Dayn Perry of Baseball Prospectus has a column on Foxsports.com suggesting that sentimentality has made Babe Ruth's numbers more impressive than they actually are. And, thus, no tears should be shed when Barry Bonds passes Ruth's home run mark.
Bottom line, though, it's not about Ruth losing his spot on the home run list. That's not what drives baseball fans crazy. It's about Bonds climbing the list when he's done so on an uneven playing field.
Yes, there are factors in every era that effect the numbers one way or another. But all players in those eras are subject to the same factors. That's not the case in the steroid era (which is also why
Perry was off base in a 2003 article for Reason magazine when he wrote, "As for baseballís competitive integrity, steroids pose no greater threat than did other historically contingent 'enhancements,' ranging from batting helmets to the color line.")
As to whether Ruth is overrated, Perry makes three points:
1. Yankee Stadium's 295-foot porch to right
Fair enough to a point, except that Ruth hit more career homers on the road than at home and hit more road homers in his prime, from 1923 (Yankee Stadium's first year) to 1932 ( count them here), including in 1927 when 32 of his then-record 60 homers came on the road. Safe to say, he was dominant everywhere, not just at Yankee Stadium.
2. Racism of the era
Again, fair to a point, but every player in the pre-integrated era had this advantage. Players must be judged against what they did in their eras. Ruth towered over his era. (Check out how many years he led in OPS.)
Bonds, always a great player, did not tower over his era until recently. From '86-'99, he hit 1 HR every 15.3 at-bats; from '00-'05, he hit 1 HR every 8.2 at-bats. That's astounding. (Oh, and he did that at an age when one would reasonably expect his numbers to deteriorate, not rise to among the all-time greats.) Wonder what caused that?
3. Ruth's ignored moral failings (booze, food, women) vs. Bonds'criticized moral failings ("alleged cheating")
But Ruth gourging himself on hot dogs did not effect other players or the game's history. Steroid use among even a few places a burden on other competitors to keep up. On Stephen A. Smith's ESPN show in March, for example, Mike Schmidt said he probably would have used steroids. Smith asked why, when Schmidt was already hitting 35-45 homers a year without steroids. Schmidt replied that if he was hitting 35 on naturally ability and another guy was hitting 55 on the juice, he would have felt compelled as a competitor to keep up. Therefore, while Ruth's failings were personal, Bonds' have been felt across the game.
It's a fair argument to say 714 in 2006 means more than 714 in Ruth's time. But not that way Bonds has done it. Allegedly.