Sept. 27 | 6:45 p.m. ET
The words are painful for me to read, mostly because I wrote them. It was back at the end of July, when the Houston Astros did nothing to improve themselves at the trade deadline. The gist of that column was that the least the team could have done was trade Roger Clemens to give him one more chance to win.
It made perfect sense at the time, but that's what the captain of the Titanic thought when he chose not to worry about icebergs. Of the Astros' prospects, I wrote:
Some hold that Astros owner Drayton McLane thinks the team can put on the same kind of charge this year. If he does, he's a fool. Catch lightning in a bottle once, as the Astros did in 2004, and treasure it forever. Do it again a year later, as Houston did, and it's time to call in the Vatican to verify the miracle.
But don't even dare to think you can do it three times in three years. The Astros have used up their allotment of miracles. Without the help that management couldn't get it, the team is going nowhere.
So here we are at the end of the season, and here are the Astros on a seven-game winning streak. A deficit that was once 8 1/2 games has been whittled down to 1 1/2, with the division-leading Cardinals running on three flat tires and a blown head gasket.
If last year was the miracle, I don't know what this year would be. And, although the Cardinals have made all this possible by being so incapable of winning a game now and then, the Astros have had to win at a heroic rate to be in position to win the NL Central. The fact that they're still just one notch over .500 doesn't really matter. Just as broken-bat bloopers look like line drives on the scorecard, a division title is still a playoff ticket.
And if the Astros should get in again, I don't think I'd want to face them, no matter what their record is. It's true that they don't hit a lot, but Lance Berkman is as dangerous as any hitter in the game and Craig Biggio is a future Hall-of-Famer. But it's their pitching that scares you. Any time you can roll out Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, you've got a chance.
If I'm the Mets, I don't want to see them; if I'm anybody, I don't want to face them. The Astros simply have had too much experience at this business the past two years. They're used to coming out of nowhere to win. If they can finish off this run, forget their overall record. Seven games ago, they were six games under .500. On Wednesday morning, they were one over. They's capable of just about anything.
Sept. 25 | 2:30 a.m. ET
It’s official: In team sports, the United States leads the world in nothing except self-delusion.
The Ryder Cup put an exclamation mark on the end of that sentence. This was a competition that the United States once owned, one it went into this year with team spirit and determination. It didn’t just lose; it got smoked.
It seemed to be the only fitting way to end a year of losses. The United States began it in the Olympics with the men going 1-4-1 and not getting into the medal round of the hockey tournament while the women managed a bronze. From there, the World Baseball Classic managed to play its championship rounds without the presence of the Americans. The champion Japanese didn’t miss them.
Fast forward to the summer and the World Cup — it was all the stars and stripes could do to score a goal; forget getting out of the first round or winning a game. Then it was on to the world basketball championships, where the United States made a serious and determined effort to regain what it feels is its rightful place as the greatest team in the world. It finished third, getting knocked out of the gold by that noted world hoops power, the Greeks.
The women, who, unlike the men, were the defending World Champions, took center stage next and came back just like the men, chanting “We’re No. 3,” knocked out of the gold-medal game by the Russians.
And now the third straight loss in the biennial competition between the best golfers in Europe and the best in America. Like basketball and baseball, this was a sport the United States found it impossible to lose in. And now it doesn’t have a single man who can beat Colin Montgomerie.
How we arrived at this state of affairs isn’t a total mystery. The rest of the world had caught up in sports opportunities, training and proficiency. In this country, we concentrate on a pro game and celebrate individuals; in the rest of the world, the emphasis is on international competitions and teamwork.
The United States has never been any good at soccer, but when the Cup was played on these shores, the team at least advanced to the knock-out round. Its performance has been going downhill pretty much ever since.
Baseball isn’t the most popular sport in the country that gave birth to it, and the game no longer draws from the deep pool of African-American athletic talent that revivified the major leagues during the 1950s and 60s.
International basketball is a very different game than that played in the NBA. And Team USA has had great difficulty both embracing and mastering the zone defense and outside sharpshooting that dominates that game. That’s the men; the women have been more dominant internationally for a long time, but this year showed that they, like the men, can’t rely on talent anymore, and other national squads have copied their teamwork.
As for hockey, well, it wasn’t our game to start with.
But golf is a different matter. It’s not just a matter of the rest of the world catching up, because it hasn’t. The Europeans rarely win major tournaments. Sergio Garcia and Colin Montgomerie, two of the most talented Euros, have gagged every time they’ve had a chance to win a major. In individual competitions that matter, Americans rule.
In the old days, meaning 20 years ago and earlier, there wasn’t as much money on tour and more golfers came up playing multiple sports. Jack Nicklaus was an excellent high school football player. Hale Irwin was an All-American defensive back at the University of Colorado. They had substantial experience in team sports.
Golfers back in the day also didn’t travel in private jets. It wasn’t that long ago that guys shared the driving from one tournament to the next in their own cars and doubled up in hotel rooms to save money. There was more togetherness, more camaraderie.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Today, there’s so much money that the players don’t have to get to know each other, and most don’t. They make friendships, but there’s no sense of everyone being in it together, struggling each week to make a check to pay the mortgage. Just watch Tiger Woods when he has to play with a teammate in an alternate-shot or four-ball match. He suddenly loses the ability to make putts; he doesn’t know how to rely on a teammate because he has no experience in it.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
The Euros have more experience in team play and just plain being together than the Americans do. They play soccer — football to them — growing up. When they get on the European Tour, they don’t play for as much money and they don’t get treated like gods, as the Americans do. Some of them still drive together to tournaments across Europe. Simply put, they know each other better. And they play together better.
It’s been going on too long in too many sports to call it an abnormality that will soon right itself. The world hasn’t just caught up, it’s passed us. They may think they’re still chasing us, but in reality, we’re chasing them.
Sept. 19 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Even with instant replay, bad calls are part of football games. So I don’t have a lot of sympathy for University of Oklahoma President David Boren’s efforts to have his team’s loss to Oregon stricken from the records because the refs blew two critical calls down the stretch.
If we started doing that, a whole lot of games in a lot of sports would cease to exist. I understand his concern. Until Oregon scored twice in the final seconds, Oklahoma was looking to extend its unbeaten record and stay in the race for the BCS championship game. When they lost, the Sooners automatically were disqualified from a system that hands the title game to the two best surviving teams with no losses on their records.
Boren would have better served his school and the sport by raising two arguments. The first and most logical is for a playoff system to replace the BCS poll- and computer-based system. But university presidents have generally been the ones blocking a playoff.
The second would be to argue that since the outcome of the game was clearly flawed by the officiating — if the call on the final on-side kick had gone the correct way, Oklahoma gets the ball and wins — the polls and computers should not count the game as Sooner loss for purposes of ranking the team. It’s still an “L” on the schedule, but not in the computations.
That actually makes sense, which means there’s no chance of it happening. Voters and computers aren’t equipped to deal with reality, just numbers, and if they can eliminate a team because it lost a game — even one the refs lost for it — they’re happy as clams.
Oregon shouldn’t be penalized, but treated as if it’s record is what it is — undefeated, if not unblemished. By the end of the season, it will all sort itself out anyway.
But Boren should keep his nose — and his opinions — out of it. University presidents should oversee their athletic programs to guard against abuses. They shouldn’t get involved in the games themselves. It only serves to display their ignorance of the way things work on the playing field.
Boren also asked that Pac-10 officials not work future Oklahoma games, which isn’t a bad idea, but it is one that should be presented by the athletic director. I’m not sure it’s a cure for what happened, because it appears that Oregon tried to run its replay booth on the cheap. The official who blew the replay calls didn’t have access to the same camera angles that fans saw on ABC television. And he didn’t have equipment that allowed him to review the plays frame-by-frame.
The lesson there is that if you’re going to do something, do it right. Don’t scrimp on equipment. If you do, it will come back to haunt you.
Sept. 14 | 1 a.m. ET
One week into the NFL season, and already three big-name quarterbacks are under fire for doing exactly what they’ve done for most of their careers. Their coaches are sticking with them — for the time being — but the situation has the potential to turn very ugly in a big hurry.
The quarterbacks are Drew Bledsoe, Jake Plummer and Daunte Culpepper. The teams are Dallas, Denver and Miami. All of them came into the season with Super Bowl aspirations. All need answers from their quarterbacks, and fast.
I doubt the teams will like the responses. These guys established long ago what they are — great talents with big arms capable of gaudy stats and big throws, but prone to give the ball away at the worst possible moments.
They’re like Colin Montgomerie — great talent and great results except when it really matters. They’ve always been that way. Oh, each has had a superior season or two some time along the way, but not one has won the big game. It’s unlikely any of them ever will.
Bill Parcells hasn’t been very communicative — or amicable — in discussing Bledsoe, who couldn’t get the ball to Terrell Owens in the Cowboy’s Week 1 loss to Jacksonville and who also threw his customary late interceptions. Parcells acquired Bledsoe for the same reason he once hired Vinnie Testaverde when the Tuna was coaching the Jets — he was the best available veteran and he had a very good arm. But, like Testaverde, Bledsoe has always found a way to lose. He’s a good guy and a solid quarterback. He’s not a winner.
The fans in Dallas want back-up Tony Romo to start. Odds are they’ll get their wish sooner rather than later.
Then there’s Plummer. He was a great talent when he came out of college and was drafted by the Cardinals, a guy who was exciting to watch, a guy who could run and gun and make things happen. The Broncos got him in their continuing search to replace John Elway, and he’s done a pretty good job, especially last year when he finally threw more touchdown passes than interceptions.
But in the playoffs, Plummer reverted to form, throwing the ball along with any chances of winning to the other team. The Broncos got Jay Cutler in the draft, and, after Plummer threw three picks and put one on the ground in a Week 1 loss to the Rams, there’s already a groundswell to hand the reins over to the rookie from Vanderbilt. Coach Mike Shanahan is sticking with his veteran, which means he’s also not going to get back to the Super Bowl.
Culpepper is more of the same. He led the league in passing a couple of years ago, and he’s as impressive a physical specimen as there is in the game. He’s bigger than a tight end, can throw the ball out of the stadium and can run if he has to. But he can also turn it over at a frightening rate, as he did in Miami’s opening loss to Pittsburgh. You can never blame one player for any loss, but Culpepper threw two critical interceptions late, one of which was returned by Joey Porter for the touchdown that ended Miami’s hopes.
Of the three, I give Culpepper the best chance of turning things around in a big way. Not every team can rush the passer like the Steelers, and with a bit more time, Culpepper will get better. Given the relative weakness of the AFC East, the Dolphins should be able to survive his lapses. If not, the alternative is Joey Harrington — hardly a reassuring thought.
But the Dolphins won’t win the Super Bowl. None of these teams will with the quarterbacks they have. Few things are as well established in the NFL as the necessity of having a quarterback who doesn’t make mistakes under pressure. Joe Montana was as great as he was because the tighter the situation, the calmer and better he got. Bledsoe, Plummer and Culpepper stop shy of greatness because they do not get better under pressure. They’re like Testaverde and Kerry Collins — big stats, no rings. It’s not something that a player can change. It’s what they are.
Sept. 8 | 9:45 p.m. ET
My last entry on Michelle Wie prompted a lot of mail, and not much of it supports her quest to play on the PGA Tour before she’s won anything on the LPGA tour. Every time she doesn’t make a cut, or worse, finishes dead last, she not only loses credibility, she loses fans. The curiosity factor is fading fast, and once it disappears, she’s not going to be worth the money she’s being paid.
Here’s what some of you had to say:
C. W. of Prescott, Ariz:
I think there are some golfers who may be afraid she'll beat them. Insecurity. Let her play, and best of luck to her.
Lane of San Pedro Sula, Honduras:
The problem with Wie is she is too young to see her own shortcomings. Example of that is she is not good enough to play with the big boys and maybe not good enough to play with the big girls ... I played my best golf when I played with guys that were better than me, but I often wanted to play with someone I could beat.
Kevin of Salisbury, N.C.:
Yeah, why doesn't she stop trying to make it on the PGA tour when she can't even win on the LPGA tour? I mean come on. She is a Poster Child for multi-million dollar companies.
Roy of Newport News, Va.:
When she decides to move to the women’s tour it will show that she is growing up. She definitely is talented, but all this hype may be generating revenue for her sponsors and not really of any help to her. The sooner she plays where she can exhibit her talent the better for her.
Ginette of Columbia, Md.:
Is Michelle trying to tell us something? "Want to be a boy!!!” . . . I wish the sponsors, the parents would allow the child to be one, adulthood is close and hard enough. We are all contributing to Michelle ever so inflated ego (including me). Look at that face (Picture in the story) the poor thing looks like she could use a mother's hug. It's sad how we forget so quickly (Capriati, burnout) This young lady has great talent, let her cultivate it, enjoy it.
Joe C. of San Diego:
Tell her she needs to win women's tourneys like Sorenstam does, and then she will be ready to make a run in the men's events.
Bret of Olive Branch, Miss.:
I'll make this short and sweet. NO win means no average fan cares. The novelty of Wie has worn off because she doesn't win. At this point I'd rather watch two mules fight over a turnip, at least one of them would WIN!!
Pat of Roseburg, Oreg.:
What gives her the right to play in men’s tournaments? Michelle has done NOTHING on the LPGA level, and yes I'm aware she is only 16. I believe you should earn the right to play in the men’s tournaments. By playing these tournaments, she is taking the place of someone who may have earned the right to be there. Sponsors should not decide who plays and who doesn't.
Ed of Burkesville, Ky.:
Send her home to grow up. Then in a few years let her EARN her way to the top ... I for one am sick of seeing so much of her inadequacies when I could be watching far better players.
Steve of Newbury Park, Calif.:
For Michelle to stink up the course, and then say, "I want to play on the Ryder cup" makes her look like a silly little schoolgirl (oops, I guess she is).
Michael of Harrisburg, Pa.:
You're all wet. Wie IS a sideshow attraction and welcomes every moment of it whenever she picks up a club. How else could you EVER possibly explain WHY she wants to play against the men? ... "I'm doing it for my own self happiness" ??? What sort of trivial self-serving trash is that? Michelle Wie is nothing more than a kid who thinks it's cool to strut her stuff in front of so many "adoring" media types, feeding them her self-entitlement crap by the spoonful and laughing all the way to the bank!
S. W. of Maquoketa, Iowa
I feel the pros who think she has no business in the men's tournaments are probably scared she might one day beat them. Gentlemen check your ego's at the locker room door. Golf is a great game and the word Macho died in the 80's.
John of Dunedin, New Zealand:
Should Michelle Wie eventually make the cut in a PGA event, would her supporters then say she is the equal of Babe Zaharias?
Chris of London, England:
I think your being totally sexist.
C. Williams of Florence, S.C.
This whole Michelle Wie thing is a JOKE !!! She's no different from Anna Kournikova. Both have gotten so much hype and haven't won jack ... I can see Sorenstam playing against men, she's EARNED it! It has been GIVEN to Wie.
Jerry of Queens, N.Y.:
It's really really tragic the way her career is handled. . .
John of Pittsburgh, Pa.:
If she were a 16-year-old boy she would be on the cover of Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated & a Wheaties box at the same time.
Hoang of Chandler, Ariz.:
Wie just needs to read your last 2 sentences: "She just wants to have fun. The system just wants her blood." ... then send you a big thank you note. This is the best warning "advice" ever for her career.
Richard of Aurora, Colo.:
It's not Wie as much as it’s her parents’ myopic viewpoint. The kid should be allowed to mature - rather than rushing her into the adult world.
Sept. 5 | 11:30 p.m. ET
I was going to start this by saying people should just leave Michelle Wie alone. But I realize that would make her sponsors, who are paying her as much as $10 million a year to be made a fuss over everywhere she goes. So I figured I may as well help her earn her keep.
She’s in Switzerland getting ready to play in the European Masters — a men’s event. For some reason, some people still think she doesn’t have a right to play with the men, so they ask her about it. Her answers aren’t terribly deep, but they don’t have to be. If someone offers a spot, why shouldn’t she take it? She loves golf and loves playing at the highest level. It’s like a Class A ballplayer getting asked if he wants to play for the Yankees, even if he’s not ready for that assignment. Is he going to say, “No, thank you”? I don’t think so.
This is what she told the European media Monday: “There are going to be people that support me and others that don’t but I feel people here have been very supportive and welcoming. I am not just doing it for the support I get, I am doing it for myself and my own self-happiness. I love playing men’s events and the challenge. I feel an adrenaline rush when I play these events and it is a lot of fun.”
So there you have it. Like Cyndi Lauper, this girl just wants to have fun.
She said that the most fun thing to do would be to qualify for the U.S. Ryder Cup Team, which is preparing to do battle in Ireland with their European counterparts. She actually thinks that being one of the top 12 golfers in America and qualifying is possible.
Of course, to do that she’ll need to make a cut one day, something she’s done in a men’s event only once, in Japan. And she’ll have to win a professional tournament, something she’s never done. But there’s nothing wrong with dreaming — especially if it gets her name out there and sells those products.
I guess that’s always been my problem — she’s not being paid to win but to be something of a sideshow attraction. She’s just 16 going on 17 next month, and she’s cute and talented and reasonably articulate as athletes go. Her quest to play on the men’s tour and now make the Ryder Cup Team (Next week, at the 84 Lumber event she’s playing in stateside, the quest will probably expand to win the men’s Grand Slam.) generates headlines and attention. It’s a lot like the way Andre Agassi’s career began — all image, no results.
Agassi turned out all right, and few players have been more beloved than the man who bowed out of his final tournament, the U.S. Open, just the other day. I hope Wie will, too.
Just the same, I worry about her. The system is generous to cute young prodigies. But if you don’t win, it can turn on you in a hurry. I’d hate to see her chewed up and spat out and have nothing to show for it but a string of things she tried to do but didn’t.
In her golf game, time is on her side. She’s incredibly talented and has come close to winning major women’s events. If she doesn’t get sidetracked, she should be a presence on that tour for years to come — if she wants to be. Even now, without ever having won a tournament, she’s ranked seventh in the world by the LPGA.
Her best chance is to be allowed to develop without the pressure. But that’s not going to happen. She — or her father — made her deal and now she’s got to live with it. She just wants to have fun. The system just wants her blood.
Sept. 4 | 1:30 a.m. ET
Here’s why the pre-season polls aren’t worth the ink it takes to print them in your newspaper: Tennessee 35, Cal 18.
That result is being called an upset in some quarters because the Vols came into the game ranked 23rd in the country, while Cal came in ranked ninth. But the rankings weren’t based on anything more than the opinions of people who, like you and I, had yet to see anybody play.
Tennessee’s ranking wasn’t based on its talent, but on the fact that the team finished 5-6 last year. Cal’s was based on the perception that it could challenge USC for supremacy in the Pac-10.
Cal may still be a power in the conference, but the point is that, while we may have an idea which teams will be competitive and which won’t be, no one can say anything about a season with any authority until three or four weeks into the season. Yes, Cal was the only Top 25 team to lose during the season’s first weekend. But the Bears were also the only team to play a ranked opponent; everybody else played teams that weren’t in their class.
Which brings us to Notre Dame, which eked out a 14-10 victory over offensively-challenged Georgia Tech. The polls say Notre Dame is one of the top two teams in the country. The first game says the Irish have a lot to prove.
Notre Dame doesn’t have a kicker — the Irish missed two field goals that should have been gimmes. It struggled offensively until Charlie Weis remembered he has a running game. And without a legitimate speed-burner deep threat, Brady Quinn is limited in what he can do in the passing game. Defensively, the Irish were okay, but they didn’t put a whole lot of pressure on Tech QB Reggie Ball. And it took three defenders to shut down Tech’s lone threat, receiver Calvin Johnson. It’s going to take more than that to live up to the pre-season billing.
Here’s another injustice in the college game: on Saturday, Texas is going to play Ohio State, and whichever team loses is going to be disqualified on the spot from playing for the mythical national championship.
This is ludicrous. If I were an athletic director, I’d never schedule games that could mean that much. It’s one thing to play other top teams within a conference — those games can’t be avoided. But to go out of your way to play an intersectional game against a team that you should play only in the BCS championship game is just dumb.
I know that schedules are made years in advance before anyone knows how good anyone is going to be. But you know which programs are more dangerous than others. And, while the Texas-Ohio State game is one of the highlights of the year and one you don’t want to miss, there’s simply too much at stake.
The fault isn’t in the people making the schedules, but in the BCS system, which refuses to hold a playoff.
It’s no consolation to the loser of Saturday’s premier match-up, but this is the situation Notre Dame frequently finds itself in. But the Irish are an independent program, and they’ve made the choice to travel the country, playing games in every region. They have to schedule top games. Ohio State and Texas have enough of those in conference. They don’t need to throw away their title hopes in the second week of the season.
Speaking English good
My fervent hope is that one day television networks will employ analysts who can speak English. Small grammatical errors are understandable; a broadcast lasts three hours, after all, and even Demosthenes would have stumbled once or twice over that period of time. But do we have to listen to people like Bob Davie, who early during the Notre Dame-Georgia Tech game said that the Irish offensive line had to “protect Brady Quinn with protection”?
Sept. 1 | 6:08 p.m. ET
I almost hate to say this, but Charles Barkley is making sense, which pretty much guarantees his ambition of becoming governor of Alabama is doomed to failure.
Usually, Barkley says things just to get a reaction, and the more outraged the audience, the more fun it is for him. But he’s apparently serious about running for office, and, in a recent television interview, he showed a streak of honesty and thoughtfulness rare in the political arena. The reason it’s rare is because it’s usually fatal.
I like it. Barkley has been talking about running for governor of his home state for just about forever. I don’t know how many people have taken him seriously and what his chances of winning would be. But if he’s actually going to do it, he has no choice but to run as himself. Career politicians spend lifetimes crafting an image and learning how to speak out of both sides of their mouths. Barkley, too, has spent a lifetime crafting an image, but it’s not one whose aim is to make everyone happen. Rather, it’s to annoy and amuse and say things everybody else is afraid to say. He’s gotten pretty good at it. There’s no sense changing now. Nobody would believe him.
For most of his adult life, Barkley has been a Republican. Somebody once asked him how an African-American could put himself with the party of the rich, and Sir Charles pointed out that, being rich himself, it only made sense to belong to the party most likely to look out for his pocketbook.
But he’s a Democrat now, because, he said, the Republicans “have lost their minds.” This isn’t the sort of thing to make voters happy in Alabama. Nor are his defense of gay marriage and his open questioning of religion.
“Religious people in general are so discriminatory against other people, and that really disturbs me,” he said in the interview. “My idea of religion is we all love and respect. We all sin, but we still have common decency and respect for other people. So right now I’m struggling with my idea of what religion is.”
It’s actually refreshing to hear someone say that. It takes confidence to admit you don’t know everything, and it takes courage to ask questions that some will tell you you’re not allowed to raise.
I don’t know what kind of governor Barkley would make, and I’d be leary of electing someone who has never managed anything other than time-out huddle. But I’d sure like to see Sir Charles give it a shot. He’s got to be better than Jesse Ventura.
Aug. 28 | 3:20 a.m. ET
I like Tim Dahlberg’s writing; like it a lot. A columnist for the Associated Press, his lively prose and clear thinking add a lot to these pages.
But I have to disagree with him on his latest addition to the continuing — and futile, not to mention senseless — effort to make believe that steroids never happened to baseball. His solution — and I strongly advise you read it yourself — is to wipe out the home-run totals of Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire and restore Roger Maris’ 61 as the major-league record.
I don’t doubt a lot of people would support that move. But if you really want a record that withstands all argument, you can’t use Maris’, either. How soon we forget that there were serious questions raised when he set it, because he did it in a 162-game season, while Babe Ruth hit his 60 in 154 games. At the time, common sense won out. The conditions of the game had changed since Ruth played, and it wasn’t fair to penalize Maris because they had. The record was for a season, not for 154 games. Maris broke it in a season, and if that season contained eight more games, it wasn’t his concern.
By the same token, McGwire and then Bonds set their records during seasons in which steroids were not prohibited. Maris took advantage of eight extra games allowed by the league. McGwire and Bonds took advantage of extra muscles allowed by the league. As Dahlberg points out, individual home run totals are down since the game started testing for drugs. But that doesn’t void what happened when the league allowed rampant steroid use.
Home-run totals have dropped in other eras. In 1961, 50 home runs didn’t seem an impossible number. In the 1930s and 1940s, when the ball was as lively as baseball could make it, home runs flew out of parks and RBI totals were off the charts. From 1930 through 1961, there were 11 50-home-run seasons in the major leagues. In the next 30 years, there were just three more — Willie Mays’ 52 in 1965, George Foster’s 52 in 1977, and Cecil Fielder’s 51 in 1990.
The fall-off wasn’t because players were weaker, but because the mound grew to 17 inches from the regulation 10 and the strike zone extended from armpit to knee. Adding to it were the rash of big multi-purpose stadiums built beginning in the early 1960s, most of them replacing stadiums that had at least one cozy home-run corner.
The home run began to return with retro parks, players who worked out year-round and lifted weights, smaller strike zones and a reappearance of a livelier ball. Steroids were just part of that equation. And while, as Dahlberg notes, individual totals are down, we still aren’t anywhere near the eras when even 40 dingers was the mark of a true Superman; in the American League, no one hit more than 39 from 1971-77, and three times during those eight seasons 32 long flies won the home-run title. You can see the yearly leaders here.
So, while 60 home runs is indeed a mighty total, it’s not as pure a record as it appears. Every record in every era is very dependent on the ball, the ballparks, the quality of pitching, the strike zone and conditioning. In a sport in which pitchers once cheated on every pitch and batters swung corked bats, it’s hard to pick out steroids and ban only the totals achieved with their help — especially when they weren’t prohibited by the game.
The best thing for the game and for fans to do is to stop obsessing over something that can’t be changed. The numbers are in the book. They can’t be changed. The commissioner could arbitrarily restore 61 as the standard, but that won’t alter the fact that Sosa, McGwire and Bonds have all hit more.
You can’t rewrite history, can’t retroactively toss numbers away. If you toss home runs, you have to toss victories by every pitcher who scuffed, cut or loaded up a baseball. You have to put asterisks by every home-run total hit in a bandbox park. And then you have to pretend 10 years of undeniable history every took place.
We’ve spent enough time agonizing about it. It’s time to deal with now and the future and get over the past.