I was hard-wired to stand with the union men; once even served on the national board of my newspaper guild. And while there are few unions harder to embrace than the baseball players', a union that views its members' welfare strictly in dollar signs, I could no more have imagined supporting the baseball owners than I could have envisioned Hillary Clinton as a shot-and-a-beer gal with a hint of Southern twang.
Still, the union approaches new heights of absurdity when it bothers to investigate whether collusion has ended the career of baseball's all-time home run king, Barry Bonds, who can't attract an offer to play anywhere this 2008 season. What the union sees as possible collusion, once an honored practice among ownership, I see as a rare display of common sense. Why would any owner want to sign a gimpy ballplayer who will turn 44 this summer, whose skills are declining—he hit .248 after the All-Star break last season—and who is widely regarded as a cancer in the clubhouse? And that's without considering that Bonds will forever be the face of drug cheating in the game (perhaps sharing that dishonor with Roger Clemens) and is facing indictment on perjury charges related to his testimony about steroids before a federal grand jury.
Does any fan need a reminder of how many of last year's more notable free agent signings were disasters or at least major disappointments for the money expended? Barry Zito, Jason Schmidt, Adam Eaton, Mike Mussina, Jeff Suppan, Kei Igawa, David Dellucci, Frank Catalanotto, Mike Piazza, Nomar Garciaparra, J. D. Drew, Shea Hillenbrand. What's amazing is not that Bonds hasn't been signed (or, for that matter, Sammy Sosa) but that teams risked any big-money signings this year. And while they were more cautious—they signed about 22 percent fewer free agents, and there was nothing that approached the Giants' seven-year, $126 million blunder on Zito—teams still inked some 150 free agents. The Yankees bestowed almost $100 million on their aging but revered closer-catcher tandem of Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada; the Brewers gave $10 million to a fading Eric Gagne, who couldn't get anybody out during the final months of last season; and the Dodgers lavished $36.2 million on Andruw Jones despite his .222 average and diminished power. (If the Jones signing seemed questionable at the time, how about now, after 33 games, with Jones hitting .170 with one homer and four RBIs?)
Given that environment, why would an owner consider compounding what is already a precarious risk/reward proposition by inviting a public relations disaster with Bonds? Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig gave amnesty to players named in the Mitchell Report so as to propel the game past its tarnished recent history. Clearly any owner who inked Bonds would risk reopening baseball's deep wounds and invite the wrath of pretty much everyone who loves the game.
It is not simply that Bonds cheated. Other players who have been named in the Mitchell report have signed perfectly good deals, like Jose Guillen's three-year, $36-million pact with the Royals. The difference is that Bonds not only got caught, he proceeded to demonstrate his contempt for not just the game and its fans but the American judicial system. Clemens foolishly did the same with Congress. Regardless of whether both of them eventually skate on any perjury charges, it is hard for any reasonable man to believe anything other than that the best hitter of the modern era and the best pitcher of the modern era lied under oath. (While I have no doubt that Mark McGwire cheated too, I confess to a small modicum of respect for a naif who destroyed his reputation rather than lie to Congress.)
I also confess to having obsessed about Bonds and Clemens. Confident that justice of a sort is now working its imperfect way with those two fallen stars, I find myself willing to move on, hopeful that baseball has indeed entered a new era. I would be a fool to believe that there is no cheating in the game, any more than I am convinced that all of our sprinters will be clean in Beijing this summer. There is simply too much history to ignore. Still, beyond the somewhat improved testing regimen and the enhanced penalties, there appears to be some evidence in the game itself that change is afoot. If it was statistics—mostly the inflated home run records—that revealed the steroid era in full flower, it is statistics that now suggest the game is approaching its pre-steroids era balance.
Some have suggested that things have always balanced out, since it is now evident that there was widespread cheating among both hitters and pitchers. But clearly the home run numbers don't bear that out. Over the past decade the home run leader in the American League has averaged 50 home runs, in the National League 56. This year no American League hitter is currently on pace for 40 home runs; it could mark the first season since 1992 that a league-leader blasts fewer than 40. (In researching this, I came up with a nice bit of trivia. The last person to lead a league—the National in 1992—with fewer than 40 home runs was also, in 1989, the last player to lead the American League with fewer than 40. Who was it? Answer at column's end.)
Back in 2000 the average team hit a whopping 190 home runs. In 2006 teams still averaged 180. Last year that total dipped to 165, and this season, if the current pace continues, the average will be 147—with four teams hitting fewer than 100 homers. But it's not just home runs that are diminishing; it's all kinds of hits. While hitters tend to heat up along with the weather, the average team batting average in the American League is currently just .256 and in the National League .258. That is a decline of 14 and 8 points, respectively. Which helps explain why Monday night, in the five A.L. games on the slate, just 27 runs were scored, or three fewer than the Texas Rangers put on the board in their best outing last season.
Personally, I have been enjoying this new beginning, the start of the post-Bonds-and-Clemens era. Major League Baseball is proving once again to be every bit as unpredictable as the NFL. Putative contenders like the Mets, Yankees, Indians, Braves, Tigers, Rockies and Padres have been somewhere between disappointing and disastrous, while teams like the Marlins, Orioles, Rays and Twins that were expected to trail the pack are off to respectable starts. (And everyone should appreciate the healthy effect of the Torre tonic on the Dodgers.) Coming off the most wretched off-season of the modern era, baseball is enjoying a remarkably promising year. Why would anybody want to swallow a poison pill right in the middle of it?