The big news in sports in the last few days has been Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron’s epic home run record: 755 career home runs.
(For anyone who’s unfamiliar with baseball, a guy called the pitcher throws a hard round ball that this other guy, the batter, tries to hit with a big piece of wood. The best the batter can do is hit the ball clean out of the field, an event called a home run. It’s similar to a six in cricket.)
Bonds’ new record has largely been marred by allegations of steroid use, which Bonds firmly denies. The fact is, whether or not Bonds took steroids is largely irrelevant; the whole idea of breaking a long-held record in any sport is preposterous. Here are seven reasons breaking old sports records doesn’t really mean anything.
1. Equipment has changed
Pick your sport. Be it baseball bats, golf clubs, or hockey sticks, the equipment of today is far different than what was used 30, 50 or 100 years ago. Babe Ruth swung a veritable ax handle compared to the bats of today. And don’t get me started on the advantages afforded by that armor that Bonds wears.
2. Rules have changed
Baseball, like many other sports, is subject to near yearly rule revision. For instance, the strike zone is far different now than in past. Try hitting 750 homers when you have to swing at everything from your ankles to your neck!
One of the most aggravating examples of this is in Olympic power lifting. The “Clean and Jerk” was so named because the lifter had to project the bar cleanly from the ground to his shoulders, i.e., without touching any other part of his body along the way. This meant the lifter had to bend his or her arms, which reduced the energy transfer between the lifter’s body and the bar. Now, the bar is permitted to touch the hips, so the lifter can maintain straight arms, and thus can lift more weight. The new lifter never really beat the old records, because they were performing a different lift!
3. Training Methods have Advanced
Aerobic and Anaerobic training have come a long way in the last hundred years. We know far more now about the relative effectiveness of different exercises and routines. Besides personal trainers, the modern athlete has physiotherapists, massage therapists, chiropractors and even orthopedic surgeons to keep him or her healthy and rehab injuries. More specialized training equipment is available, not to mention the advances in computerized swing analysis. Hank Aaron didn’t have a computer to analyze readings of his swing and tell him how to optimize his power output.
4. Diet has changed
Barry bonds has Vector, protein shakes, and mineral supplements with Major League Baseball’s blessing, regardless of whether or not he took illegal performance enhancers. Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs on cigars, beer, and hot dogs. (Thanks to JG for this point.)
5. Opponents have changed
This may be stating the obvious, but the pitchers faced by todays batters are significantly different from the pitchers of old. Two major drivers of this difference are 1) the pitchers have access to all the same advantages as other athletes and 2) there are more teams now, so an individual batter will see the best pitchers less often.
In any team sport, advances in technology may affect offense and defense asymetrically. If technology improvements favor offense, then scoring X points in the past was presumably more difficult than scoring X points today.
6. Playing fields have changed
If the size of fields have changed, in any sport, it changes the game. At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s harder to hit balls out of a bigger field. The introduction of astroturf has also changed baseball among other sports.
7. Norms have changed
There was a time when a pitcher was expected to pitch a complete game. Now, teams routinely have a pool of relief pitchers, an eighth inning specialist and a closer. This means less at-bats against tired pitchers. While other examples exist, I’ll leave it for now; perhaps interested readers might suggest other sports norms in the comments.
Based on this analysis, I conclude that the whole concept of Bonds breaking Aaron’s record, or Aaron breaking Ruth’s record, is as absurd as arguing who was a better player, Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretsky. The game has changed. I’m not saying whether it’s easier or harder to hit a home run now than in past, just that the game is so different that quibbling about the relative achievements of players from different eras is just bullshit.