In physicist Robert K. Adair’s book, The Physics of Baseball, the analysis of doctored bats is concluded thusly: “the properties of such modified bats can be reproduced by a legal bat with the same feel and hitting characteristics.” Adair’s experiments showed that corking a baseball bat had a similar effect to “choking up” — the hitter was more apt to make contact with a pitched ball, but generated slightly less power.
It is interesting, then, that Sammy Sosa’s recent transgressions have generated such controversy. He was, after all, likely putting himself at a disadvantage where hitting a homerun was concerned. But it is the perception that he was skirting the rules that has whipped the public into a frenzy. This while baseball has done next to nothing to curb what may well be a cheating epidemic.
Even as football and basketball have gained footholds in popular culture, baseball remains American religion. “Ruthian” refers not to the biblical Ruth, but to the Bambino, a man who, had he been in business, might have taken the nickname Horatio Alger. Baseball lore is full of these icons — Joe D., Teddy Ballgame, Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax — men who were so gifted at hitting and throwing, that to watch them was to be transformed. However, even as we revere the old-timers, we lionize the current batch of baseball greats, measuring them against their predecessors as we dig through statistics and talk about their numbers. Indeed, numbers are sacrosanct in sports, and no more so than in baseball. They not only constitute the historical record of the game, but they also confer onto baseball a timelessness seldom found elsewhere. 56. 755. And perhaps the holiest of holies, 61.
61 was a number that haunted Roger Maris and dogged Mickey Mantle. It was not merely two more than 59, but also a symbol of great power both figuratively and literally. So in 1998, it was with great pomp and circumstance that we welcomed Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa into the hallowed halls where only the names Ruth and Maris had been uttered. The fraternity of men who had hit 60 homeruns in a season doubled that year and the country threw a giant party for the two newest members. Now, having completed three 60-homerun seasons, Sammy Sosa’s broken bat threatens to leave us with a hangover.
In the absence of fairness — or pardon the pun — a level playing field, the statistical history of baseball is rendered irrelevant. This is the reason that we remember Joe Niekro not for the his 221 wins or 22 seasons, but for the Emery board that flew out of his back pocket while he was busy denying that he doctored the baseball. This is the reason that Ken Caminiti received more press attention for his estimate that at least 50 percent of major league baseball players were steroid users than he did when he was voted the National League’s most valuable player. It is fitting that it is a number that the public remembers: 50 percent.
While it’s likely impossible to calculate the degree of performance enhancement from “supplements,” steroids, and other substances, it is scientific fact that they do improve strength, speed, and a host of other attributes that are vital to a baseball player’s success. Yet the MLB Players Association has repeatedly resisted attempts to implement a rigorous drug-testing policy. Since the latest corked bat incident, various sportswriters have appeared on national television, calling Sammy Sosa’s Hall of Fame credentials into question. What about all the players who are not only violating the rules of fair play, but in the case of steroid abusers, those who are violating the law?
We remain a society hell-bent on competing. Baseball is so representative of us as a country that our two leagues are the American and the National. But whether we want to win in our own lives, or watch our favorite teams win, there is an insistence that everyone plays fairly. For baseball purists, cheating in their sport is tantamount to being un-American. If as sportswriter Rick Reilly suggests, Sammy Sosa is inducted into the Hall of Fame with a wine bottle next to his name, let’s hope that Major League Baseball can make a serious and concerted effort to stop the use of performance enhancing drugs. No one wants to see a Hall inductee with a syringe next to his name.