The Hot Corner: Considering Cheating
Issue   |   Tue, 10/31/2017 - 22:27

Amid a monstrous home run tear in August, Marlins’ left fielder Giancarlo Stanton was asked what a “special number” of home runs would be. He needed little time to decide his answer: 62.

Stanton, of course, was alluding to the number of homers that Roger Maris hit in 1961. A review of Major League Baseball’s record books will confirm that Maris no longer holds the single-season home run record, as the mark now belongs to Barry Bonds, who belted 73 long balls in 2001. He, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire each eclipsed Maris’s 1961 record. Lab tests have revealed, however, that each of these sluggers used performance-enhancing drugs during their careers, confirming what anyone familiar with the normal shape of a human upper-body already knew. Sports commentators salivated over what they perceived to be Stanton throwing shade at baseball’s steroid-era, and they dug up the familiar debate about whether steroid use invalidated Bonds’s home run records.

Barry Bonds was not the first to introduce controversy into the single-season home run record. Entering the 1961 season, Babe Ruth’s single-season best, 60, had been the major league record for decades. It was an almost-insurmountable mark — no natural human could ever hit more. And in a way, nobody ever has. In the lead-up to the 1961 season, four new teams joined Major League Baseball, forcing the league to add eight games to the season. Maris and his better-known teammate Mickey Mantle were poised to take on Ruth’s record. Maris outraced Mantle, who struggled though injuries and alcoholism during the season. Maris tied Ruth’s record during the 159th game of the season and bested it in the 162nd — eight games after Ruth’s season would have been over. As if that weren’t enough to warrant a sizable asterisk, the expansion had diluted the pitching talent pool. Maris spent his longer season facing many pitchers who otherwise would not have played in the major leagues.

Now, this is not to say that with Maris, Sosa, McGwire and Bonds all discredited, Ruth should still have the single-season record. He played long before baseball was integrated and in two stadiums (the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium) with preposterously short right field lines.

Stanton finished the year at 59 homers, just one shy of Ruth’s mark. But if he had hit 62, should he have been considered the true single-season home run king? It seems that he comes by his size honestly, faces pitchers drawn from the broadest talent pool in baseball history and plays in a respectably-sized stadium. Perhaps, but even his mark would have come with a caveat.

The players might not be juiced, but it does look like the balls are. The year started with a surprising power surge across the league, which was followed by complaints from pitchers that the seams on the ball were flatter than they had been in years past. This accompanied a proliferation of blister-related stints on the disabled list, with Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez of the Toronto Blue Jays being two notable victims of the juiced ball. One study found that the balls are more tightly wound than usual and that fly balls can travel up to seven feet further than they could last year. In the World Series, pitchers have mentioned that the ball seems slicker than usual. Commissioner Rob Manfred has repeatedly denied that anything is different with the balls this year, but it is becoming harder and harder to believe him, especially because the new ball does exactly what they would want it to do.

Not only do the balls fly further, but they also seem to be easier to hit. Pitchers use a carefully perfected grip to achieve sharp movement on their off-speed pitches. One would assume that a different baseball would throw off their perfected system and could lead to some dangerous mistakes. In this World Series, we’ve seen the bouncy balls make Dodger Stadium look like a little league park, with an astounding eight homers during the 11-inning Game Two. So even with clean blood, serious pitchers and legitimate ballparks, Stanton’s accomplishment would still have been shrouded in doubt.

Baseball, however, is aware of its evolution and can see records as an interesting but not all-important measure of success across eras. Other sports do not have this advantage and have struggled considerably to come to terms with widespread cheating and technical disadvantages.

In February of 2008, Speedo released a new line of competition swimsuits, called the LZR (laser) Racer. These suits were the product of zealous research and testing, which at one point involved NASA wind tunnels. The suits covered most of the body in both the men’s and women’s versions, from the ankles up to the neck. Upon their release, they were marketed as the world’s fastest swimsuit. The people at Speedo weren’t lying — they really had produced the aquatic PF Flyer. Swimmers wearing LZR Racers broke 13 world records during the suits’ first month on the shelves. The suits provided unbelievable benefits, from buoyancy and decreased drag to muscle support and increased blood flow. As it turns out, all of those things make swimming a good bit easier. Between 2008 and 2009, more than 130 world records were broken by athletes wearing LZR Racers and other suits like them. FINA, swimming’s international governing body, soon stepped in to enact restrictions on high-tech suits, but the records still stood. And unlike in baseball, records in swimming are integral to any elite competition.

In swimming, the high-tech suits provided a sizable boost, but weren’t prohibited by any regulation before they were introduced. Track and field has dealt with a much more sinister problem. Over the past half century, various forms of blood doping and PED use have dogged the sport, and impotent international anti-doping organizations have done little to stop the bleeding. The IAAF, FINA’s counterpart in the track and field world, has publicly discussed wiping any records set before 2005. Many saw this as a PR stunt, since a “world record” would be set at just about every other race for the next five years — never mind the fact that there is little evidence to suggest doping has abated in the past decade. Only recently has track taken steps to combat this epidemic, recently banning almost the entire Russian Track and Field Team from the 2016 Olympics as a result of sustained evidence of nationally-sponsored doping. However, these examples of enforcement are few and far between.

Baseball, which never has been able to claim equivalence across generations of the sport, has easily accepted the questions that are attached to its record book. The competition that fans watch is hardly tied to Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. In sports that pride themselves on easy comparison, however, dubious records do serious damage to the legitimacy of the sports themselves and diminish the impact of any accomplishment.

Swimming has made some progress in breaking the suit-aided record, but track and field continues to struggle. It may not be too late for track to regain its legitimacy, but the damage has surely been done. Their story should forewarn other sports not to be so inept as to allow such prolific cheating to occur.