Is Baseball in the Asterisk Era?

March 15, 2004
March 15, 2004

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March 15, 2004

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Is Baseball in the Asterisk Era?

New questions about steroids have cast doubt on the legitimacy of the game's power-hitting records

The three greatest home run hitters have remained the same, in
varying order, for 35 years: Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie
Mays. That holy trinity of sluggers, however, will be no more
once Barry Bonds belts his third homer of 2004.

This is an article from the March 15, 2004 issue Original Layout

When Bonds hits number 661 to pass Mays, his godfather, the historic event will
engender as much debate as celebration. Bonds will reach the
milestone with his personal trainer, Greg Anderson, under
indictment for the illegal distribution of steroids and human
growth hormone (HGH). The San Francisco Chronicle reported last
week that federal agents discovered that Bonds was among the
athletes who received those substances from Anderson. Bonds
denies using steroids, and his lawyer, Michael Rains, told the
Chronicle, "We continue to adamantly deny that Barry was
provided, furnished, or supplied with any of those substances at
any time by Greg Anderson."

The past decade has been the greatest extended run of slugging
the game has witnessed. At the same time it has been the first
decade of documented steroid use in baseball. Indeed, Bonds will
pass Mays in the first season in which players will be tested for
steroids with risk of penalty, a program triggered by anonymous,
penalty-free testing last year that revealed enough steroid users
to fill approximately three teams. The temptation to connect
those dots fuels the growing debate.

Sports columnist Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Tribune, for
instance, wrote, "Many of us don't believe in the things we've
seen baseball players do over the past 10 years. We know that
kind of strength doesn't occur that quickly, that dramatically."
He suggested baseball might put "a big, fat asterisk over the
whole era. That asterisk would say: Records are in question
because of widespread use of anabolic steroids." (To be sure,
according to several players and coaches, steroids also have
benefited pitchers in muscle recovery and pitch velocity as well
as moderate and lesser hitters in increased bat speed.)

In the 70 seasons from 1928 through '97, Roger Maris was the only
man to hit 60 or more home runs. His record of 61 homers in
1961--one more than Ruth hit in 1927--stood for 37 years, though
for 30 years it carried a mythical asterisk. (Commissioner Ford
Frick designated Maris as the record holder for a 162-game
season, preserving Ruth's record for a 154-game schedule. In 1991
commissioner Fay Vincent declared Maris the sole recordholder.)
From 1998 through 2001, the 60-homer mark was eclipsed six times,
by Mark McGwire (twice), Sammy Sosa (three times) and Bonds

McGwire hit a record 70 home runs in 1998, a year in which he, as
well as other ballplayers, took androstenedione, an
over-the-counter supplement with metabolic properties that have
been described as similar to a steroid's. Andro is not a
federally controlled substance and is not banned in baseball.
Bonds topped McGwire's mark in 2001 with 73 home runs. Two
notable sluggers, former league Most Valuable Players Ken
Caminiti and Jose Canseco, have admitted using steroids. Each
made the admission in 2002 after his playing career had ended.

Commissioner Bud Selig has declined to say whether he would
consider attaching an asterisk to any records belonging to
admitted or proven steroid users. When asked
last Saturday by SI if he could foresee any scenario that would
move him to designate an official asterisk, including evidence
that may be introduced as part of the federal case in San
Francisco against Anderson and three others, Selig replied,
"That's a hypothetical I'll just have to deal with later."

In addition to home runs and performance-enhancing drugs, there
are many other dots to connect in this era of unprecedented
offense. The decade also has witnessed an unprecedented boom in
the building of ballparks, many with reduced foul territory,
closer outfield fences and improved lighting--each a condition
that improves hitting. There's also better manufacturing of
equipment (making for harder baseballs and bats), a tighter
strike zone, four expansion teams and continued advances in
nutrition and training.

The postmodern hitting era unofficially began in 1993, the year
baseball expanded to Colorado and Florida. The rate of home runs
per game jumped 24%, from 1.44 to 1.78. Homers and muscles have
kept growing since then. Last year, though some pundits tied the
absence of a 50-home-run hitter to the steroid testing, the rate
of homers rose again, from 2.09 per game in 2002 to 2.14. Per
game in 2003, home runs flew out 49% more often than they did as
recently as 1992 and 146% more often than in 1933.

The 50-home-run plateau is becoming as archaic as the four-minute
mile. It has been reached as many times (18) since 1993 as it was
in the 122 years of major league history before then. In fact,
four players who are unlikely to be Hall of Famers (Brady
Anderson, Albert Belle, Luis Gonzalez and Greg Vaughn) have hit
50 since '93; only three players who hit 50 before '93 seem
likely to fall short of Cooperstown (Maris, Cecil Fielder and
George Foster).

Further, among the 10 players who account for the 20 greatest
single-season slugging percentages, as many have played since
1993 as before. Thirteen of the top 20 career slugging leaders
have been active since 1993 (though many will likely go into a
decline later in their careers that would lower their
percentages). Mays, for instance, who was 11th in career slugging
when he retired in 1973, has been pushed to 25th, below such
active players as Larry Walker and Brian Giles.

Now Bonds, the preeminent slugger and symbol of this generation,
is on the cusp of booting Mays from the top three on the home run
list, where Mays has been since passing Ted Williams and Jimmie
Foxx into second place behind Ruth in 1966. (Aaron later
leapfrogged Mays and Ruth.) As Bonds stepped to the plate in his
first exhibition at bat last week, at the Chicago Cubs' spring
training home in Mesa, Ariz., the crowd's reaction to him might
well have been a referendum on these boom times in baseball. Many
of the fans cheered. More of them booed. One man held a sign that
said, everybody knows that steroids produce numbers.

When asked after the game if he noticed the mixed reception,
Bonds replied, "I don't hear people that often. Not really."