Picking Splinters: Sports Mathematics Splinters Style

September 20, 2006 10:00 PM0 comments

Do you remember what you were thinking at this point in the 1998 season? Do you remember the energy surrounding Mark McGwire’s pursuit of Roger Maris’s record for home runs in a single season? The record that made the number 61 sacred? Do you remember the fist pumps and the celebrations of pulled punches? That could be now. And that could be real.

Entering this week, the Phillies Ryan Howard had 57 home runs, just four shy of that monumental number. But instead of heralding a potential record-breaking season, we’re left with the infrequent article of what might have been. Thank you, steroids.

Part of what makes sports appealing to so many people is the reality of it and how real feats turn these flesh and blood men into legends like John Henry. Yes, Henry might have out-performed a steam engine, but did he ever hit one off the façade at old Yankee Stadium like Mickey Mantle? Or call his shot like the Babe?

Part of what makes steroids so destructive is that they shatter those myths. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs in a season. Can you believe it 70?!?!?! Then Barry Bonds hit 73. But did they do so unaided?

True, evidence is circumstantial for both sluggers and neither have admitted using steroids, but no one involved in the sport actually believes they were clean when they broke the record.

So it was a cheat, an illusion, false. I might as well just watch “The Natural.”

Now here comes Ryan Howard. Now he’s just four home runs shy of what used to be The Number. Now it’s meaningless. 61? Just means you’ve got 12 more to go kid.

Steroids have not only cast a pallor on the achievements of the past, they’ve put out of reach what many consider to be the most impressive record in all of sports.

Think about it, Ryan Howard is probably the biggest bomber around today. He plays in a band box of a ball park. And he’s playing in a season in which just three pitchers own an ERA under 3.00. If not now, when?

When Bud Selig and his minions receive the findings of the Mitchell report, and should it find that Bonds and McGwire used performance enhancing drugs, I sincerely hope they have the guts to revoke their record-setting seasons and reinstate Maris’s mark. If not, I fear that the scar steroids have left on this game might be a permanent one.

 

20/20 on 40/40

This weekend, Alfonso Soriano of the Washington Nationals became just the fourth player in the history of baseball to hit 40 or more home runs and steal 40 or more bases during a season. If current beliefs hold true, he would be just the second to achieve the feat without the aid of performance enhancing drugs.

The feat was so impressive, in fact, that it drew a whopping 24,252 to RFK on Saturday, the day he hit the mark. More people attended an Aug. 8 game against the Marlins on a Tuesday night.

When Jose Canseco closed in on this mark, there was fanfare fit for a presidential inauguration. Now? It merited little more than a front page sidebar headline on ESPN.com.

What happened to the intrigue surrounding this accomplishment? Four people have done it …EVER. Not Willie Mays. Not Ted Williams. Not Jackie Robinson. Not Hank Aaron. Not Joe DiMaggio. None of them. Just Canseco, Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Soriano. That’s it.

Have steroids tainted the luster on this achievement too? Or is it really just not that big of a deal? Do people just believe Mickey Mantle when he said ‘If I knew it was so important I would have done it every year?’”

All I know is that the notion that retaining Soriano as he chased the mark would boost attendance at RFK was about as accurate as an Al Hrabosky fastball to the backstop.

 

0-2 > 2-1

While the vaunted Al Saunders playbook continues to read like the funny pages with another poor showing by the Redskins’ offense against Dallas, the Michigan Wolverines gave the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame a reading from “The Book of Daddy,” chapter: Who’s, verse: Your.

From “The BCS is Completely Stupid” department, it should be pointed out that Michigan’s thrashing of Notre Dame on Saturday has rendered the rest of Notre Dame’s season almost meaningless unless lots of teams manage to lose before the last week of the season. Sure, Notre Dame could win out their remaining games and make it to a BCS bowl, but in all probability, they have lost any shot to play for the National Championship this season. And that’s the goal, isn’t it? To be the best team in the country?

Meanwhile, the Redskins can look as lost as Hansel and Gretel for at least another three or four games and still have the opportunity to find a trail of bread crumbs into the playoffs.

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