Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Bonds and Bud

Two of the more annoying tics of the sabermetric community are a reflexive dislike for Commissioner Bud Selig and a reflexive defensiveness of Barry Bonds.

Yes, I know it's a bit of a conflict of interest to have a former owner or a member of an owner's family in the commissioner's chair. And I don't care for interleague play, either.

But it is impossible to deny that major league baseball has boomed under his stewardship, and some of his innovations, like the wild card, have been great successes.

As for Barry Bonds, he undeniably has Hall of Fame talent, but to believe that he has not used performance enhancing drugs requires suspension of disbelief that would challenge the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. As statheads could tell you, Barry Bonds's late-career power surge is unprecedented. His career precious to that had shown him as a rare, though not singular, talent.

In any case, both tics are in full display in this piece by Joe Sheehan (the entire article is behind their pay-wall, but you can get the flavor from the opening except).

In a manner that can only be described as “grudging,” Bud Selig did what he should have done three months ago, ending discussion of whether he would attend Barry Bonds’ pursuit of the all-time home run mark with a press release and a flight to San Francisco. As is his wont, Selig put his personal feelings ahead of the game’s best interest, choosing to issue a release that neither honored Bonds nor the moment, and put the controversy that surrounds Bonds—his alleged use of performance-enhancing substances—front and center.

Hmm, would it be better for Selig to bury his head and pretend there's not a problem? That worked really well back in 1998. And what is in the "game's best interest" about a commissioner being there in person when a record is broken anyway? The fixation on this issue, like it matters a damn of some businessman is there when sports' most hallowed record is broken, makes me think there's some preemptive defensiveness going on.

Think about your memories of other records being broken -- Call Ripken passing Lou Gehrig, Pete Rose passing Ty Cobb, Rickey Henderson passing Brock. Do any of those memories remotely involve the commissioner?

The truth is, Bonds's supporters know that there's a problem. Which is why they are so desperate for Selig's imprimatur.

I consider this to be a shame. While it’s an unpopular viewpoint, I stand by my argument that Barry Bonds has not failed a test for PEDs in the four years that MLB has had a program. His testimony before a grand jury—subsequently leaked illegally, and to his detriment—was that he did take substances that were identified later as steroids, but he was told at the time that they were not. His testimony has been interpreted as parsing by some, perjury by others, although statements before the same grand jury by others have been granted full faith and credit. That grand jury inspired two reporters to write a book about Bonds, sourced largely by the illegally-obtained testimony, as well as the accounts of people around Bonds, at least one of whom, ex-mistress Kimberly Bell, can comfortably be described as “scorned.”

The witnesses against Bonds would certainly have more credibility if they were model citizens. But guess what? This was a criminal conspiracy; therefore, the people who would have known about it and are therefore able to testify about it are.... criminals!

If a mob boss is brought down by an informer form his own organization, it doesn't make him any less a mob boss to point out his accuser's unsavory past.

Also, were the other statments that were granted "full faith and credit" as incredible as Bonds's? Sheehan writes "the same grand jury" as if that is the key factor in whether we should believe these statements or not.

Baseball now has a small underclass of players—real players, not anonymous minor leaguers or fringe guys—who have tested positive for performance-enhancing substances, been suspended for that use, and returned to play. In virtually every case, those players go about their business without anyone caring. They’re cheered at home for their good deeds, and ignored on the road. The Indians benefit from the bullpen work of Rafael Betancourt, by far their best reliever this season, and a big reason for their contending status. He’s not reviled in Detroit or Minnesota as a steroid user, not booed and forced to endure the taunts of “Cheater!” or worse. No one cares. The same can be said for Juan Rincon, who is essentially the Twins’ version of Betancourt.

Need more evidence that the game is more than willing to forgive and forget? Ryan Franklin tested positive in 2005, serving a 10-game suspension for his guilt. Last month, the Cardinals signed him to a two-year contract worth $5 million. Last winter, the Mets Guillermo Mota was suspended for the first 50 games of 2007 off a positive test; a month later, the Mets signed him to a two-year contract for, again, $5 million.

Hmmm -- none of these players is challenging any of baseball's most sacred records. Nobody is calling on the commissioner to fly out and give his stamp of approval to these players' accomplishments.

These players also fit the profile of having received actual sanctions for their abuse. They also do not have a mountain of accomplishments that are now suspect that we are being asked to honor.

And let's also not forget that Mark McGwire, hitter of 580 home runs, was passed over in his first bid for Hall of Fame induction. In modern times, it is unprecedented that someone with his accomplishments would be passed over. Sammy Sosa continues to climb the home run charts with hardly any attention.

Barry Bonds is probably the greatest baseball player of his generation, with or without the help. Bud Selig has his faults, but has been an able steward of baseball for the past dozen years.


In the last edition of the Baseball Abstract, Bill James laid out what seemed to me to be a somewhat convincing case for reasonable doubt over whether Pete Rose bet on baseball.

A year or so later, ESPN televised a "trial" of Pete Rose, with Alan Dershowitz as the prosecutor. The defense, led by the late Johnnue Cochran called James as a witness, and then Deshowitz carved him up in cross-examination.

I suspect that if Sheehan were subject to similar cross-examination of his defense of Bonds, the results would be similar.

UPDATE: For a look at Bonds without blinders, check out this interview with Jeff Pearlman, who wrote a book on Bonds.

On the "there's no evidence that Barry ever used" line, Pearlman says:

I read writers like Bill Rhoden and Dave Zirin--guys I respect--and I just don't understand what the hell they're doing. They maintain there's no proof that Bonds used, so how can we condemn him? If we used that mode of thinking in day-to-day life, there'd be no need for juries. You either catch a person in the act of committing a crime or he's innocent. Factually--and I mean, 100% factually--Bonds used, and the evidence is overwhelming. Game of Shadows, my book, his ties to Greg Anderson and Victor Conte, the expansion (impossible, unless he used HGH or suffers from Acromegaly) of his skull, a former teammlate like Jay Canizaro telling me how Anderson said he can design a steroid cocktail for him that would be just like Barry's, so on and so on. Every time someone writes that there's no "proof," he/she is gifting the designers of masking agents. If we reward and praise the cheaters in sports, what are we saying to the kids who follow the games? What are we saying about decency and integrity?

Celebreate Barry if you want to, but let's be clear about what you're celebrating.