Sunday, December 29, 2013

On Baseball Gods and Metaphors

The biggest fallacy of the Hall of Fame vote is trying to apply one argument to all players, which is what the steroids question has become. Doing this ignores how baseball has intertwined with US history when the moment is right, a tradition that should continue - and it would continue if the current class of journalists could just connect the dots.

The "blanket argument" is the steroids debate: should a player who used/is suspected of using steroids be allowed into Cooperstown? What isn't taken into account with this argument is the motives of the individual players, though - and motive makes a difference. Let's say, just for sake of the argument, that Jeff Bagwell took steroids for a couple of seasons. Whether Bagwell used can never be proven (and I don't believe he did), but some baseball writers believe he cheated during his career year. Fine. The next question to be asked should be "What was his motivation for cheating?" Only when you ask this question can players be judged on an individual basis.

If Bagwell cheated, he may have wanted to boost his numbers for a couple of seasons. Maybe he wanted a larger contract. This motive is common, and universally shared by all baseball players. Bagwell didn't want to become a baseball deity.

Let's pose the same question of motive to Barry Bonds... And now we see how two supposed cheaters look completely different. Barry Bonds had a God complex, something he wasn't shy about expressing. Bonds put Babe Ruth is his sight lines and set out to destroy his legacy. Bonds doesn't want you to talk about Babe Ruth without expressing first reverence to Bonds' career. That was Barry Bonds' motivation to cheat.

Whether a Hall of Fame voter sees a moral difference in the motivation of players like Bonds and Bagwell is up to them, but players should be judged upon their individual motivation and not a blanket judgement.

If I were a Hall of Fame voter, I'd bring US history into the equation when judging the motivation of a player to cheat. This is where Barry Bonds wanting to become a baseball deity should be seen as highly insulting, and his behavior should be used against him when considering his case for Cooperstown.

Anyone can tell you that Bonds deserves to be in Cooperstown because he was good enough before he cheated. When Bonds was young, he hit for average and power; and he had speed. He was a run producing machine, and if he just aged without wanted to become the great home run hitter ever, he would be remembered as a player with a really good eye at the plate and stats worthy enough to get him into Cooperstown. Bonds wouldn't have been Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle, but he would have a place below them.

This wasn't good enough for Barry Bonds. He wanted to be the greatest player ever. Period, end of story. And he wanted to be the greatest during an unfortunate chapter of American history.

When Babe Ruth became the greatest player in baseball history, America was riding a wave of prosperity. We came out on the winning side of the largest war in history, we weren't mired in trying to keep a crumbling empire together (see Britain, France); and we weren't castigated with punishments meant to cripple a nation (see Germany and the former Ottoman Empire). The stock market was up, Americans were earning higher incomes, our country's place in the world was rising, and Babe Ruth helped to symbolize all of this with his larger than life style of playing baseball. The feats of the United States and Babe Ruth went hand in hand, and Ruth became a metaphor for the Roaring 1920's.

Barry Bonds, on the other hand, tried to become a baseball deity by cheating during a time when banks were cheating the economy. Banks were signing up new homeowners despite knowing that these people didn't have enough income to pay the bills on these new mortgages, then packing these crappy mortgages into securities, giving them an AAA bond rating, and selling these securities to investors. It was false prosperity. And, like a steroid abusing baseball player who suffers from injuries later in his career because his muscles grew to a point where his body could no long support them, the mortgage backed securities collapsed - they almost bought the whole economy down with them.

It is merely a coincidence that Bonds cheated during this particular time in US history, so does he deserve to be punished for it? Yes, absolutely, 100% yes yes yes. Bonds tried to become Babe Ruth, so he asked to be compared to Babe Ruth. What Bonds doesn't understand, though, is that Babe Ruth is more than a baseball player - he's a historical metaphor. Thinking about "Babe Ruth" brings us back to America's glory years. And thinking about Barry Bonds brings us back to, well... It was only a few years ago, I think you remember.

Barry's surname is "Bonds," and those mortgage backed securities were, essentially, bonds. I mean, the metaphors should write themselves here.

Should a player who can become a metaphor for everything wrong with America be enshrined in the Hall of Fame? No, because that player is definitely no Babe Ruth.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Ellsbury Paradox

Jacoby Ellsbury has gotten himself into a fucked up situation by going to the Yankees. By going for the big money, Ellsbury (who will now, and forever, be known as "Ell$") has placed himself in a position where there's a good chance he'll tarnish his entire career. Here are four reasons why:

1) When the Yankees give you a big contract, they expect results - not just individual results, but world championships. But the Yankees are a total shitshow right now. Mariano is gone, Pettitte is gone, Jeter will be gone soon, nobody knows what's happening to A-Roid, there's a huge hole at second base if they can't pony up $200+ million for Cano; Sabathia and Teixeria look like they're declining, and the rest of the team sucks. By signing Ell$ and McCann, the Yankees sacrificed their first two picks in the 2014 draft - so getting prospects to come to the rescue will be a challenge. And if the Yankees have $100+ - $200+ million commitments to Ells$, A-Roid and Cano, then spending money to build right now will also be difficult. 

In short: the Yankees are in quite a bind, and they have to feed a relentless fanbase. Blaming Ell$ for the Yankees' future failures is unfair, but NYC isn't known for being "fair." Ell$ willingly placed himself in this situation, so he'll have to reap it. 

2) Ell$'s game primarily consists of being a speedster on the basepaths. Right now, he's the best leadoff hitter in baseball - but he's 30. Speed declines with age, so even if he has injury free seasons from now until the end of his contract (assuming the Yankees exercise their 8th year option on him), he'll be 39 with his speed declining each year. Elite sluggers like David Ortiz are able to weather the effects of age and still play at a high level, but speedsters cannot do this. So Ell$ is already setup to fail. 

3) And Ell$ has an injury history. Avoiding injuries as he ages is something even the best of players have trouble doing. The first time Ell$ hits the disabled list, he is going to feel the hatred of the rabid Yankees fan base. 

4) By going for the money, Ell$ burned all of his good will in Boston. 

Considering the situation Ell$ has placed himself in - possibly audacious bad press, hated by fans, little possibility of earning another World Series ring - how will this look on Ell$'s resume for Cooperstown? 

That resume would have looked a lot better if Ell$ took a hometown discount to continue playing for the Red Sox. Ortiz took a hometown discount, made it to another World Series, and he not only earned another ring but he placed himself in the "Best Postseason Hitter Ever" argument. Pedroia took the hometown discount and got himself a second ring. Both players have earned the love of the Boston fan base, have (or, almost in Ortiz's case, has had) secure careers, and all of this will look favorably upon them five years after each of them retire and find themselves on the ballot for Cooperstown.

Ell$ went for the money, but I doubt he comprehends the magnitude of his decision. Two decades from now, if he's a middling HOF candidate with little chance of being enshrined, I hope Ell$ is still enjoying all $153 million the Yankees paid to buy off his potential immortality.