Bonds may break the poetry of baseball stats
Tainted by steroid scandals, Barry Bonds's impending historic home run may not soar in the public's estimation.
New Paltz, N.Y. — A year or so before "Hammerin' Hank" Aaron would hit number 715 and break Babe Ruth's record for lifetime home runs, Midwestern writer Jim Hazard wrote an unforgettable poem on the one book he'd want to have if he was marooned on a desert island.
It was not the Bible, the presumptive hands-down favorite in genteel parlor games. Nor was it the kind of larger-than-a-lifetime-to-read literary work such as Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" or Dante's "Inferno." Nor Shakespeare's eternally insufferable "Hamlet;" nor James Joyce's even more insufferable, "Finnegan's Wake." No. In Mr. Hazard's extraordinary poem, he created an elegant, perhaps even transcendent logic for his desert-island book: "The Baseball Encyclopedia."
Thirty-odd years later I remain certain that anyone who truly loves the game of baseball would understand immediately why Hazard's selection of the Encyclopedia was the perfect choice. For the uninitiated, however, please know that the book contains no poetry or ancient wisdom, only baseball statistics. Nothing more. Just numbers. And not just numbers, per se, but the veritable lifetime statistics of every player who ever played in the major leagues.
They are all there in the good book, from guys who played in only one game such as Barney Martin (two innings pitched) and Eddie Gaedel (one at-bat – he walked) to the famously infamous Pete Rose, who, despite his betting scandal, holds the record for the most games played (3,562) and at-bats (14,053). It doesn't matter if the player's career lasted one day or the record of 27 years (Nolan Ryan, 1966-1993), all the figures are "lifetime" stats.
In a game where statistics take on near-religious life-and-death significance, everything is there in the good book for the marooned reader. And it's all about the numbers. Through the creation of the endless permutations, probabilities, and possibilities that make baseball the most holy of all games, the purest of the pure books would lend meaning and excitement to one's solitary hours unto eternity.
But now with the steroid scandals besmirching Barry Bonds's quest to overtake Aaron's 755, the most sacred of the sacred statistics are on the verge of being rendered meaningless.
Following in its nihilistic path, the audacious notion that the Encyclopedia might be the perfect desert-island book will be unofficially rained out. Canceled. Written off. Rip up the tickets.
Equally troubling to me is the fact that the ruination is not just for the baseball faithful who live and breathe nuances of ERAs, RBIs, and OBPs, but for Hazard's remarkable poem about the good book. As 756 soars over the fence any day now, Hazard's poem will immediately lose its tension, its rhythmic edge, its subtext. It becomes a called third strike. Stick it in some unreadable literary anthology and close the cover.
In that inglorious moment, the debate will focus on whether to put an asterisk next to Mr. Bonds's record, a way of acknowledging that the jaw-dropping achievement, was in all likelihood tainted. The baseball trinity – the commissioner, owners, and players – will be caught in an inescapable and humiliating rundown between third and home in what will inevitably be the last out of the statistics game.
But asterisk or no asterisk, when Bonds hits No. 756, all the sacred records will be rendered meaningless. The number itself will have lost its magical quality.
Just as the great Yogi Berra foretold, the game, which is never over until it's over, will be over. No way to make any sense of the numbers and no way to take them on faith. Without the holy statistics, baseball really is just a game after all, and Hazard's poem, "Its garland briefer than a girl's."
• Steven Lewis is a freelance writer and the author of the forthcoming "Fear and Loathing of Boca Raton: A Hippies' Guide to the Second Sixties."