Thursday, October 04, 2001

For the record, timing is everything

        Roger Bannister held the world record for 46 days. Forty-seven years later, he's still the world's most famous miler.

        Moonlighting from the study of medicine, Bannister crossed the finish line at the Iffley Road track in Oxford on May 6, 1954, and instantly became an icon. In running the first sub-four-minute mile, Bannister achieved a breakthrough. Thirteen other men have held the mile record since, but few of them have held our interest.

        Records are not all created equal, and they can't all carry the same cachet in every season. Baseball's home run record meant different things when Mark McGwire broke it in 1998 than it does today.
This has less to do with the prickly personality of Barry Bonds or the perceived bias of the mainstream media than it does with rarity.

        When McGwire surpassed Roger Maris, he broke a record that was 37 years old and widely regarded as unapproachable. When McGwire ran his home run total to 70, he raised the bar almost beyond our powers of comprehension.

Perishable pursuits

        Now, three years later, home run records are lucky to outlast the hamburger relish in your refrigerator. Sammy Sosa has struck 60 homers three times in four years — more often than that feat had been accomplished in the whole history of baseball prior to 1998. Bonds, consequently, is working an audience that is harder to amaze.

        The San Francisco slugger's deeds are not greatly diminished by his difficult nature, nor by his race, nor by the Pacific time zone. Rather, they are reduced by their relative ease. The longer a record lasts, the more mystique it acquires.

        Some records endure like the pillars at Stonehenge — Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak; Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game — but most are as fragile as a crystal glass in a child's grip. In 1973, former baseball commissioner Ford Frick drew up a list of 10 records he considered out of reach. Only six of them are still standing. Walter Johnson's career strikeout record, No.4 on Frick's list, has since been surpassed by seven pitchers.

Emphasis on slugging

        Stylistically and strategically, baseball in the Barry Bonds era is not the same game Walter Johnson played. The parks are smaller, the balls are livelier and the hitters seldom temper their swings with two strikes.

        As salaries have escalated and fundamentals have eroded, hitters increasingly sacrifice consistent contact for the occasional longball. This leads to more home runs, more strikeouts and more runners stranded at third base.

        This approach works for Bonds because he is strong enough to drive the ball to all fields and patient enough to wait for his pitch. It doesn't work so well for people such as Pokey Reese, who averages nine strikeouts for every home run.

        But we digress. The point is that Bonds' feat has to be considered in context. If he has caused less of a stir than did McGwire, it is more a reflection of his timing than his temperament.

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