry Bonds’ home run record should stand, and if Alex Rodriguez is able to pass him, his numbers should sit atop the record books. The history of the game and the numbers that go with it, no matter how troubled or corrupt, are too important to the future of the game to be disregarded.
Fifty years from now, people should see Bonds or Rodriguez atop the home run list and debate if Hank Aaron is still the true home run king, not pretend the era never existed.
One hundred years from now, an asterisk would enable people to blindly chastise players who used PEDs without understanding the extent of drug use. That would tarnish the game, its history, and its numbers more than any syringe ever could.