I've soured on Major League Baseball over the years and Alex Rodriguez hitting his 600th home run - at 35, the youngest player in major league baseball to achieve this feat - gave me cause to remember one of the reasons why when I looked at this list of all-time great home run hitters...
Rank Player (2010 HRs) HR
1 Barry Bonds 762
2 Hank Aaron 755
3 Babe Ruth 714
4 Willie Mays 660
5 Ken Griffey, Jr. 630
6 Sammy Sosa 609
7 Alex Rodriguez (17) 600
8 Frank Robinson 586
9 Mark McGwire 583
10 Jim Thome (13) 577
11 Harmon Killebrew 573
12 Rafael Palmeiro 569
13 Reggie Jackson 563
14 Manny Ramírez (8) 554
I bolded the confirmed PED users.
The top home run leader of all time - the most important and iconic record in the popular imagination among all sports - is held by a guy who was dirty.
Four of the top 10 are dirty.
Six of the top 14 are dirty.
We know with some certainty that Ken Griffey, Jr. was clean. And God bless that guy for all he meant to baseball for I hope history will treat him more kindly than his more publicized peers who overshadowed much of Griffey's career.
I italicized Jim Thome because every player in his era was dirty save Griffey. That includes Bonds, Ramirez, McGwire, Palmeiro, Rodriguez, Sosa. When 86% of the elite sluggers from Thome's era were on PEDs, what are we to think?
That's the horror of the steroid era - Jim Thome may be clean as a whistle, but he's marked with the stain of casual association. You look at his prolific home run numbers, you wonder how he built up his 250 pound physique, and you question how a player born in 1970 could still play at such a high level so late in his career.
The cynical among us wonder if his relative anonymity vis a vis his peers wasn't ultimately useful for him.
But there isn't an ounce of proof about his guilt. Not a shred.
As a kid, I owned a book listing every baseball great of every era. I knew Babe Ruth's home run numbers, Ted Williams' batting average, and Bob Gibson's ERA better than my phone number. No other sport better lends itself to statistical analysis and for a young boy this is a phase - usually right after dinosaurs, before girls - where we first learn the secret language of baseball. To this day, I can tell you that a batter who goes 7 for 18 over four games is batting .38888888 out of sheer rote memorization from scanning tables like a Hasidic scholar.
Now the numbers don't mean much.
This isn't some call for a time of innocence or naive assertion that baseball had a glory day clean from corruption in all of its forms - you can watch a Ken Burns documentary if you want to live that fantasy - but I do know that one of the great beauties of baseball, unlike any other popular sport, is the notion that players from different eras could play together today, that the game would still be recognizable to them, the constancy of its rhythms immutable. Statistics had meaning because baseball is a game almost perfectly measured by them and the game's seeming immutability allowed direct comparison across eras.
Statistics were a common language throughout the eras.
They were dialogue between the greats.
PEDs rendered that dialogue inarticulate and meaningless.
So when I saw that Alex Rodriguez hit his 600th home run, I shrugged. He's shouting in a language Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Ted Williams can't comprehend.