Any day now, an American League pitcher will throw a fastball when he should have thrown a slider, and someone will promptly edit that hapless hurler’s Wikipedia page to note that he gave up Alex Rodriguez’s 600th home run. Baseball people will go through the motions talking about history and legacy and tradition for a little while, and then it’ll be back to business as usual. But no one will really care. They’ll say they care, and they’ll act like they care, and the media will cover it like they care, but they will be lying. There’s any number of reasons for this- A-Rod’s not having a great season otherwise; he’s generally pretty unlikable; it’s “the Year of the Pitcher”™- but I think the biggest is that prior to last season, A-Rod admitted to taking steroids between 2001 and 2003. This is the sort of thing that sours people on a player.
Baseball people treat numbers like gospel except when it is inconvenient to do so. Last September, switch-hitting Yankee outfielder Nick Swisher hit two home runs in one game, one from the left side of the plate and one from the right. It was the tenth time he’d done so in his career, tying the number of times this feat had been accomplished by another Yankee outfielder, some guy named Mickey Mantle. After Swisher’s second knock, all the sacred statistics went right out the window for the announcers calling the game. Mitigating circumstances started coming out of the woodwork and poor Swisher got kicked around by his hometown announce team because he, an at-best above average player, had the temerity to accomplish the same thing as a player universally acknowledged as great. So numbers matter more than anything in baseball, until they run up against our preconceived notions, and then they aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. This may seem like hypocrisy, but personally, I’m all for it.
The one pastime I enjoy more than watching baseball is reading comic books. In comic books, when the decades of continuity associated with a long-standing character like Batman or Spider-Man become excessively complicated, the publishers will use a practice known as a “retcon”- short for “retroactive continuity”- to undo some things and make the mythology a bit smoother. What this means is that a lot of things that writers wrote and artists drew and fans read don’t count anymore. Characters like Bat-Mite and events like Peter Parker’s wedding never occurred, even though readers remember them occurring. Retcons happen a lot in comics, but they happen in other forms of entertainment too, like the James Bond movies.
Like movies or comics, sports are a form of entertainment. Hitting a home run is no more or less real an accomplishment than drawing an issue of Superman or playing 007. Each act takes a certain set of skills and talents that most people simply don’t have. But orange kryptonite and Pierce Brosnan are tossed aside as soon as they become inconvenient while the numbers of obvious and (in some cases) admitted rulebreakers like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez stand and get fretted over forever. Why? Why should sports be the one form of entertainment where everything that happens counts forever, regardless of later developments? Why can’t we retcon the record books?
A-Rod’s going to hit his 600th home run, soon, and he’ll be only the seventh player ever to have hit that many. But his admission of steroid usage for three years in Texas, during which time he hit 156 homers, makes this inconvenient. So we- fans, writers, statisticians, historians, people who care about baseball- should just agree to ignore it, and this week, when A-Rod hammers an unfortunate fastball into the night, celebrate that he has done it four hundred and forty-four times.
If Brendan Johnston is being entirely honest, he’ll probably be the guy who edits that pitcher’s Wikipedia page. You can follow him at twitter.com/Brendan42.