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September 20, 2004 12:00 am

You Could Look It Up: On Bonds and The Babe

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Steven Goldman

When Bonds passes Aaron, if not before, there will be a rush to anoint him as the greatest something. Greatest home run hitter. Greatest actor in a non-singing part in a musical. Greatest beer and cheese combination. Greatest baseball player. This would be extremely short-sighted. To displace Ruth as the greatest ballplayer of all time, the aspirant must meet a higher standard. If the greatest baseball player is measured not just in muscles and eye-hand coordination but in his impact on sports and society as a whole, then Babe Ruth owns the title and has never lost it, never wavered in his possession of it, and never will.

Even quiet George Sisler, whose single-season record for base hits in a season may be surpassed by Ichiro Suzuki, has gotten more face time than the Babe lately. Sisler even has a statue outside of Busch Stadium, a ballpark in which he never played. Ruth, who did play in Yankee Stadium--often called the house that he built--has no such monument in the Bronx. That is, unless you count the headstone and plaque (there is a reason generations of children have assumed Ruth is buried under there) now removed from play, lonely in Monument Park. Current featured exhibits at the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore are on the Orioles--not the Jack Dunn ones that Ruth played for but the current Peter Angelos also-rans--and the Colts.

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March 6, 2004 12:00 am

You Could Look It Up: Spring Training, What's It Good For?

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Steven Goldman

The history of spring training is one of ongoing professionalization and standardization, which is a 13-syllable way of saying, "All eccentricities have been stomped out of it." In the early days of spring training, teams lacked set destinations. There were no permanent Florida or Arizona complexes, the Dodger installation at Vero Beach not coming until mid-century. Depending on the year and where the manager felt like spending his spring, teams trained in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Catalina Island, California, the Dominican Republic. Ernest Hemingway figures in a number of spring training stories because the hard-drinking Papa frequently crossed paths with the hard-drinking Dodgers when they trained in Cuba during the 1940s. Most of the stories revolve around Hemingway and closer Hugh Casey getting drunk and beating the heck out of each other. As Papa wrote in The Sun Also Rises: "Oh, Jake," Brett said, "we could have had such a damned good time together." "Yes," I said. "Isn't it pretty to think so?" Today, teams have expensive stadiums waiting for them, some appendages of theme parks. There are no more holdouts, no Rickey Hendersons who report late because they can't be bothered to start on time. But for Dominicans with visa problems, punctuality is the rule. If the training season is used for anything more fun than training, it's kept on the down low.

In the early days of spring training, teams lacked set destinations. There were no permanent Florida or Arizona complexes, the Dodger installation at Vero Beach not coming until mid-century. Depending on the year and where the manager felt like spending his spring, teams trained in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Catalina Island, California, the Dominican Republic. Ernest Hemingway figures in a number of spring training stories because the hard-drinking Papa frequently crossed paths with the hard-drinking Dodgers when they trained in Cuba during the 1940s. Most of the stories revolve around Hemingway and closer Hugh Casey getting drunk and beating the heck out of each other. As Papa wrote in The Sun Also Rises:

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Dr. Chris Yeager: I finished my Ph.D. at Southern Miss and my study was on the biomechanics of the baseball swing--specifically the effect of the stride and weight shift in the swing. Based on that and my research is where I draw my philosophy and conclusions on how force is produced in the baseball swing.

Dr. Chris Yeager is one of the brightest minds looking at the science of hitting. His scientific approach, based on the principles of physics, is detailed in a video he has made available. We spoke to him by phone from his home near the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

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I can think of only one good thing about Ken Griffey Jr.'s injury: it's a legend in the making, right up there with the Curse of the Bambino, and it reinforces why baseball is the greatest game on earth.

I can think of only one good thing about Ken Griffey Jr.'s injury: it's a legend in the making, right up there with the Curse of the Bambino, and it reinforces why baseball is the greatest game on earth.

Before we proceed further, know that I take no joy in watching an All-Century Team player's career so ruthlessly derailed. Long-time readers of my columns will remember the scathing denunciations I leveled on Junior for trying to screw his old team on his way out of Seattle. Griffey said straight out that he'd use his 10-and-5 rights to veto a trade to Cincinnati if the Reds had to give up too much to get him.

However, we're all guilty of occasionally giving in to our darker sides, so why should Griffey be any different? We should cut him the same slack that we hope for when we lapse into the less-than-noble, selfish half of our personality.

So it's not the Griffey injury that's amazing, but rather the unpredictable results from a given set of circumstances. Babe Ruth was a top left-handed pitcher with a great bat when he was sold from the Boston Red Sox. He went on to become on the game's greatest sluggers, rewriting the future of two American League franchises.

At the time of the sale, nobody could've envisioned how everything would ultimately shake out--that's what makes it legendary.

Let's revisit the circumstances of the 1999-2000 offseason. The Seattle Mariners were coming off a disappointing third-place finish in the AL West. The Cincinnati Reds had narrowly missed reaching the post-season, losing a one-game playoff to the New York Mets for the NL wild card. During that season, Ken Griffey, Jr. had been named to the All-Century team.

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That's a shame, because when an athlete does something truly magnificent and unprecedented, we are unable to appreciate it. When a baseball player produces one of the finest seasons in the 125-year history of the sport, we are unable to distinguish his performance from the merely great. In a society that uses "Ruthian" to denote a gargantuan amount of, well, anything, few notice that a player is having a season that Babe Ruth himself would envy. While Barry Bonds may be having the most valuable season in the history of baseball, there are those who can't decide if he's even the Most Valuable Player in the National League this year.

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This week's question was sent in by Andrea Trento:

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It wasn't that long ago, really. In 1992, 30 homers would have placed a hitter fourth in the National League. These days, a player could hit 30 home runs and never show up on the typical fan's radar. We're in the middle of the biggest home run jump in baseball history. (Big news, to you all, I'm sure. Tomorrow's feature: the Pope wears a skullcap!)

If the sportswriters of the future aren't careful, then hitters of the '90s are going to be seriously overrepresented in the Hall of Fame, the same way that hitters of the '20s and '30s are today. People looked at the gaudy batting averages of the era (Freddy Lindstrom hit .379 in 1930! Ooooooh!) and instinctively viewed then through the prism of their own era (a .379 average in 1976, when the Vets' committee inducted Lindstrom, would have been 40 points higher than any major leaguer actually hit that year).

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