King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Baseball's big cheater confesses! Plus: Barry Bonds.


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Salon Staff
May 30, 2007 8:00PM (UTC)

Cornered by a hounding media, the man who cheated baseball has finally come clean.

All the speculation, it turns out, has been accurate. The denials have finally stopped. The cheater, at long last, has admitted his dirty deed.

Cincinnati Reds outfielder Norris Hopper said Tuesday that he snuck the ball into Ryan Freel's glove Monday as Freel lay unconscious on the warning track following their collision chasing a Humberto Cota line drive.

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Who did you think I was talking about?

Cota, his fellow Pittsburgh Pirates and scattered typists had speculated that Freel hadn't caught the ball, and that Hopper had slipped it into Freel's glove as he knelt to check on his fallen mate.

Umpire Adam Dowdy -- in his first big-league game -- had raced out from second base, seen the ball in Freel's glove and called Cota out. Cota, a catcher, bemoaned his once-in-a-lifetime chance at an inside-the-park home run after the Reds, leading 1-0 in the third inning at the time of the catch, went on to a 4-0 win. Freel landed on the 15-day disabled list with minor head and neck injuries.

Hopper denied the charges for a day, but Hal McCoy reports in Wednesday's Dayton Daily News that he copped to his cheat Tuesday.

The incident happened in a game between the Reds and Pirates, so it hardly became an international incident. Same collision happens in a Yankees-Red Sox game and we'd still be in for two more days of round-the-clock coverage on CNN, never mind ESPN.

But I'm sure an angry media will sweep into action now that a clear case of cheating has been exposed. The very integrity of the game is at stake, after all, and we keep hearing how the integrity of the game is paramount.

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At least sometimes it is.

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Legitimacy, context and Barry Bonds, continued [PERMALINK]

Hey, speaking of Barry Bonds -- What? Who was? -- several readers wrote in to call me on a point I made week before last about Babe Ruth getting to hit in a home park, Yankee Stadium, whose dimensions were created to facilitate his home runs.

They were right, and I owe you an apology.

I was making the point that while commissioner Bud Selig and the rest of us needn't shower the churlish admitted steroid user Bonds with hosannas for approaching and possibly breaking Hank Aaron's career home run record, we shouldn't totally discount the achievement either.

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"Every record comes with mitigating circumstances, a context that could call its legitimacy into question," I wrote. Bonds' admitted -- though he ludicrously claims he didn't realize what he was taking -- steroid use starting in 1999 and lasting who knows how long is his.

"For all the Jackie Robinson Days and Negro League Throwback Uniform Days baseball plays host to," my argument continued, "it's very rare for anyone around the game to say, 'Sure, Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs, but he never had to face Satchel Paige or Bullet Joe Rogan or Nip Winters, he never had Oscar Charleston race into the gap and turn even one of his 506 doubles into an out.' And don't forget how the New York Yankees built a ballpark specifically designed for Ruth to hit home runs in."

The objections were to that last part. As many pointed out, Yankee Stadium may have been nicknamed "The House That Ruth Built," but it didn't help him hit home runs.

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In a 2004 piece in Baseball Prospectus, Jay Jaffe reviewed the home and road home run totals for the game's all-time top sluggers, pointing out that Ruth hit 259 home runs at Yankee Stadium in the 12 years it was his home park and 252 on the road. A negligible advantage.

By comparison, Aaron hit 192 homers at home and only 145 on the road in the nine years he played in Atlanta, though that skewed total was in turn mitigated by his years in Milwaukee. For his career, Aaron's home-road home run split was 385-370. Ruth's was 347-367, thanks mostly to his early years playing at Fenway Park, a tough place for lefties to hit homers.

I'm sorry I didn't check my facts, which resulted in the error of saying Ruth's home park was a mitigating factor in his home run total.

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But --

Oh, boy, the wife hates it when the next thing I say after "sorry" is "but," so I'll assure you I really am sorry.

But: I find it interesting that none of the letter writers who called me on that point said a word about the Negro Leagues.

Just about all of the letters pointed out my error in the service of arguing against the idea that Bonds' achievement should be considered one with mitigating circumstances just like any other baseball achievement. But why did everybody ignore that other, huge mitigating circumstance?

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The fact remains that Ruth never had to face black pitchers or fielders, including dark-skinned -- and all but a few of the lightest-skinned -- Latins. He also didn't have to hit at night, travel across more than one time-zone boundary in a season or bat against fresh, heat-throwing relief specialists late in games.

Does all this diminish the achievements of the Bambino? Not really. It leads to interesting conversations about what Ruth's "true" home run total might have been if he'd had to face all of the best pitchers rather than just the white ones, but all of the other records from the first half of the 20th century would have been similarly affected.

Ruth still would have been Babe Ruth. Maybe he only would have hit 614 home runs instead of 714. Maybe only 314. He still would have been the all-time leader when he retired, still would have stood out. Maybe not as much, and maybe he would have had company at the top, namely Josh Gibson. But he'd still have been the Bambino.

That argument seems to go over fine, but it doesn't seem to translate to Bonds. By refusing to acknowledge Bonds' record by attending the game at which he sets it, Selig, who has yet to announce what he'll do, would be saying it's not legitimate. He would effectively say that Bonds' "true" home run total is zero, which is nonsense.

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Maybe without steroids Bonds' "true" home run total would have been 690 now. Maybe 590 or 450. Maybe it would have been 746, exactly what it is today. Nobody knows. That's why someone invented barstools -- to argue about this stuff.

But to huff about the purity and integrity of the game -- which totally ignores the long, colorful history of the game -- and simply ignore Bonds' record because you don't like him or because he cheated by taking drugs is childish. And my saying so doesn't make Bonds "my boy," nor does it make me an apologist for him or for steroid users. It doesn't make him any less of a jackass.

The facts are that we don't know how many major leaguers were -- or still are -- using performance-enhancing drugs or what effect they had on competition. An awful lot of those who have tested positive since testing began have been pitchers. Each new steroid revelation over the last few years has expanded our idea of the scope of illegal drug use in baseball and other sports.

That doesn't excuse Bonds or anyone else for making the choice to break the rules and the law by taking drugs. But it does make it untenable to argue simply that Bonds is a rogue whose on-field achievements were bogus. They weren't. They were performed in an era of drug use. That's their context, just as Ruth's achievements were performed in the context of an era of segregation.

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Nobody pretends Ruth's records didn't happen just because of their context, and that doesn't mean we all approve of baseball's segregated era. Acknowledging that Bonds' records really are happening doesn't mean we approve of drug use in baseball or of Bonds himself. It just means we're not living in a dream world, where baseball is all about purity and integrity, and Barry Bonds is the one true evil.

Previous column: Van Gundy for NBA commissioner!

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