While the expanded postseason was the more significant development to come from the commissioner Thursday, Bud Selig’s pragmatic and unrepentant declaration on Barry Bonds’ place in history was also important for three reasons.
First, it’s the acceptance of a simple fact: Bonds holds the single-season and career records for home runs. Moping about the circumstances or pettily assigning asterisks Ford Frick-style isn’t going to fly. The so-called “steroids era” is a historical fact, and a reflection of what we’ll politely call an unusual time in the game’s history. Bonds is accused of having used steroids at a time when plenty of people were using.
We’ll never know how much of an effect it had on the record book. While all of the focus is on home run tallies, plenty of pitchers are suspected of using steroids as well. Bonds never hit a homer off Roger Clemens, for example, having to settle for five walks (three intentional) and a beaning from the Rocket in eight plate appearances. What are we supposed to make of that? That no amount of juice could get one to pitch to the other? Professional courtesy? Bonds never homered off Andy Pettitte either, for that matter. If Bonds had homered off of any PED user, would that mean more, less, or would it be just what it was -- a home run?
The second takeaway from Selig’s latest pragmatic sanction is that it reflects a similarly pragmatic position taken by the industry as a whole where steroids in the sport was concerned. There was no real mystery that this was happening as it was happening -- Tom Boswell was publicly calling out Jose Canseco a dozen years before Rick Reilly asked Sammy Sosa for a sample. Yet at the same time, you had reporters commenting with nary a note of doubt over the latest player coming into camp with “30 pounds of muscle” added via “winter workouts.” As it was within the industry itself, the media simultaneously had its heroes, and also its quiet get-along, go-along group.
The problem for the industry, though, was that in the face of steroid abuse, you couldn't just order the problem away by issuing an edict. If you’re conspiracy-minded, toleration might have been profitable, especially in the wake of the strike of ’94. But it was also a necessity, because this was subject to collective bargaining. Eradication of steroids from the sport, like the decades-old tolerance of amphetamine use in every major-league clubhouse -- was something that could only happen through cooperation between players and owners. That it took time to negotiate certainly didn’t satisfy the Veruca Salt sensibilities of most observers or fans, but wanting something now doesn’t make it happen now. That the sport finally did adopt standards on steroids, and addressed amphetamine abuse as well, was progress achieved through negotiated compromise.
In the meantime, there was a lot of baseball, and a lot of players doing things that involved using steroids, or not, and using amphetamines, or not. In the absence of rules against their use, you can’t hold the players solely accountable. Although the players are the ones who will be sparring with John Law for years to come and they're the ones who be held responsible -- even when that responsibility should fall on the industry as a whole. The players are also the ones who, as Tim Kurkjian noted, will have to deal with their lot in history, as their generation’s greats become eligible for the Hall of Fame.
Which brings us to the third element of Selig’s public acknowledgment: the record book. Admittedly, I worry a lot less about this than my peers (and betters) in the sabermetric community, because I figure the record book is already a shabby historical compromise of sorts. Some might choose to hallow the records set by Hank Aaron and Pete Rose -- at a time when amphetamine use wasn’t just tolerated, it was condoned. You might be especially committed to the records set by Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb -- at a time when the game’s competitive balance was often laughable, when baseballs were doctored in some seasons, when there were plenty of major league-caliber players preferring to take their paydays playing in the independent “minors,” and when baseball, like the society it reflected, denied itself the talents of so many of the best because of race.
Now, you might hold such records in high regard, and decry those of more recent vintage. Me, I figure they’re all simply facts. They are like disappointments anyone can have with the game, past or present. You can know the stats, and associate something positive with 60 or 61 or 73, with 755 or 762, but inevitably you end up having to know about the time they came from.
The records are really only sanctified by us, if we choose. I’m in the odd position of saying I’m with Bud on this subject, because the past happened. Invariably, it will be judged -- by baseball men and women, past, present, and future, by voters for the Hall of Fame, and by you and me. But it does not alter the facts of what happened, and when, and why.
Christina Kahrl helped found Baseball Prospectus in 1996, is a member of the BBWAA and covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter here.