by user DNL

Imagine for a moment the following player's season:

more "on the DL" opinions
  • Sixteen triples, a mark passed only five times in the last 15 years.
  • Seventeen stolen bases, good enough for 10th in the American League in the year in question.
  • Forty-four doubles, second in the AL that year, and the same amount as the NL leader.
  • An on-base percentage of .427, higher than all but one season put up by Rickey Henderson.

Good enough to be your leadoff batter? No doubt. Sure, he was caught stealing 13 times, but he nevertheless scored 118 runs. He gets on base at a sickeningly good clip, and has the doubles-power you hope for from your leadoff guy. He's an All-Star based on the above alone.

So, who is this mystery player?

Truth is, he doesn't exist. He's a mathematical creation. He's Babe Ruth, 1921 -- if you convert each of his 59 home runs into harmless outs.

Over the past few weeks, as Barry Bonds's assault of Ruth's 714 home runs has become a given, many have argued that Ruth's "record" is not one. Hank Aaron has the record for most career home runs (755). When Bonds hits the inevitable 715, he simply moves into second place, which begs the question, "so what?" Typically, no one cares when a player moves onto second place, and exceptions to that rule (e.g. Pete Rose passing Stan Musial; Kobe Bryant's 81 point game) have alternate explanations (most hits in the National League; comparisons to Michael Jordan). Indeed, Major League Baseball is taking that exact line:

  "Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's records," [Bud] Selig said during the Associated Press Sports Editors' annual meeting with league commissioners in New York. "We don't celebrate anybody the second or third time in.  

Of course not. But that's hardly why, steroids aside, Bonds should be commemorated. He's not just moving into second. He's passing the Babe.

Perhaps because Ruth's records have been falling left and right, the sheer on his greatness has started to fade. When Ruth retired, He had the most home runs, RBI, walks, and extra-base hits for one's career. His career on-base percentage and slugging percentage also were high marks. Only SLG remains atop the list. His single-season HR marks have met an even worse fate. At his retirement, that leaderboard had him in first, second, fourth, and fifth. His best season (60 home runs in 1927) does not even crack the top five (#8).

But Ruth was better than most realize. His seat on sports' Mount Rushmore is not only deserved, but obvious. Let's go back to the 1921 season.

First, we start off with the guy I describe above—the prototypical All-Star leadoff hitter, save for the caught-stealing problem. He's already going to make your fantasy team.

Then, factor back in 25 home runs. Yes, he hit 59, but the next best guy -- Bob Meusel -- hit only 24. Suddenly, he goes from great leadoff hitter into great player. Leads the league in home runs; second in doubles; tied for fourth in triples. He already has a stellar OBP (twenty-five fewer outs will raise his .427), but he's also batting .315.

Then, for good measure, tack on 34 more home runs.

Further context? Sure. That season, Ruth set a record that, unlike most of his other's, has yet to fall: 119 extra base hits. That record may never fall -- Albert Pujols, even given his ridiculously hot start, is on pace for a "mere" 113. He'll actually have to pick up the pace in order to pass Ruth.

But most importantly, and in general parlance, Ruth's 1921 season is considered a great one, but not his best. It wasn't like 1927, where he slugged an even 60 homers. Or like 1920, when he had more homers than the next three guys in the American League combined. Or 1923, where he hit .393 and got on base at a .545 clip. Or 1924, when he fell just a few RBI short of the Triple Crown.

Ruth's monolithic greatness has, wrongfully, been diminished. I say "wrongfully" because while many of his marks have been eclipsed, it has required a group effort (and a druggist or three) to pass them. Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, but never came close to 714. Aaron had 755, but never once cracked 50. The list goes on.

To claim that Bonds' march toward 715 is less than special because Hank Aaron already got there is simply ridiculous. For better or for worse, he is passing baseball's first and only true legend. Had he done so cleanly, there would be no excuse for not marking the occasion.


Thu 05/11/06, 1:21 pm EST

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