The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Lost in Translation

Ok, so it’s really something that was more lost in transition. I just happened to like this title better. Anyway…

One very recent comment that was lost when the site was redesigned earlier was in regards to Hank Aaron. The commenter noted that Hank was a man of average build, as were many – if not all – other ballplayers of his era.

This is a fair and valid point, but I don’t think that Bonds’ assault on Aaron’s record should be diminished because of it. The two men simply played in different eras. Although they played only about thirty years apart from each other, the game and the world changed drastically.

While it’s certainly true that Bonds – and most other ballplayers – are stronger and more muscular than their predecessors, the same holds true for the pitchers of today compared to the pitchers of yester-year. Everyone’s gotten bigger and stronger (even we regular folks have gotten bigger – probably not much stronger though – than normal sized people a generation ago).

Others will point to expansion in baseball as evidence that the game and resulting statistics are diluted when compared to prior generations. While there are more teams now and more pitchers, one could also argue that the talent pool that the game draws from is much bigger. Obviously, as he’s a black man himself, Hank Aaron played after the integration of the game. Still, at that time, the presence of ballplayers from other countries was nowhere near as pronounced as it is today. Players from Latin America were a relative rarity and Asian players were unheard of. Back in the day there was also nothing comparable to the facilities that most major league clubs have set up in various countries around the globe for youngsters who they hope to develop into major leaguers.

I’m not here to say what outweighs what, who was the better ballplayer, or who’s accomplishments stand out more than others. That’s all a matter for debate. And quite honestly, that’s a lot of what makes baseball so fun. Everything evolves – whether it’s in everyday life, the movies, sports, politics – anything. Some things change more than others. To compare football players from an era of leather helmets and no forward passing to today’s NFL stars is very difficult. Evaluating the greatest film actors of all time is much more difficult if you’re trying to compare silent film stars to stars from today’s digital era.

Baseball on the other hand is somewhat different. While the game has most definitely changed over the years (whether you look back at the game twenty, thirty, or one-hundred or more years ago), on the surface the changes are generally so slight as to seem inconsequential. This allows for spirited and friendly debate about who was truly the best or who had the greatest accomplishment of this thing or that.

Take for example the issue of the all-time hit king. Personalities (Cobb) and gambling issues (Rose) aside, most every baseball fan knows that Pete Rose holds the all-time record with 4,256 major league hits and that Ty Cobb is now in second place with 4,191. Cobb held the hit record for decades and is widely regarded as one of the best all-around baseball players of all time.

But Rose has 65 more hits than Cobb. Does that make him a better player? Does that mean that his hit total is more significant?

Well, it took Rose 14,053 at bats to generate his hit total (giving him a career .303 batting average). Cobb got to his total in 11,434 at bats (a lifetime average of .366). So, effectively, it took Rose 2,619 more at bats than Cobb to accumulate those 65 hits (a batting average of .025). But at the same time, Cobb only played against white players. Rose also had to travel more and face more teams (meaning that he had to “know” more pitchers).

Who was the better hitter? Well, that’s a subject for great debate.

Many of these debates can be settled statistically – or by using metrics that are more sophisticated than mere “counting” stats like home runs and hits. Adjustments can be made for ballparks played in, the quality of opponents faced (relative to the rest of the league at the time), and the like. Still, as good as all of that information is, it often leaves out some un-quantifiable piece. Besides the un-quantifiable, there are always the what-ifs:

What if Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, etc didn’t have to serve in the military during the middle of their careers? What if Frank Thomas didn’t go through a nasty divorce during the prime of his career that he later admitted distracted him from his on field performance? What if the Red Sox hadn’t traded Babe Ruth – would he be in the Hall of Fame as a pitcher, would we even know who he was, would the Yankees exist as they do today? What if Brien Taylor, a former number one overall selection in the amateur draft by the Yankees, had his head on straight and never developed arm problems – would we talk about him like Cy Young and Nolan Ryan? What about Josh Hamilton – will he ever straighten it out and live up to his potential? What was his real potential?

It’s questions like these – that are not answerable, at least not conclusively – that make baseball such a great game. Not only is it fun to watch, it’s fun to talk about too.


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