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August 8, 2013

Tom Lindley: Protect the numbers

Baseball’s annual Midsummer Scandal doesn’t seem to be creating that much buzz among fans, except those lucky enough to be in the stands to boo Alex Rodriguez when the New York Yankees slugger steps to the plate.

Why get worked up? Scandals have been part of the game since four players for the Louisville Grays were discovered to have thrown games in 1877 in exchange for bribes. The Grays soon departed the National League and the St. Louis Cardinals took their place. That worked out darn well.

Games have been fixed, players have cheated and rules have been broken. That doesn’t mean fans are indifferent to it all. Suspensions seem to mean more if it’s your player getting handed a 50-game benching. Not so much if it’s the other guy. Baseball is a local matter.

Integrity, however, remains critical when it comes to statistics and achievements. They give the sport its rich history. They are at the heart of the game. Don’t mess with ’em.

Protecting its most valuable asset is where Mayor League Baseball is failing. The immortal Babe Ruth slugged 60 home runs in 1927 — an achievement that stood for more than 30 years until Roger Maris started driving the ball into the short right-field bleachers in Yankee Stadium. Maris faced incredible pressure in 1961 as he closed in on Ruth. When he cranked his 61st, he broke a record many thought was unbreakable.

A generation later came the steroids scandal in which big league sluggers suspiciously hit mammoth shots normally associated with a slow-pitch softball league. Maris’ mark stood for 37 years until Mark McGwire clubbed 70 in 1998, four ahead of Sammy Sosa’s 66. It was amazing to watch — the country was captivated — but there had to be an explanation. Most figured the balls were juiced.

In a four-year period, Maris’ old record was bettered by three players — McGwire, Sosa and Barry Bonds — a combined six times. With little fanfare, the unpopular Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001, making what Ruth had accomplished look trivial.

As the sordid drug scandal stories unfolded, eventually the single-season home run record was tarnished. Today there are those who don’t recognize it, won’t accept it and demand that it be stricken. Sadly, that hasn’t happened.

It’s not just fans who harbor these feelings. So do players.

Take Baltimore’s Chris Davis, the Orioles’ slugging first baseman. He had 37 home runs at the All-Star break and said his sights were set on breaking the game’s single-season record. He wasn’t speaking about Bonds’ achievement but Maris’.

“In my opinion, 61 is the record,” Davis told reporters in New York, “and I think most fans agree with me.”

He has added four more home runs since then and is on pace to get 62 before the regular season ends. Of course, there are those who are now suspicious of Davis’ torrid run and wonder if he has benefited illegally.

“I think there’s no reason not to believe in me,” he countered.

Davis wasn’t among the 14 players tied to the mess uncovered at an anti-aging clinic in Florida. All but Rodriguez accepted suspensions that will keep them out the remainder of the regular season.

Are they deserving of honors and awards if their performance was enhanced by drugs? It’s hard to make a case for that.

Take Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun, who was named the National League’s MVP in 2011. Should that recognition stand?

A “yes” answer says anything goes when it comes to playing the game. It also sends a tough-luck message to those who played by the rules. A “no” answer says records and honors remain special.

Take the case of University of Southern California running back Reggie Bush, who forfeited his Heisman Trophy following an NCAA investigation into improper gifts in 2004 that led to the Trojans getting banned from bowl games for two years.

If baseball starts taking strong enforcement actions, the fear of getting shamed as well as financially damaged might cause some athletes to reconsider the notion that they make the rules.

Gaining credibility takes time; losing it can happen overnight. Baseball has had problems with rogue players and has taken steps to rectify the performance-enhancing drugs problem.

It should work just as hard to protect the integrity of its records. If not, it risks losing the confidence — and interest — of its fans.

Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for the Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. News Service. You can write to him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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