the Mitchell report and the great temple

There’s a great deal of hyperventilating about the Mitchell report on steroid use in baseball. One example (among multitudes) of how bent out of intellectual shape people can get: Tom Scocca in Slate writes that steroids explain “the startling longevity of Andy Pettite.” Startling longevity? Dude, Pettite is 35; he’s been in the league thirteen years. That ain’t exactly unprecedented. It’s not like he’s Nolan Ryan, or, um, Roger Clemens.

When the hyperventilation stops, there will, I think, be one lasting and probably permanent effect of this report — or rather, of the whole controversy of which it is the chief and culminating product: the utter collapse of a historic building that has been crumbling for the past decade. Let’s call it the Great Temple of Baseball Statistics. As soon as stories about steroid use began to circulate around Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, as soon as sportswriters began to say that their records deserve to be accompanied by an asterisk — a word I’d love never to hear again, at least in the context of sports records: Ford Frick, what hath thou wrought? — other people popped up to say that we should be equally suspicious of Babe Ruth’s gaudy numbers, since he never had to face the great black pitchers of his day, or to be measured against black sluggers like Josh Gibson. And you know what? They were right.

The steroid conversations of the late ‘90’s began after more than a decade of increasing sophisticated sabermetric studies revealing just how many and complex are the environmental conditions that affect baseball performance. If some outfielder in 1931 hit twenty home runs playing half his games in the Polo Grounds, how impressive is that in comparison to the same number of homers by a guy whose home park was Dodger Stadium in 1968? How about Fenway Park in 2003? If that kind of question is statistically difficult to answer, imagine what happens when you try to factor in sociological considerations (the presence or absence of black and Hispanic players), variables involving health and medicine (better diets in more recent years, year-round training, sophisticated exercise programs) and the rising availability of performance-enhancing drugs.

What happens, to put it briefly and bluntly, is that statistics simply cease to have any historical validity whatsoever. Baseball statistics can still be very, very useful in making sense of the relative value of players whose careers share the same time-frame. Sabermetricians can tell you a hell of a lot about whether Phil Rizzuto was a better shortstop than Pee Wee Reese, or whether McGwire had a better year than Sosa in 1998. But if you want to know whether Barry Bonds was (at any point in his career) really and truly a more dangerous hitter than Babe Ruth, or whether Roger Clemens was a better pitcher than Walter Johnson, or of you want to meditate on any of the thousand other puzzles of which the Great Temple of Baseball Statistics has been built — fuggidaboudit. Too many factors, too many variables, too much noise. From now on, thanks not to the Mitchell report itself but to the era of which it is the fitting and butt-ugly capstone, all any of us can do when faced with such historical comparisons is shrug.

This is a real blow to many baseball fans, among whom a significant proportion are stat-heads — a far greater proportion than we find among the fans of any other sport. They’re just going to have to find some other way to love the game, some other place of worship. The Great Temple has fallen and it won’t be rebuilt.