No Asterisk for Gaylord Perry
In 1964, Perry was considered a disappointment. Nearing his 26th birthday, he was consigned to long relief, which was reserved for the worst pitchers on the roster. He was probably two years away from being out of baseball. Then, teammate Bob Shaw taught him how to throw a spit-ball, a pitch which had been outlawed since 1920.
The spitter, with its unpredictable break, gave Perry the third pitch he needed to go with his fast ball and slider. He first tried it out in relief, in a memorable 22-inning game against the New York Mets. If memory serves, he pitched 10 scoreless innings in the game.
That earned him a chance to start, as well as relieve, and he started 19 games the rest of the year and another 26 the following year. In 1966, his breakout year, he started all but one of the 36 games in which he pitched and went 21-8.
Eventually, Perry won 314 games and two Cy Young Awards; since the Giants were foolish enough to trade him, the Cy Young honors came with Cleveland and San Diego, in 1972 and í78. He is in the Hall of Fame.
And it was all accomplished with an illegal pitch. At first, it was a true spitter but, when the rules were changed in 1967 so that a pitcher couldn't put his fingers to his mouth, Perry switched to using vaseline. Though it was widely known at the time what he was doing Ė and Perry admitted it in a post-career book Ė nobody ever caught him.
THERE WAS no shame to what he was doing, just admiration because he was getting away with it. Other pitchers were using tricks, too. One of the best-known in an earlier era was Preacher Roe, a key pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1948-54, who went 22-3 in 1951; Roeís out pitch was thought to be a spitter. In the later years of Whitey Fordís Hall of Fame career with the Yankees, catcher Elston Howard would rub the ball against his shin guards to cut it enough to give Ford an extra break on his pitches.
So, should we put an asterisk after the totals for Perry and Ford and throw them out of the Baseball Hall of Fame? Of course not. The idea is ridiculous -Ėbut so is the idea that asterisks should be put after the statistics of current sluggers, or that Mark McGwire should not be admitted to the Hall of Fame because he dodged questions in the dog-and-pony show a Congressional committee put on.
Frankly, Iím debating whether to vote for McGwire for the Hall of Fame because he didnít have a consistent career; because of injuries, there were seasons when he had very low productivity, even one when he was with the Aís when manager Tony La Russa kept him out of the final game so his average wouldnít sink below .200. He was a below average baserunner and only an average fielder at an undemanding position, so his power numbers are his only Hall of Fame credential, and Iím not sure theyíre enough to make up for his other weaknesses. But steroids will not enter into the equation for me.
THERE HAS always been cheating in baseball, and the only sin is getting caught, as Sammy Sosa was with a corked bat.
Itís not just the players, either. When the Giants played in New York, opposing teams were certain they had a spy with binoculars stealing the catcherís signs. Groundskeepers have traditionally altered the baselines, tilting them toward the playing field if their team has good bunters, so bunts would be more likely to stay fair. If their team didnít have good bunters, those baselines would tilt toward foul territory.
In a favorite moment of San Francisco Giants history, manager Alvin Dark ordered his groundskeeper to put extra water on the basepaths before a 1962 series with the Dodgers to keep Maury Wills from getting traction to steal second. There was so much water out there that the umpire ordered sand to be put down to soak up some of it.
The owners are not above tampering with the game, either. After the pitchers dominated in 1968 Ė only one American League hitter finished above .300, Carl Yastrzemski at .301 Ė they had the mound lowered, to bring offense back into the game. Thatís usually the M.O.: Owners want more offense because most fans prefer an 8-6 slugfest to a 1-0 pitching duel.
The usual method of producing more offense is to juice the ball. Baseball first did that before the 1911 season. Because hitters tried to make contact and didnít think of home runs, the power numbers didnít go up but batting averages did. Averages of .400 or better were common for the next 20 years.
When the ball was juiced again in 1920, hitters werenít thinking of home runs Ė except for Babe Ruth, who hit 54 that year, 59 the next and 60 in 1927, a record which stood until 1961. When it was juiced again in 1930, Hack Wilson hit a National League record 56 home runs and set a major league record of 191 RBIs which still stands, and Bill Terry hit .401, the last .400 year in the National League.
There was another more recent power jump, from 1992 to 1993. Itís unusual when power numbers jump as much as 10 per cent from season to season, but in í93, the average home run total for American League clubs jumped 16 per cent from the previous year and the average home run total for National League clubs jumped a startling 33 per cent.
Are we to believe that every power hitter in baseball suddenly got on steroids? Not likely. Itís much more likely that the ball was juiced again.
THERE IS NO question that there has been a big jump in power numbers in the last 12 years, but there are many factors, including the juicing of the ball. There are more hitter-friendly parks among the new parks, with notable exceptions in San Diego and Detroit. Expansion has meant that there are pitchers in major league uniforms who really should be in the minors.
So, before you jump to the conclusion that steroids are responsible for the big power numbers, itís wise to consider these other factors Ė and to consider baseball history. If Gaylord Perry doesnít deserve to have an asterisk after his statistics, neither does Barry Bonds.
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