Sunday, January 14, 2007

Hank Aaron Had Unfair Advantage As Well

{I was going through my drafts and found a bunch of articles mostly written but unpublished; I'll be posting them along the road to the 2008 season}

With all the Bonds haters railing about Bonds unfair run at Hammering Hank's all-time record, I've been reading over and over again about this when I realized something: it would be hypocritical of Aaron to complain of getting unfair help when it is known that the Braves pulled in their fences to help him reach and beat Babe Ruth (I realized this while over at El Lefty Malo and posted much of the below stats there, but, as I am wont to do, I then added more stuff to provide more post-like structure).


Aaron Had Home Advantage


Everyone from that time period knew about the Launching Pad, due supposedly to its high altitude, but not many know that the fences were brought in. I never knew that until recent years when I saw it posted, so I investigated and found that it was true. How many homers did that help Hank Aaron out with?


Well, his HR/AB rate increased 50-100%, depending on which years you compare, between his late 20's to his late 30's, leading to him continuing to be a consistent 40's HR guy through his career and in fact setting a career high when he was 37 years old and hitting 40 HR when he was 39 years old. Maybe he doesn't reach Ruth if he didn't get such help from his park. Maybe he doesn't even reach Mays.


HR Rate Comparison

One way to examine how much help Aaron got is via his HR-rate. His HR/AB started peaking at age 35, which was higher than his previous peak at age 28 by 6%, then topped that at age 37 and again at age 40, which was 34% higher and the peak for his career. Sounds familiar, eh, as that is what happened with Bonds. Overall, his homerun rate increased 47% when comparing his HR-rate from 35 to the end of his career versus 34 and younger. As some people like to note about Barry, that reverses 100 years of baseball history with Aaron increasing his homerun rate nearly 50% after age 35.

He hit 203 homers from the age of 35. Reducing his HR rate by 47% to his youthful rate would result in only 138 HR, or 65 HR less than before, meaning he would have ended his career at 690 HR. Add in the fact that most hitters don't hit as well for HR after 35 as they did before 35 - see Mays for example - and one can speculate that Aaron might not have passed up Mays if not for the help he got. But who knows, maybe Aaron was unique, like Ted Williams was in increasing his HR-rate late in his career. As I will show next, perhaps he was.

Home Vs. Road


We can slice things even finer (thanks to Baseball-Reference.com's great Play Index stats) to examine HR-rate by home and away in Atlanta. From 1966-68, his HR-rate at home was 7.0% vs. on the road 5.4%. So he was benefiting from home already. Then after that to 1973 when he had his last power year, he had a 10.7% HR-rate at home, 6.3% HR-rate away. That meant that he did improve a bit when older - probably the middle-aged girth that comes with your reduced metabolism helped by increasing his mass - 16.7% improvement, which is what Ted Williams improved by using a similar ratio as above, comparing 35+ against 34- (about 15.2%).


Applying that rate to his home numbers would result in 48 less homers, or 707 HRs. If he was that close, he probably would have played one more year, but he only had 10 his last year, so passing the Babe would not have been a slam dunk there. It would have been severely in question whether he would pass it the next season and thus he would have probably had to play another two seasons to catch Ruth and pass him. In addition, he played his last two seasons in Milwaukee, benefiting from being a DH those two years. So he would have passed Ruth as a Brewer instead, much like Ruth retiring as a Boston Brave, unless Atlanta decides to hold onto him until he reached Ruth.


But he hit .229/.315/.369/.684 in his last season (and not much better the year before) so he could only have gotten worse if he played another season, let alone another two. Those would have been sadder than Mays's own last season, when he hit .211/.303/.344/.647. It would be questionable that any team would have allowed Aaron to set the record hitting as poorly as he was at that time, though still a possibility since it was the Brewers and Selig was such a fan/friend of Aaron.


Interestingly, both Aaron and Mays were both 42 years old in their final seasons as MLB players, which is striking since this is Bonds 42 years old season and he batted .269/.491/.549/1.040, while being tested for PED usage, while being investigated and most probably followed 24/7 by IRS and other Federal agents, while presumably having no access to such PEDs while he and anyone near him are being followed and investigated by the government, particularly since they finally filed their suit against him.

What's Unfair Cheating and Ethically Corrupt Behavior?

Like Bonds and his possible use of PEDs, we'll never know how exactly much help Aaron got from his ballpark. In Bonds case, if he is doing so well at age 42, while seemingly clean of PED usage, that puts into question how much help he actually got from his alleged PED usage. In any case, any try at theorizing exactly how many more homeruns he hit because of PED (or any other, someone recently proposed that his elbow brace helps him, discussion here plus link to original article at El Lefty Malo) help will be pretty much wild guesses that people pull out of their you-know-whats.


Aaron, however, we all knew about the Launching Pad and never thought much about that. What I didn't know until recently was that supposedly Atlanta pulled their fences in sometime in the late 60's to help Hank Aaron hit more homers. If that is not artificial help and cheating, then I don't know what is.


However, it was not against the rules of baseball at the time. On the other hand, clearly only players who played games in Atlanta benefited from it, and Atlanta's players benefited the most from it, not because of any natural advantage or abilities, but solely because they played for Atlanta.


Since not every player had that advantage, isn't that a morally corrupt way as well to achieving the record? It is one thing if the park was just built like that and the players benefited from that, like Coors Field and Texas's Ameriquest Field at Arlington. But Atlanta changed their field right around when Aaron started closing in on the greats, when he had 510 career homers. Then moved them back out once he had the record.


At least Aaron didn't request that the Braves do this for him, or hopefully so given how secrets have been getting revealed over time and sports heroes are more human than we wish, so it probably wasn't something he purposefully chose. But at minimum, they must have made it known to him that they were changing the fences or he should have realized it on opening day and saw where the fences were now, but he chose to abide by the change instead of making a stink about it publicly. He must have known that it would help him hit more homers, that it would help him catch Willie Mays, and that it would perhaps help him pass up Babe Ruth. He was that close.


And the damning fact, if I remember right, is that the park dimensions were returned to their original lengths right around when Hank Aaron left, or perhaps once Aaron was within reach of the Babe. That implies that it was deliberately done to benefit Aaron: the fences were changed the season after he passed 500 homers and were moved back to their original configuration around the time when he was passing Ruth. What other reasons would explain such a coincidence of timing?


Life is Unfair


I bring this up not to disparage Aaron's record but to point out that there is always more behind any number, particularly in sports. Every era have different factors affecting the players. In the early parts of baseball history, the so-called Dead-ball era, the reason the ball was so dead was because the teams would play with the same ball until it was pretty much beaten dead. You could make the best swing of your live but the ball wouldn't go anywhere. Then George Henry "Babe" Ruth came along and livened up the game.


But even he wasn't enough, at least in the eyes of MLB baseball, so they instituted two rules, one official, the other unofficial: the official rule was that baseballs had to be taken out of play and replaced, which provided a fresh supply of balls for hitters to hit out; the unofficial rule, unproven other than by examining the statistical record, is that the "lively" ball came into use around that time and suddenly everyone is hitting out homers. Of course, a large income for those capable of hitting homeruns didn't hurt either. Both those innovations in the game helped boost the number of homers Babe Ruth hit.


Another help was that Ruth was not playing against the best players in America, but the best white players in America. Clearly, from the records of the Negro Leagues and observers, particularly MLB players who played against Negro League teams while barnstorming during the winter (to get more income), there were a lot of talented players who played there, plus who knows how many more would have chose a professional career had that option been available beyond the Negro Leagues.


Now most of these were not personal choices by players, they reflected societal and MLB-wide decisions that were generally out of their hands, but World War II changed that, they started making decisions to help themselves. To help out soldiers in the field deal with fatigue and such, amphetamines were routinely given out to soldiers during WW II. Some of these soldiers carried this habit back to the Majors when they returned from war. And its use had continued unabated - documented by various mentions to it by ballplayers in books and interviews - until the MLB recently banned its use.


Another, more positive, habit they brought back was most probably physical fitness. Soldiers had to be in shape, and the Marines in particular taught their men to be in tip-top shape. I've never seen this mentioned anywhere, but it dawned on me while looking at Ted Williams career record that it was probably no coincidence that he was one of the few players to continue to hit well and for power late in his career, and was a well decorated fighter pilot for the Marines, who twice served our country proudly and well.


And speaking of the military, a couple of players most probably would have either been close to passing Babe Ruth or would have passed, if not for the military. Ted Williams missed a good portion of his most productive years as a hitter in serving our country twice, WW II and the Korean War. Some say he would have come short, I think he would be have been close enough that he might have decided to continue playing and pass Ruth up. After all, he had 29 HRs in 310 AB the last season he played. Plus he had a severe injury that cost him another large chunk of a season. Add all that up, and he probably would have passed Ruth up first long before Aaron did.


Willie Mays would have been very close as well, he missed around 270 games, 1,000 AB, by going into the military. If you averaged his HR-rates for the seasons before and after, then used that for those 1,000 AB, he would have hit another 58 homers, putting him at 718 careers homers. If that had happened, Aaron would have passed him the next season.


Then again, as was noted first, players have been using amphetamine or speed since WW II. Ted Williams was a military man, so it is possible that he used at some point. Willie Mays was outed by a former Mets player as someone who supplied some sort of red speed concoction that helped give him a boost, and was also in the military. How many of their homers were derived from using?


As far as we know, Hank Aaron has been clean, but he still certainly benefited from his team moving in the fences at his homepark just as he entered the career homerun race and soon after he caught, or was close enough to catching, Babe Ruth. If they had left the fences untouched either times they changed the fences, then it might be another matter, but they clearly changed the field configuration to benefit their player. Hank might not have been involved in that decision, but I would think that any intelligent man knows that moving in the fences could only help him and that Hank Aaron had enough clout with the Braves management that if he told them to leave the fences alone, they would have.

Barry Bonds and PEDS


Which brings us to Barry Bonds now. It seems pretty clear that he used steriods when his trainer was feeding it to him, but he claims that he was told that it was flaxseed oil and an arthritic balm. People, particularly journalists, believe that he knew, but to me, it is possible that Anderson acted on his own, poisoning his "friend" with his drugs in order to further his drug dealership business, so while I believe he used, I don't know if he did it knowingly, though probably he did. And without his connection with Bonds, he has no business.


And haven't you used or eaten something your friends gave you? How many times have you eaten food at your friends home and not know what was in it? Being Chinese, there was this concotion in a jar with all sort of wild stuff in it and some sort of alcohol that I was suppose to rub into bruises and other various ailments but it sure smelled; I still have no idea what was in that. If your friend says that he's giving you flaxseed oil and arthritic balm, do you make him show you the packaging or do you trust his word, particularly if he is your trainer? Particularly for something as innocuous sounding as those two?


Probably Bonds used but there's a high probability that we will never find out the exact truth, as everything appears to be a "he said/she said" type of situation. Evidence may suggest things, but we don't know what exactly is the truth. Greg Anderson might say eventually, one way or the other, but most probably we will be left wondering what those suspicious files meant, for who is to say that Anderson wasn't a bit bent, in his own little fantasy world that he designed to prop up a failed high school star athlete's adult years. We know from examples like John Lennon's killer and President Reagan's shooter that there are people who live in their own world and act according to what they see in that world. What is real and what is somebody's version of reality?

Axe To Grind with Bonds

And all others who have accused Bonds of using are people with an axe to grind against Bonds. His former mistress was cast aside with no nestegg so it behooves her to make her story with Bonds interesting enough to make her a celebrity, because a former mistress to an athlete carries no cachet today, it's no big deal today. Her story is starting to smell given that there's been no action on her assertion that the cheated on his baseball card income; something like that should have been very easy to check, you verify with the card company that he received payment, you check to see if he filed that in his income taxes. Also telling is that her plans to write a book has been greeted with the sound of silence by the book publishers, none of them were interested enough to pay her for her story, so she ended up posing for Playboy and telling her story there.


His former trainer needed to boast about Bonds using - how else is he going to convince others to use his stuff? We don't know what's the truth there either, whether he was truthful or just had a lucrative practice trading on his relationship with his childhood friend by creating a lie with other athletes that his buddy got that way by using Anderson's stuff. How better to sell your products, it is not enough to say that you are Bonds trainer, you have to take credit for him doing so well and with your products. As proof to your real customers, you point at Bonds's accomplishments and show them the schedule that you set up for Barry to take.


Who Watches the Watchmen?


Reporters have the most to gain. The Chronicle writers were nobodies until the grand jury testimony fell into their laps. It makes no news if Bonds used but wasn't aware. The story sell more - including a book - if Bonds is the sinister ballplayer. They are now millionaires (or at least set for life) and many people know their names now, giving them a lot of fame. One of them recently was hired away, by SI if I remember right.


Pearlman is a former SI writer, and it appears that they have take a collective blood oath to bring down Bonds. He's making a lot of money off his tell-all book about Bonds. He has made a lot of accusations and he claims to have taped conversations of all these people saying that Bonds took, particularly the athletic apparrel representative. Let's suppose they are all true.


If this is true, then Bonds and Griffey would know who these people who sat in this dinner was. If I were Bonds as described by many journalists, as someone who has some clout in the industry, I would hire investigators to seek out these people and see who they work for today, then put some pressure on the companies to either fire or destroy the career of these people; I could work out an exclusive deal with the company for some product but just before signing mention that we cannot deal with you anymore, you have so-and-so on your payroll and he's a rat.


And if I were the athletic apparrel rep or the two associates, would I tell a reporter such a story if I knew that Bonds could link it back to me and given the reputation of Barry being such a horrible person, wouldn't you be afraid of reprisals of some sort? With the details that Pearlman weaved in his excerpt, if it were true, Bonds should have no problem identifying who those people at that meeting were. At minimum, he could get with Griffey and figure that one out.


And it would go beyond just Bonds, in my mind. An athletic apparel rep with a reputation in the industry for tattling on an athlete's private conversation would have a very short career. If ballplayers are as chummy as Pearlman paints them to be, news should spread pretty fast among the better players that they should avoid so-and-so who works at such-and-such company because of how he/she treated Bonds. They would close ranks pretty fast according to the way Pearlman portrayed them when, well, they closed ranks and the ballplayers he claimed did or said something for his book, now claim otherwise.


Jay Canizaro, an otherwise nothing former Giants player, is one of the players quoted in the book but then claimed he didn't say it. He is reported to have see Barry's back all covered with zits and it was obvious to him that Barry used because he used. But I don't use and I frequently have zits all over my back because for some reason I get them when I eat fish. Sushi, cooked, broiled, fried, it don't matter, I break out in zits all over my back and I'm getting old enough for a "mature" discount (and now have a gut when I was once super skinny).


So if you are going to rat out Barry Bonds in such a way, then you should be willing to go public with your accusations, because you just committed career suicide but felt you did the right thing. Or if you aren't in the industry anymore, so that Barry can't touch you, again, you should be willing to go public with your accusations. It is over a year and a half since that book came out with the accusations and still no release of the tape or the name of the source, that would easily settle the score on whether this was a fabricated story (see Jayson Blair) or if it was a real quote.


What's the fear? If it is the truth, Bonds could or would have done something against these people already. They should have nothing to lose right now. If anything, they would get great fame as the one who outted Bonds, to help save our great game, as the journalists have been selling their witch hunt of Bonds, and Pearlman would be vindicated. Plus, they would get some fame today, as George Mitchell's report has gotten Congress to start hearings again and I'm sure they would love to hear about Bonds's alleged declaration that he was going to use steriods.


Now, perhaps they don't want fame, they just wanted to rat out a cheater like Bonds. But there are ways of testifying before Congress without revealing your identity (though supposedly grand jury testimony is secret as well and it took forever for the government to figure out who did that; and I will admit here that I thought Novitsky did it and I was wrong). And Congress, if they really want to get to the bottom of things, should be able to locate these people, how many athletic equipment people get to have dinner with Griffey and Bonds at the height of their fame? Just sic a few g-men at these companies and narrow the list down.

Irony: Their Miscue Makes Some of Them Rich

Still, I find it a bit ironic that the people who were supposed to be watching out for us - and now climb on their bully pulpit to lecture us on the dangers of PEDS and make money with their outrage - are the same people who were asleep at the wheel during the first 15 or so years of the golden age of steriod usage, which I call time zero being around when McGwire and Canseco became major leaguers. Where were they when all these injections where happening? The rumors were rampant throughout the industry, I know I read the whispers along the way about them and their muscles, and I was busy starting a new career, family, and home.

In particular, why didn't one of these now outraged media members find the will to decide to investigate Mark McGwire when he was caught with the Andro in his locker, initially laughed it off, then realized that he better speak out against it or be burned at the stake. Gary Hart, former wunderkind congressman and the hot candidate for president at that time, dared reporters to investigate him and was caught with his mistress on a boat. What more did these reporters need to start an investigation, isn't it their job to dig deep when there's smoke? And that Andro was smoking more than the forest fire that created Smokey the Bear.

Numbers Are Tainted and Probably Will Continue

One of my main point is that any career number is tainted in some way or another by factors within the players control and outside of their control. Even Hank Aaron's number, so revered, was tainted by his team's clearly cheating to help him reach Babe Ruth's number. Who knows what else we will discover with time.

Plus, we are barely into the era of the exposing of PEDS usage. The Mitchell report should just be the tip of the iceberg given all the high numbers of users given by some people close to that scene. We don't know what we will find out in the up coming years.

And, frankly, the PEDS era will probably never end, there will always be people looking for that edge and people trying to figure out how to give that edge. That has been true in baseball from Ty Cobb's sharpened spikes to segregation to real spitballs to amphetamines to watering down the base paths to Gaylord Perry's spitballs to steriods to HGH. You know that there will be another scandal in the future.

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