THE BLOG

Don't Stalinize Baseball

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's common knowledge that, more than any other American institution, Major League Baseball is enamored with its own past. This is one of the reasons, of course, why America loves the sport so much. Obsessing over the game's historical statistics is perhaps the most mainstream of wonkish hobbies (in a way that poring over, say, tariff schedules or airline timetables is not), and baseball is unique in sports for inviting into fans a sense of melancholy and nostalgia when one of its records is broken.

After breaking Peyton Manning's NFL single-season record for touchdown passes in 2007, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady didn't run to the stands to hug the Manning family in a ceremonial passing of the torch (which actually wouldn't have been that far-fetched, as the Patriots were playing the New York Giants and Peyton's brother, Eli, that night) in the same way that Mark McGwire did with Roger Maris's family after he broke Maris's home run record in 1998. Maris's own claim on the record, which he took from Babe Ruth in 1961, had its own well-documented rocky road to acceptance, and some purists still can't forgive Maris for playing a 162-game season to the Babe's 154.

It is astonishing, then, that in the twenty-four hours since McGwire's admission to using performance-enhancing drugs during that 1998 season, tradition-soaked baseball has been stewing and roiling in a remarkably warped historiography. Sports analysts and baseball fans alike are tripping over themselves to determine exactly how McGwire -- and his since-broken record -- will be remembered, an oxymoronic exercise. Baseball is in a frenzy to manufacture the way in which the present will be remembered in the future. That is, MLB is in a strange struggle for the hearts and minds of America's future baseball wonks, a sort of preemptive revisionist history that assumes that future fans will cherish the sport incorrectly and must therefore have things served to them in a way that is more in line with the way we see things in the present. These kids today, it seems, can't be trusted to judge for themselves the legitimacy of McGwire's numbers or for that matter, those of anyone else who played between 1985 and 2005.

While today's debates and discussions about the "Steroid Era" are fun and, of course, essential to the American love of baseball, they're also ridiculous and, if taken to their logical extreme, rather menacing. McGwire and his '98 season will be remembered, no doubt, but the extent to which that memory is currently being engineered is troubling. We are unwilling to allow future generations to remember things naturally, so we engage in the classic Orwellian practice of changing the past so that in the future, it will better serve the needs of the present; we are slicing pages out of the record books with a razor blade and carefully replacing them with data that we see as more appropriate and more suited to our contemporary vision. Outrage over drug use in baseball could slacken in the future, and in our shortsighted and chauvinistic fixation on our own contemporary values, we refuse to let this natural progression take place. We change 70 into 70* and, in the process, transform an objective piece of data into a subjective interpretation.

History is a natural thing. he "winners" may write it, sometimes with considerable bias, but we've always allowed -- begged for -- baseball to be represented by statistics and shorthand. The sport's mythology claims there's a "purity" in those numbers, and, to wit, in no other game is there is an equivalent to the exactitude with which "6-4-3" describes a complex and balletic baseball play. Bill James's statistics-based Sabermetrics is the most revolutionary advance in sports record-keeping since the scorecard, and other sports wonks are working hard to develop ways to adapt the system to other competitions and contexts, most spectacularly by Nate Silver and his political prediction website, FiveThirtyEight.com. This week's debates, though, are about altering already-produced statistics, the fundamental building blocks of sports memory. Despite McGwire's 70 home runs in 1998 and Barry Bonds's 73 in 2001, Rich Maris, Roger Maris's son, said yesterday that, "Obviously, I think my dad still holds the record." Alarmingly, many fans share Rich Maris's sentiment, a well-intended if somewhat ludicrous redefinition of the word "most."

Performance-enhancing drugs are incredibly dangerous substances, and it's obviously the right thing to want to dissuade future generations of baseball players from taking them. It is our obligation as a society, though, to educate kids about the consequences of PED use, not to re-educate them by altering the consequences of those who already did.