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Baseball survived Roseanne Barr, it can survive Barry Bonds

August 12, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

Baseball is America's national pastime, but it is also America's national spreadsheet. It's all about the numbers.

Baseball, as one wag put it, is 10 minutes of action crammed into three hours so there is plenty of spare time to concentrate on the statistics and place them in historical perspective.

Whenever a batter steps to the plate, his numbers are splayed across the screen. When a new pitcher takes the mound, we get a thumbnail of wins, losses, saves, ERA, innings pitched, hits, walks, opponents' on-base percentage and such.

This doesn't happen in other sports. When Clinton Portis enters the game, they don't publicize arcane details, such as his average yards per carry inside the 20 in second down.

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Baseball even makes up new statistics, every other day, it seems. The "save" is a relatively new statistic, formally introduced in 1970. But now we even keep track of "holds," "quality starts" and "inherited runners allowed to score."

For batters, it gets even more nuts. Just when you get a handle on OPS and slugging percentage, along comes the book "Moneyball" and Bill James and a whole new slew of performance trackers.

In football, there will be vague conversations about who was the best quarterback ever, Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas - but these discussions are subjective, not stat-based, because the passing game has changed. We know who holds the consecutive-games record in baseball, but who holds that record in basketball?

But even the most casual baseball fan knows the significance of "714."

This, of course, is why so many people are upset that Barry Bonds, he of the cream and the clear, this week broke baseball's most hallowed record to become the greatest home run hitter ever.

But those whose feathers are ruffled than an alleged cheater is so glorified should relax. One beauty of numbers is that they are so hard and fast. Another beauty of numbers is that they are so malleable.

Through whatever process, Bonds turned himself from a skinny kid with the Pittsburgh Pirates into a monster - big, brawny, strong and feared.

So feared, that no one would pitch to him.

If Bonds cheated his way into a number of home runs, he also cheated his way out of a number of home runs. I would argue the two cancel each other out and that he would be the all-time home run king with or without beef 'roids.

Bonds has stepped to the plate nearly 10,000 times. He's homered an average of once every 13 at bats.

Prior to his move to the San Francisco Giants in 1993, Bonds had never hit more than 34 home runs in a season. That year he hit 46. But he didn't hit that many again until 2000, when he hit 49. The next year was his season for the ages when he set the record of 73. It's the only time he's hit more than 50 home runs in a year.

The reason is walks. The year after 73, he walked every other at-bat. Well over a third of those walks were intentional. In 2004 he was intentionally walked an incredible 120 times.

Thousands of irate fans who had paid to see Bonds hit booed unmercifully as teams developed a strategy of walking him whenever a runner was on base. And occasionally he was walked without a runner on base.

Obviously, a number of the "unintentional" walks to Bonds were intentional, as pitchers with pinpoint control missed the plate by a foot.

In his career, Bonds has walked 2,540 times, and 679 of those were intentional. And probably half of Bonds' total walks were intentional, even if they weren't "intentional," so it's arguable (based on one home run for every 13 at bats) that he lost out on 100 home runs, simply because of his bulk, and the fear it instilled in opposing pitchers.

One statistic baseball can't quantify is how many extra feet steroids will add to a fly ball. So you can't say how many of a hitter's homers, without steroids, would have been fly ball outs. But Bonds rarely hits a cheap homer that barely clears the fence.

When Bonds was in Pittsburgh - the slender years - he averaged a homer every 16 times at bat. Had he stayed at that average, he would now have 625 home runs. But that doesn't count the at-bats lost to walks. And it doesn't count the fact that hitters, with age, become better as they gain experience and learn to read pitchers.

It's my opinion that Bonds used steroids. But, if that's true, it's also my opinion that, while he might not hold the home run record today, he would still be awfully close and would break it in time.

Baseball has weathered the dead ball era and the juiced ball era. It's skewed the game and skewed the numbers. Pitchers were so dominant in the '60s that the pitchers mound was lowered to give hitters a better chance. Steroids haven't done anything to baseball that baseball hasn't done to itself. Steroids hurt the player, not the game.

In 1995, the year after fans were disenchanted by a bitter strike, Cal Ripken saved baseball by breaking the record for consecutive games played. It is fitting that he was there again, entering the Hall of Fame, clearing clouds seeded by Bonds' home run pursuit.

Ripken proves you don't have to cheat to succeed. And if you look at the numbers just right, so does Bonds.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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