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JANUARY 8, 2008

No validity in comparing athletes over the decades

One of the things that irks me is the comparison made between athletes from other generations with athletes with this generation. Specifically, the thing that irks me is that the comparison between athletes of yesteryear (I hate that word) and the athletes of today. What’ s really bothering me are some comments I read in a book concerning professional baseball and steroids (Juicing the Game).

Joe Morgan (a Hall of Fame second baseman and broadcaster) was quoted as making comments to the effect that although he is aware that there are gifted hitters in the game, but are there so many more than there were in his generation?

My answer is yes, and it is not simply a matter of steroids. Let’s face it, the long ball puts butts in seats, and baseball’s owners recognize that. Ballparks are being built to be more homerun friendly, and it’s already a well-known fact that the ball itself has been reengineered to have more distance when it’s hit with a bat. And let’s not forget the fact that with all of the expansion teams, pitching talent would seem to be watered down (depending on who you ask).

The center field wall at the Polo Grounds (where my Yankees played before the new stadium was built) was 505 feet away from home plate. In some parks around the league, a homerun only needs to be hit just over half as far to go yard.

So I definitely admit all of those facts. And I definitely think that guys like DiMaggio, Mays, Mantle, and Maris would be able to play with the best we have right now…but I also believe vice-versa. And to suspect that many or today’s stars would only be where they are because of steroids is just silly. The reason we are seeing records broken consistently has less to do with steroids than with other factors.

Consider the fact that athletes (YES, professional baseball players) often had jobs in the off season several decades ago…they were selling cars or working construction. Now, athletes work in the off season to become better athletes, not selling Chevys. This means they show up to spring training able to hit the ball like Babe Ruth, and not looking like him.

To think that someone like Derek Jeter (a player who has never been linked to steroids, in any way) couldn’t have earned a spot on DiMaggio’s Yankees is just foolish.

So we have several factors, which have contributed to the homerun numbers we’re seeing today, not the least of which are more hitter-friendly parks, a better ball design, and in SOME cases, yes, steroids.

But I’d also like to put forward a couple of other ideas too.

The first is that there was certainly a mental barrier behind Roger Maris’ 61 homeruns ever being broken. IN the past, whenever people had challenged the record, circumstances (player strikes, cancelled seasons, etc…) had often interfered. And over time, a mental barrier for records like that one develops.

Take, for instance, the 4-minute mile. Before it was broken, some people thought that it was simply impossible to run that fast. After it was broken, in that same year, 30 people ran faster than the guy who broke it (Roger Bannister) and 200 people ran under 4 minutes.

For roughly 4 decades, Roger Maris’ homerun record stood. After it was broken, it was broken again almost immediately. That’s how these things go. And there’s no part of me that thinks that McGwire wouldn’t have been at home in the dugout next to Maris and Mantle, or vice-versa.

Comparing people from different generations is always difficult, especially when you are talking about how they would stack up against each other in a sporting event. In fact, realistically speaking (disregarding the last “Rocky” movie), it’s impossible. It’s basically “My generation can beat up your generation” (a semi-grown-up version of “My father can beat up your father”). It’s apples and oranges, at best.

And yes, there are a lot of factors (steroids included) that make comparing my father’s generation with my own, regarding baseball impossible (heck, or even comparing football, or basketball, or whatever). But having spent a mere decade and a half (more or less) being involved with competitive athletics as a player and coach, I can tell you for sure that when I look at games played today compared with yesterday – I see players who would be comfortable in any dugout in any decade.



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