National treasure Bill James takes to the pixels of Slate with an article about Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Babe Ruth. The basic premise breaks down like this:
1) The most famous Yankee would have taken steroids if given the opportunity because he corked his bat, ate lots of hot dogs, and drank prodigiously.
2) Americans inherently disobey rules, and this is one of the things that makes this country great.
3) Lay off of Bonds, Clemens, and the rest of the steroid generation, and let them be “arrogant and charming and irresponsible.” Instead, chase the people causing real damage to society, the banks.
James, who authored a statistical revolution in baseball, makes his argument with a couple key points. Namely:
It is a very American thing, that we don’t believe too much in obeying the rules. We are not a nation of Hall Monitors; we are a nation that tortures Hall Monitors. We are people who push the rules.
Debatable, but probably accurate enough. James extends this to baseball by noting that Branch Rickey, the man who found Jackie Robinson, was one of these rule breakers.
Branch Rickey was that way. The “rule” in Branch Rickey’s time was that blacks and whites were supposed to go their separate ways. Branch Rickey thought that was a stupid rule, and he wouldn’t follow it. Commissioner Landis hated Rickey because he was always pushing the limits of the rules, trying to get by with whatever he could get by with.
Baseball, and America, is undoubtedly better for Rickey’s decision. But there’s a big difference between desegregating the sport and hitting 73 home runs or winning seven Cy Young Awards. These two types of rule-breaking are not the same.
Now, back to the Babe:
“There is no real difference between sending Babe Ruth to jail and sending Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens to jail,” James writes. “The only relevant difference is the difference between America in 2010 and America in 1940.”
But that’s besides this point. Should we send the players to jail? No. Do we need Bill James to tell us why not? Not at all.