A Pollster’s Take on Baseball: Say It Ain’t So, Jose

Posted March 18, 2005 at 2:59pm

When I was a boy, growing up in New York City in the 1960s, I was more than a baseball fan; I was a fanatic. I started every morning at the dining room table, poring over the latest stats in The New York Times sports section before my mother kicked me out the door to school — late as usual. [IMGCAP(1)]

In the afternoons I played baseball with friends in the local park and once in a while pulled a “Ferris Bueller,” playing hooky to see a Mets or Yankees game. After the Mets won the World Series in 1969, I raced from the nosebleed seats with thousands of other fans to dig up a chunk of the infield grass. That piece of turf, carefully wrapped in plastic, was one of my prized possessions for many years until my great-grandmother found it in my dresser drawer and, thinking it was marijuana, pitched it in a fit of hysteria.

I’ve often said that I probably would not have become a pollster were it not for baseball. The Times’ stats were usually a day behind in those days, but like most kids, I wanted to know right then and there whether the stats leaders had changed overnight.

Was Rod Carew still leading the league in hitting? Was Reggie Jackson on pace to beat Babe Ruth and Roger Maris? So, I began, at age 11, to keep track of the stats myself and learned to calculate the rankings ahead of the Times.

That fascination translated into an ability to see numbers in a way many don’t. It taught me math basics like percentages and ratios, but it wasn’t long before I was into baseball as theoretical math, doing modeling in my head to create my own statistics.

It was this process that taught me the beauty of the game; the importance of statistics to baseball. I learned that at its core, it is a game of context and comparison, a game of nuance grounded in the relationship of numbers — one to another over time.

Of course the game was exciting to watch, but I understood that every action in baseball took place with past achievements as historical context — whether it was Denny McLain winning his 30th game or Pete Rose failing valiantly to top Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Bob Gibson getting his 17th strikeout in a World Series game.

Baseball puts everything that happens on the field in historical perspective, letting each generation go to the ballpark and compare favorites. Arguing over the fielding of Craig Nettles versus Brooks Robinson. Roberto Clemente’s arm versus Dwight Evans’. Or Bob Feller’s fastball against Nolan Ryan’s.

When Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961, it was a big deal because it was in the context of Ruth’s record. So were Hank Aaron’s 755 career home runs which broke Ruth’s record that had stood 39 years.

It’s no different today. Major League Baseball’s own Web site has hundreds of pitching and hitting milestones sorted by the date they may be reached. Fans can get a statistical and historical continuum that compares what’s happening on the field today with what happened in the past on a range of rankings, records and players.

We can thank technology for making baseball statistics enormously accessible today. But the question that baseball must face is, do statistics really matter anymore? Do they matter when Jose Canseco tells us he did steroids and accuses Mark McGwire of doing the same? When Jason Giambi dances around the steroid question? When rumors fly about Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa? Do the numbers matter anymore and, if not, who’s to blame for what amounts to a corruption of baseball’s core values?

Here’s who: Owners, acting like Enron managers, who sacrificed the integrity of baseball’s “books,” its statistics, for the kind of record chasing that makes headlines, gets fans to the stands and pushes profits out of the park. Sportswriters who adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to avoid alienating their sources and keep the records stories rolling. The players’ union, which put the bankability of players ahead of their health and the game. The steroid-taking players who cared more about fame and big money than baseball and its fans — especially its youngest fans. And finally, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who failed the most important responsibility of his job: to protect the integrity of the game.

The outcry over steroid use both inside baseball and out has focused on a few big-name players and their records. In a Washington Post piece, former Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent argued that players who used steroids should “come clean and move on.” Sure, players who cheated ought to fess up. That would be a step in the right direction, although it’s as likely to happen as beating Hank Aaron’s home run record without chemical help.

What most of the critics and Vincent fail to understand is that the steroid scandal poses a far more serious dilemma to baseball than whether fans will get a public admission of guilt by a group of repentant players.

The crisis facing baseball is: What do we do about the stats? Baseball is a little like the universe. For every action, there is a reaction in both physics and in baseball. For every batter who makes an out, there’s a pitcher who gets credit for it.

The symmetrical nature of baseball means the steroid scandal has done more than compromise the integrity of a few players or even a few big records. It has destroyed the foundation on which baseball operates — its history and statistics. Sure, if the rumors are proven true, baseball can asterisk Giambi’s and Canseco’s MVP awards. Or Bonds’ home run record, whatever that turns out to be, or McGwire’s career statistics. But we don’t know how widespread the problem is.

Go to any baseball site or statistics book and look at just one player’s stats. There are hundreds of numbers, many compared to other players’ statistics who may or may not have used steroids. When and where do we start asterisking the stats, and where do we stop?

My response: “It’s too late.” The stats have been polluted, as has the culture of baseball. In the game of baseball, personalities and personal records matter. So do teams. But integrity matters most, and thanks to steroids and an industry willing to tolerate them, baseball can’t be put back together again.

Say it ain’t so, Jose.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.