One night in Midtown, when I was still deeply in love with baseball, I was sitting in Mickey Mantle’s bar in New York City. On the far right of me, a professional referee passed out, his head resting on the counter just inches from a half-empty pitcher of beer, his third of the night. But hey, who’s counting?
Before me was a leather-bound edition of the Baseball Almanac, which the bartender had pulled out from under the counter.
“Do you want to see something?” he said with holy reverence.
Speeding through pages, he landed on former Yankees star Joe DiMaggio.
“Look,” he said, poking his finger at the page. “DiMaggio struckout just eight more than homeruns… in his entire career!!!”
This Show-and-Tell game lasted 20 minutes.
The Major League Baseball record book is a treasure trove of wondrous absurdities, such as how Stan Musial retired as National League leader at 3,630, with exactly as many hits on the road (1,815) as at home (1,815); how Greg Maddux once threw a full game of 76 pitch and only reached two balls once in the entire game; the more men walked on the moon (12) than earned points scored on Mariano Rivera in the postseason (11); and how Jamie Moyer faced 8.9% of all MLB hitters in history during his 25-year career.
Barry Bonds ruined it all for me. So were the most prominent achievers in the steroid era who have defiled and desecrated the holy book of records, the holy grail of sports statistics; the database that spanned generations and associated vintage cars with their grandchildren; birth of rotisserie baseball and with it the entire fantasy sports industry; and spawning the Big Data analytics movement that is currently ruining the game for much sleepier reasons.
At least baseball was fun to watch during the steroid era, when America stopped and was transfixed whenever Bonds, Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa were on the record.
This is all relevant because I’ve come full circle around Major League Baseball, its spectacular hypocrisy and its selective morality. Today I am convinced that Bonds belongs in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The same goes for Roger Clemens. Ditto for Pete Rose. Especially Rose. My perspective has shifted and relaxed due to a handful of groundbreaking events. To know:
Former Commissioner Bud Selig was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2017, though he presided over the Steroid Era, the same dark cloud that currently blackens the greatest players of the era. Selig managed by skillfully burying his head in the sand while riding the wave of McGwire-Sosa mania, leaving his co-owners filthy rich during the sport’s darkest moments.
Next up, the Houston Astros, a filthy team who cheated their way to a World Series title by hitting trash cans, carrying wires and stealing signs in a brazen display of intellectual theft. You’d think something as disastrous as the Steroid Age would spark an ethical renaissance in baseball, a return to innocence, fair play and newfound respect for the game.
Terrible assumption. And while Bonds and Clemens will stay out of Cooperstown, no Astros player has ever been punished for seriously damaging the sport.
Finally Rose. The leader of all hits remains banned from baseball for betting on baseball. But that was ages ago, and long before MLB jumped into the sports betting business and took advantage of the behavior they once feared and loathed financially.
Sports gaming’s runaway popularity in 2022 is all about legality and convenience, from not having to fly to Las Vegas or find your own bookmaker. But for some reason, the easy access doesn’t seem to bother MLB… as long as the sport gets its fair share of the proceeds. Just like Selig did during the steroid era. And that’s when you realize that baseball is just a hat full of hypocrites, rarely deserving of the special status it once commanded as America’s Pastime.
Over the years, I’ve learned that cheating is the one constant in baseball. I’ve learned that baseball is so hard that cheaters rarely feel like they’re cheating. I believe Bonds and Clemens are easy targets for villainous behavior that defines the entire industry. And I’ll always have respect for how that drunken umpire got up at the bar, went back to his Manhattan hotel room, and played an impeccable game at third base the next day. Without steroids or performance enhancers. Even though he spent most of the afternoon with his hands on his knees.