Friday, October 12, 2001

Junk Bonds: Bob Costas and the Cult of Baseball in Black and White

On a hot summer day in August 1995, the surviving greats of New York Yankee fame filed into Lovers Lane United Methodist Church, Dallas, Texas. They had come to pay their final respects to the greatest baseball hero of all time: Mickey Mantle. Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Reggie Jackson were there; so were Bobby Murcer Moose Skowron, Hank Bauer, and Johnny Blanchard. George W. Bush, then Governor of Texas, attended along with baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and hundreds of Mantle’s lifelong friends. But when the time came to deliver the eulogy, the task fell to someone else -- someone whose palpable love of the game and devotion to its lore had made him baseball's unofficial spokesman: Bob Costas.

Costas said he was there, "to represent the millions of baseball-loving kids who grew up in the 50s and 60s and for whom Mickey Mantle was baseball.". For Costas and his friends, Mantle was, "our symbol of baseball at a time when the game meant something to us that perhaps it no longer does". Almost every boy built a shrine to Mantle, and as Costas put it,"before that shrine, a candle always burns."

It certainly does. With every passing year, Costas’s attachment to the baseball of days past seems to grow stronger. In his own words, Costas's feeling for Mantle is, "an emotional attachment so strong and lasting that it defied logic".

Of course, nostalgia is one of the main pleasures of baseball. It is impossible to imagine the Roaring 20's without thinking of Babe Ruth: the mighty swing, the flashbulbs, the cheering crowd, Ruth's distinctive gait as he trotted around the bases. And whether it's Doris Kearns Goodwin’s remembrances of the Brooklyn Dodgers of her youth or Billy Crystal’s and Ken Burns’s celluloid love letters to the golden age of baseball, it seems that every sportswriter, broadcaster and pundit in the country pays at least token obeisance to the glory that was Mantle and the grandeur that was Ruth.

But nostalgia shouldn't keep us from appreciating the present day, and unfortunately, with Costas it is starting to. His passion for what might be called "black and white baseball" has begun to border on crankery.

Give the man his due. For years Costas has provided one of the most energetic, knowledgeable voices in American sports journalism. Since his first job doing play-by-play for the St. Louis Spirits (of the American Basketball Association -- the same ABA that introduced America to the slam dunk, the three point shot, red, white, and blue basketballs, and the ten-inch afro), Costas has moved effortlessly from basketball to football to the Olympics to his own late-night talk show. He has excelled in every setting, providing fresh, vigorous commentary that never fell back on the hackneyed clich├ęs peddled by so many of his peers.

But when it comes to baseball -- the sport closest to his heart -- Costas has become increasingly prone to old-manishness. You can see it most clearly in Costas's latest book, Fair Ball: A Fan’s Case For Baseball, which sets out a coherent and reasonable plan for fixing baseball’s economic woes. But eventually the book veers into hell-in-a-handbasket rhetoric. Costas is particularly incensed by what he regards as the, "gimmickry and purposeless changes" (i.e. divisional realignment and the wild card) following the 1993 season, which to his mind marks, "the precise moment when the owners panicked and began tearing their game - check that - our game - apart."

Costas's unleashes his latest broadside against the modern game in an MSNBC column where he laments how quickly Mark McGwire's single-season home run record fell to Barry Bonds. For Costas, Bonds's accomplishment represents nothing less than the decline of pro baseball, which in his opinion has, "been ripped from its historical moorings". The increasing irrelevance of baseball's once-hallowed benchmarks (the home run record chief among them) demonstrate that the game's, "whole frame of historical reference has been distorted, if not destroyed." Consequently, Bonds’s achievement -- indeed, all current players' achievements -- simply can't be compared with those of previous eras.

In a sense, Costas is perfectly right. These days, 30 home runs or 100 RBI don't raise eyebrows or make the news. A list of players who posted such numbers over the past six or seven years would includes names only a baseball fanatic would recognize (Jeff King, anyone?). But even if home runs are cheaper than they used to be, that doesn't mean that Bonds, Sosa et. al. inhabit some Brave New World of cyber-ball, essentially different from the one Mantle or Ruth lived in.

Personally, I don't think the historical chain has been broken. Certain statistics may be less meaningful than they once were, but statistics are just a shorthand we use to measure greatness. They're imperfect. If the home run record isn't what it used to be, if it doesn't tell us what it used to tell us, let's find new stats that do justice to the players of today and the players of yesteryear.

You can understand why the single-season home run record holds a special place in Bob Costas's heart. This was the great prize, the legacy of the Babe, that Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris -- Costas's boyhood heroes -- raced to claim in 1961. But a player’s home run total has never been the best measure of offensive performance. Costas laments the tarnishing of "slugging’s Holy Grail" -- the magic 60 single-season home runs -- but he doesn’t consider whether the Grail should have been holy in the first place.

I say Costas is worshipping false idols. Like the tail fins on a 1959 Caddy, the home run record is interesting, but not really that useful. Baseball is awash in statistics, but very few of them, in and of themselves, tell us how much a specific player contributed to his team’s overarching goal: scoring runs and winning games. Many statistics, like RBI, depend on the performance of a player's teammates. Others are too obscure to tell us anything meaningful: say, a player’s success versus left handed pitchers in night games at home (yes, people do keep track of this sort of thing). Still others, including Costas’s cherished home run total, tell us something useful, but only give a two-dimensional picture of a player’s overall performance. After all, home runs are certainly the quickest and easiest way to score runs; but they don’t tell us how many times a player hit a bases-loaded double. They don’t tell us how often a player took a walk that prolonged an inning, allowing his team more at-bats and the opportunity to score more runs.

Ideally, we'd have a statistic that took into account the whole offensive package. Luckily, organizations like the Society for American Baseball Research (the "Sabermetricians") have concocted several complex metrics to serve this exact need. But they've only come up with one that's relatively easy to use and, more importantly for our purposes, easy to calculate for players of any era. This statistic is "On-Base Percentage Plus Slugging Percentage", or, as it is commonly known, "OPS."

As the name suggests, OPS is simply the sum of two well-established, though oft-neglected statistics: on-base percentage and slugging. It's an excellent shorthand measure of a player's most important offensive skills: getting on base and hitting for power. In terms of benchmarks, the game's top batters will have OPS levels over .900, and the worst batters will have levels under .600. Because OPS incorporates home runs, singles, doubles, triples, and walks, it is fast gaining favor among baseball writers and analysts.

Here are the top 10 single season leaders for OPS:

PLAYER

OPS

YEAR

1. Babe Ruth

1.3791

1920

2. Barry Bonds

1.3785

2001

3. Babe Ruth

1.3586

1921

4. Babe Ruth

1.3089

1923

5. Ted Williams

1.2860

1941

6. Babe Ruth

1.2582

1927

7. Ted Williams

1.2566

1957

8. Babe Ruth

1.2530

1926

9. Babe Ruth

1.2517

1924

10. Rogers Hornsby

1.2449

1925

Despite the different rules and styles of play from era to era, the cream really does rise to the top. Also, you'll note that only one player from today’s game – Barry Bonds – has cracked the top ten. You have to go down the list to number 13 to find the next best OPS from a recent year (Mark McGwire’s legendary 1998 season). Other recent performances trickle in at 17, 18 , and 26, but don't even begin to dominate the list. By using OPS, we give Bonds his due, without knocking stars like Babe Ruth and Ted Williams out of the sky (Mantle’s best season comes in at an excellent 1.1766). Costas keeps his heroes, we keep ours. Everyone's happy.

Still, since OPS incorporates home runs, and since we live in the age of home runs, you might ask whether the "distorted context" of today's game gave Bonds an unfair boost into the Top 10. The answer is no. We can correct for the effects of exceptionally strong hitting or pitching by comparing a player's numbers in a given season to the league average. That way we can separate the true stars from players who just posted fat numbers in eras of inflated offense. Below are the same top ten OPS seasons; only this time, we show OPS relative to the league average:

PLAYER

OPS

YEAR

LEAGUE OPS

RATIO

1. Babe Ruth

1.3791

1920

.734

1.879

2. Barry Bonds

1.3785

2001

.752

1.833

3. Babe Ruth

1.3586

1921

.765

1.776

4. Babe Ruth

1.3089

1923

.739

1.771

5. Ted Williams

1.2860

1941

.730

1.762

6. Babe Ruth

1.2582

1927

.751

1.675

7. Ted Williams

1.2566

1957

.708

1.775

8. Babe Ruth

1.2530

1926

.743

1.686

9. Babe Ruth

1.2517

1924

.755

1.658

10. Rogers Hornsby

1.2449

1925

.762

1.634

Notice that the supposedly "distorted" 2001 season had less overall offense than the elysian summers of 1921, 1924, and 1925. Notice also that the statistics for 2001 look almost identical to those for 1927, the year Ruth became the first player to reach the "Holy Grail" of 60 home runs. In fact, 2001 isn’t all that far out of line with the ultimate sepia-toned season of all time, 1941. Even if home runs are easier to come by these days than they were back when Ted Williams and Babe Ruth ruled the roost, Bonds’s OPS relative to the rest of the league remains the second best season of all time.

But to set Bonds's season right up next to Ruth's best? Well, even Costas readily admits that Bond is "one of the greatest players of all time", and "would have been among the best in any era". Certainly nobody would dispute that in 2001, Bonds had one of the game's greatest seasons. OPS just shows us how great it was.

Bonds's achievement looks all the more amazing when you consider how the overall quality of play has improved over the years. Smaller ballparks, improved weight training, and thin-handled bats may have helped Bonds hit more home runs, but Ruth and Williams played in an era when the pool of pitching talent was considerably smaller than it is today. Say what you will about hitting; pitching has never been better. Now take into account Bonds’s superior speed, defensive skill, and sheer durability, and it starts to become thinkable that the Barry Bonds who played in 2001 was not just one of the greatest players ever, but equal to anyone who ever played the game.

There's more at stake here than a harmless disagreement between generations. For better or worse, Costas has become the unofficial keeper of the game, and his approval or disapproval will have a real and lasting effect on the legacy today's players leave behind. Thankfully, only one record in the history of American sport has ever officially been given a "distinctive mark", as then-commissioner Ford Frick called the notation next to Roger Maris’s 1961 record. We step onto a slippery slope when we start saying that some records are valid and others are not, so let's just not do it, ok? Baseball’s disservice to Roger Maris in 1961 is a disgrace we should do our best to avoid.

This, I think, is where love of the game ought to lead us. Of course, I'm biased; I'm convinced that these days we're seeing the best baseball that's ever been played. And unlike Costas, I believe it can be proven with reference to the numbers. Even if they aren’t the numbers on the Mantle's old trading cards, they're numbers that honor his achievement, and perpetuate the memory of his greatness.

Originally published in Bull Magazine and reproduced with permission.