Editor’s note: This article appears in the August 1 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
On July 14, Rich Harden was gunning for a no-hitter in Oakland right as Raffy Palmeiro was gunning for his 3,000th hit in Seattle. As fate would have it, Harden retired the Rangers leadoff batter in the eighth just as Palmeiro was strolling to the plate, leading to an unparalleled remote-control dilemma: A) stick with the no-no; B) flick to the possibly historic hit, or C) toggle between the two and hope for the best. Like any savvy coach potato, I opted for C … only Harden and the Mariners pitcher were releasing their pitches at the same time, totally undermining the togglebility potential. I had to make a choice: no-no or 3,000?
I went with the no-hitter. And even though Alfonso Soriano singled (no more no-no) right as Palmeiro walked, I know I made the right decision. It was no contest, really. Only five baseball landmarks still matter: Joe D’s 56 straight; Teddy Ballgame’s .406; Rickey’s 130 swipes; Cal Ripken’s whatever-number-he-ended-up-with streak; and Will Clark’s coveted 55,234 (times he adjusted his cup in 1989). Only three in-game landmarks matter anymore: four homers, the cycle and a no-hitter. That’s it. The current era of juiced balls, ravaged pitching staffs and a drug program best described as “Um, you guys shouldn’t do that stuff” has rendered everything else irrelevant.
As Palmeiro closed in on the 3,000-hit/500-HR club last week, the media swirl had a guess-we-have-to-cover-this feel, almost like when Ryan Seacrest got a star on Hollywood Boulevard. That’s no knock on Raffy, a scary hitter who turned unstoppable whenever his team fell 10 games out of the race. But Clark and Don Mattingly, for starters, were better in their respective primes; their All-Star numbers and MVP finishes say as much. Fred McGriff, Harold Baines, Andre Dawson, Dave Parker, Chili Davis, Dewey Evans … if they had come along a few years later or had played in Baltimore and Texas, all of them would be members of that 3,000/500 club too. Raffy is a hero of circumstance, that’s all.
Please note: I’m not accusing Palmeiro of anything. He was at the right place at the perfect time, just like Judd Nelson peaking when over-the-top performances in enjoyably cheesy movies were all the rage. Whether either guy needed drugs to complete the effect is beside the point. And while we’re here, I support the career of any ballplayer with the kind of facial hair that could have inspired a line of overpowering colognes. Even before Raffy started to tout Viagra, I’d always pictured him on a leopard-skin sofa, wearing a monogrammed bathrobe and pouring glasses of port for two wide-eyed groupies as he asked, “Would you mind if I put on some Barry White?” That this guy was promoting a sexual-enhancement drug is too good. For this reason alone, he gets my Hall of Fame vote (and I don’t even have one).
The question is this: do career baseball numbers matter anymore? Suppose that in 1992, the NBA had introduced smaller basketballs, 9-foot rims, a rule that held five roster spots per team for D3 players and designer drugs that increased jumping ability. Then suppose that as a result, 25 or 30 players averaged between 35 and 40 a game, culminating with a juiced-out Larry Johnson scoring 135 in Minnesota before his pituitary gland explodes and frags everyone in the first three rows. Would you care so much about NBA records anymore? Of course not. We’d have tossed every post-1992 record out the window long ago.
So why pretend every stat from baseball these days is on the level? Elias needs to create a formula that waters down every power number from 1993 to 2004. There has to be a way to determine the performance fluctuation of someone’s power numbers compared with the average power hitter of that season. For instance, The Babe hit 59 homers in 1921 and the next guy had 24. Bonds hit 73 homers in 2001 and seven other guys that season hit 47 or more. Which record is more impressive? Let’s make it simple: reduce every HR/RBI number by one-third. Who would be against this?
Until that happens, I don’t want to hear about 500 homers or 3,000 hits or any other tainted achievement, just like I don’t want to hear that Revenge of the Sith will be more successful than the original Star Wars (imagine how much money A New Hope would have made at $10 a ticket?), or that Coldplay is the new U2 (when they’re really a high-tech version of Bread). Sometimes, you can’t compare eras. You just can’t. And if we must include Palmeiro’s name in the 3,000/500 club, at least let’s stick an asterisk by it that reads, “Achieved in an era that has rendered every career statistic moot.”
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy’s World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.