This is an attempt at my first post at High Heat Stats without any baseball stats. Rather than digging through WAR leaders, I’d like to take a moment to tackle a prejudice that irks me too often in sports arguments. Yesterday, I read this Sports on Earth piece by Jonathan Bernhardt, which explains why Barry Bonds was the best baseball player ever. A comment in response to the piece included this gem:
“…to argue that Bonds is better than Mays is, well, simply ignorant, something that I will ascribe to the writer’s youth”.
No, what’s “simply ignorant” is dismissing another’s opinion without any defense of one’s own argument other than an age difference. Is there a sorrier phrase in the English language than “back in my day…”?
First, I know I should never read comments on any web forum except this one, but Joe Posnanski writes for Sports on Earth and if Joe brought some of his “brilliant readers” to that site, reasoned discourse in the comments section could be more than a pipe dream. Second, it’s true that Bernhardt’s visage in the article’s header suggests that he may have been born after Bonds shaved this mustache.
Still, the sentiment that young fans don’t appreciate the greatness of players from generations past is far too prevalent and far too trite. Furthermore, Bernhardt’s analysis is spot-on, from his dismissal of Ruth and Williams on the grounds of quality of competition in a segregated league to his assertion that we know no more about the impact steroids may have had on Bonds’s numbers than we know about amphetamines and the boost they may have given Mays. To chalk up the stat-backed argument that Bonds was better than Mays to not having seen Mays live is akin to declaring that mayonnaise tasted better before the Berlin Wall fell.
In 1884, when Old Hoss Radbourn had his legendary season, the world record in the mile was 4:16.2. When Babe Ruth retired in 1935, the record was 4:06.2. When Mays retired in 1973, it was 3.51.1, held by Jim Ryun, an American runner so dominant that he shaved 2.5 seconds off the record and held it for eight years- longer than any man since Roger Bannister ran the first four-minute mile in 1954. Track fans must have thought they’d never see another runner as fast as Ryun.
But runners kept evolving. In 1999, the year before Bonds kicked off the most dominant five-year offensive stretch in integrated baseball history, Hicham El Guerrouj ran the mile in 3:43.13. That cut almost 3 1/2 percent off of Ryun’s time. Andres Diaz finished fourth in that race with a time of 3.51.15, a virtual tie with Ryun’s legendary time.
Not all of the progression in the mile record is evolution. Sneakers have gotten sleeker. There have probably been improvements to racing shorts and the material tracks are made of. But technology alone didn’t trim 33 seconds, or about half a lap around a track, from the record over 115 years. Every generation of humans is a little more fit for our world. Swimming records fall in droves every olympiad. Nearly every Tour de France is finished faster than the one before it. Athletes get bigger, faster, stronger, and more able to turn on a curveball over the inside of the plate.
Aging is cruel. At 32, I’ve seen some of the early effects- bones breaking a little more easily, unwillingness to accept that Mike Trout was born in the ’90s- but I recognize that I’ve got a long, dismal descent ahead of me and should probably take it easy on the old man clinging to some of the magic of his youth in the comments at Sports On Earth. Watching Willie Mays hit 450-foot blasts and cover acres of Polo Grounds outfield must have made him feel like anything was possible, like God had sent a divine athlete to perform inspiring feats for his entertainment. To see Mays’s accomplishments eclipsed by a man so boorish, so joyless, at an age when the old man himself didn’t have the same spring in his step, couldn’t have been easy. Why not dismiss the possibility that his hero had been eclipsed by claiming that drugs can make Incredible Hulks out of ordinary men or that players were tougher in his day?
I’ve enjoyed watching Albert Pujols hit a baseball like few, if any, players before him have. Fans younger than I will enjoy watching Mike Trout try to build a case as the best player ever to play the game. Watching Trout climb walls like Spiderman and steal bases like Superman, they may be loathe to admit that there’s a three-year-old picking up his first glove somewhere who will one day run faster, jump higher, and hit longer home runs than Trout.
Barry Bonds may or may not have been the best baseball player ever. Mike Trout may or may not one day eclipse him. But someone will. Some young writer will tell us how he knows the new guy is the best ever, maybe using metrics not yet invented today. And someone from my generation will make up a reason to dismiss the young player’s talent so as not to challenge the power of the memory of Bonds launching a fastball into McCovey Cove. Or, if the old man can’t come up with a reason, he’ll chalk it up to the writer’s youth.
Because young people are stupid.