When I was a young boy I received a copy of the Baseball Encyclopedia for my birthday. This was in the days before the internet, when if you wanted to find out the answer to a question you would need the appropriate book in hand. if you had a book report on space instead of using wikipedia, you needed to have the 30 or so volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica. Instead of google, your parents had to know the answer to all of life’s questions (or at least pretend to).
I was a baseball fan for as long as I could remember. Growing up, everyone on my block was a Yankee fan, primarily due to their dominance of the era (or the Mets futility). And since my father was an immigrant with no love for the game, I followed suit. I learned about the game as much as someone could on the street, in little league, and in front of the tv. But it wasn’t until that Baseball Encyclopedia fell on my lap that I could truly delve into the history of baseball. All of a sudden players that were dead decades before I was born came to life. It was easy to imagine Ty Cobb frequently circling the bases when you saw his career numbers: .366 BA, 295 3B, 892 SB. The dominance of Babe Ruth was clear looking at the numbers. His 54 homers in 1920 were more than any other team in the American League. For each era, there were numbers that stood out among the rest: Ted Williams’ .406 BA, Koufax’s 1.73 ERA, McLain’s 31 wins, Ryan’s 383 Ks, and Henderson’s 130 SB to name a few.
Like no other, baseball is ultimately a game of numbers. Just about every fan knows most of the important baseball records by heart, and baseball’s lexicon is filled with statistical references. There are .300 hitters, 20 win pitchers, 100 RBI guys, and the 40-40 club. In baseball statistical accomplishments are on par with championship moments. Kirk Gibson’s home run and the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” are just as historically significant as Aaron’s 715th home run and Joe Dimaggio’s 56 game hit streak. For baseball fans, there are just as many important events that helped to decide championships as there are numerical accomplishments.
The importance of numbers to baseball is why the steroid scandal is so damaging. The last few years baseball players have done things that for decades seemed impossible. It took Marris 34 years to break Ruth’s mark, and no one else was able to hit 60 in the 37 years since that event. For years very few pitchers reached the age of 40, and those that did where either knuckleballers like Hoyt Wilhelm or Phil Niekro or former fireballers reduced to marshmallow tossers like Jim Kaat and Tom Seaver. But then all of a sudden the game changed. The 60 home run mark is surpassed 6 times in 4 years. And Roger Clemens kept his fastball and won two more Cy Youngs past his 40th birthday. In baseball numbers that were holy had become desecrated, and the result is that baseball’s numerical legacy, which helped endear it to so many people, had become meaningless.
While it would be naive to think that baseball is the only sport that has players who are abusing steroids, it is probably the only mainstream sport that would suffer greatly from a steroid controversy. An NFL player is more likely to improve due to steroids, but the sport barely blinked an eye when one of it’s marquee players was caught using. Shawn Merriman was suspended for a few games, but was still voted to the Pro Bowl.
But I think basketball would be less immune to a steroid scandal than either baseball or football. The main reason is that basketball doesn’t lend itself to numbers like baseball does. Unlike baseball where there are many great statistical historical moments, in basketball there are very few. Other than Wilt’s 100 point game, and maybe his 50 ppg season, there aren’t many basketball numbers that matter. Without looking it up, I couldn’t tell you who has the NBA’s single season high in assists, rebounds, blocks, or steals. Instead basketball’s history is defined by events like Willis Reed’s game 7, Jordan’s shot against the Jazz, and “Havlicek Stole the Ball”. The NBA is also defined by their rivalries. Wilt vs. Russell. Bird vs. Magic. Shaq vs. Duncan. Jordan vs. Everyone.
So what would happen if the NBA were hit with a steroid scandal similar to the MLBs? In baseball it seems that steroids does two things: slow down the aging process and increase the potency of power hitters. But in basketball it’s hard to imagine that steroids would have as large an impact. While there are some areas where an increase in strength would be beneficial, there is still so much else required to be successful in basketball. In other words steroids isn’t going to make you deadly from 18 feet, allow you to make behind the back passes, or add 50 points to your free throw average. The player type that is most likely to improve their on the court performance due to steroids is the aging vet looking for the fountain of youth or bigmen that rely on their physical strength and have little skill.
So although basketball is hindered by not having a rich statistical past like baseball, it helps inoculate the sport from the steroid scandal baseball is currently suffering through. Additionally basketball is reliant on skills that aren’t aided purely by brute strength. Which means steroids can’t turn Dwight Howard into Wilt Chamberlain. And after witnessing what McGwire, Bonds, and Clemens did to baseball, that’s a good thing.