Thursday, August 25, 2005

Robinson & Schilling: Erase Stats After Failed Drug Tests

Man, this is dumb. First Nats manager and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson opined that Rafael Palmeiro's stats should be erased because he tested positive for steroids, and now Curt Schilling backs him up. Let's review the problems with this idea, shall we?

1. We don't retro-apply contemporary rules, standards, or playing conditions on past eras. We have good reason to view the stats from every era in their proper context. Why stop with steroids? Why not wipe away (so to speak) the stats of spitball pitchers? Better yet, let's just erase all MLB statistics prior to 1947, since the color barrier prevented some of baseball's best from competing against their white peers. The whole game pre-Jackie Robinson is tainted. Right?

2. In the
words of Joe Sheehan, "baseball statistics are not numbers generated for their own sake. Statistics are a record of performance of players and teams [emphasis original]." But the numbers themselves are inert. You can't "erase" statistics any more than you can erase the reality or history they describe. Here's the beauty of baseball statistics: there's a perfect symmetry associated with every one of them. It's a zero-sum game. Every one of Palmeiro's hits and home runs, every run he ever scored and drove in, was charged to a pitcher. Nearly every run he ever scored represents an RBI for one teammate, and every run he ever drove in equals a run scored for another.

It's impossible to "erase" his stats without creating a whole spider web of problems. How is it possible to erase every trace of his impact on the game? Will former teammates lose every RBI and run scored from their records where Palmeiro was involved? Will every pitcher who ever served up a Palmeiro gopherball get retroactive relief on his career record of HR allowed and ERA? Will statisticians comb old box scores to find every instance of a Palmeiro walkoff/game winning hit and take those wins away from his teams? It's a little late to change the outcome of tight pennant races whose games were thereby affected.

And there's your problem: you can't "erase" or "adjust" baseball statistics without upsetting the double-entry nature of the game's ledger. Like balancing the checkbook, everything has to add up.

Even if it didn't, why not wave a magic wand and just say "this never happened?" Because there's something creepy and Orwellian about purging statistics. It's rewriting history, turning Palmeiro into an
unperson. You can't pretend that Rafael Palmeiro and the steroid issue for which he has become the poster child never existed. Proponents of this goofy idea should confront the so-called problem of steroid use: let the record reflect, as a cautionary tale, what bloated sluggers and their inflated numbers wrought against the game. Absent this empirical evidence, how are future generations to know the threat to integrity and fair competition that steroid use allegedly represents?

I realize it's just a few jocks and journalists espousing these dumb ideas, but geez, people take them seriously. On ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" a few weeks ago, Karl Ravech and Joe Morgan held a spirited discussion about what to do with Palmeiro's stats (as if something should be done). Even worse, ESPN has an online poll tonight asking, "Should MLB erase the statistics of players who fail drug tests from official records?" The depressing results: Of 18,561 respondents so far, 68.1% say 'yes,' 31.8% said 'no.' It's not scientific but people are clearly passionate (if wrongheaded) about the issue.

Perspective, people. You can't erase or adjust statistics. Just accept that Rafael Palmeiro and countless others took steroids; we don't know how long nor really to what effect. If you want to feel better about it, then remember the context when you lovingly review the statistics of 1993-2004 in future editions of "Total Baseball." Slap an asterisk on Rafael Palmeiro's numbers if you really want to get silly. But it's best if baseball just left the numbers alone.


Anonymous said...


Well, you know me in terms of baseball I'm an ultra-uber conservative. That being said, I totally agree with you not only is the idea of totally erasing someone's past in baseball crazy and ridiculous, but logistically completely impossible.

Yes, it's wrong for pro players to be using steriods and the like, but to actually go about and erase stats? STOOPID.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.