Given baseball’s various claims to timelessness or to essential qualities that transcend history in order to make it the unique ‘National Pastime,’ it is often difficult to locate the true significance of certain moments. This is especially true given the high value placed on statistics, which have been kept, more or less, since the very beginning. But how do we make comparisons? How do we say what accomplishment was greater than the next? Can we?
In recent years we have become appropriately skeptical of grand claims, especially when it comes to certain records and statistics. For example, we recognize the injustice that it does to the home run record if we do not grant each player’s number its historical distinctiveness; it simply is not useful to compare Willie Mays to Sammy Sosa or Hank Aaron to Barry Bonds. Each era is unique. This is not even to discount the numbers of the steroids era as much as to use it as an example of when historical comparisons are useful and when they are not.
This fresh and painful example illustrates the fact that it is rarely useful to try and compare numbers from such widely different time periods: live balls and dead balls, high mounds and low mounds, players who smoked and drank to players who used PEDs. For whatever claims baseball nostalgia might make for timelessness, the statistics are not; each record needs to be granted its historical reality.
This is the easiest to recognize when that reality makes a record unimpressive or irrelevant. The most obvious example, once again, has to do with home runs. Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in a season. Nobody will ever touch that record, but we do not celebrate it. It is particular to its era, because there will (hopefully) never be a moment like it again in baseball. It is absurd when considered in another period of baseball’s history, whether 20 years prior or 10 years after. It is not absurd because it is any type of accomplishment, but rather because it is so comically inflated that it does not even compute.
This same approach needs to be applied to records that we celebrate. It is easy to consider a record in its unique moment when it makes us uncomfortable. And while it may seem more difficult when it is a record we are inclined to celebrate, it does not have to be so. Consider Jamie Moyer‘s historic victory last night.
Sometimes understanding each moment in its uniqueness actually makes the accomplishment more interesting. It was surely impressive when Jack Quinn won a game for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1932 at age 49, 70 days. It is also impressive, in a wholly different way, for Jamie Moyer to do it in 2012, for the Colorado Rockies, at age 49, 150 days. This is not to diminish what Quinn accomplished, but rather to understand how unique Moyer’s accomplishment is in its moment, as we understand it now.
Players simply do not play past their early 40s in the 21st century. Without knowing exactly why this is true, we can at the very least recognize that this trend is discernible. This made Julio Franco equally extraordinary when he played at age 49 in 2007.
In previous days of baseball players as non-athletes, especially pitchers, somebody trotting out to the mound as a 40-something might not demand a second look. But now, as we label every pitcher as blue chip, work horse, or established veteran, and as we watch teams obsess over pitch counts and arm fatigue, starters rarely make it into the second half of their 30s, let alone anything in their 40s. Certainly not if they just finished recovering from Tommy John surgery as they approach age 50.
Pitchers do not work like Moyer anymore. If an aspiring pitching prospect advertised himself with Moyer’s repertoire he would garner zero interest: “I do not throw hard. I locate and my pitches move, and I’m smart.” Scouts would stop listening as soon as they heard “tops out at 80 MPH.” From our perspective, it seems like they look for the “electric” stuff and velocity first, even if it’s raw, because they figure they can develop and teach the attributes on which Moyer relies later on.
Baseball in 2012 is more specialized. Players work through specific and intense training programs. They have dietitians. Hitters are groomed through a long and meticulous process from the moment a team invests in them. As these trends continue to grow, the types of hitters Moyer faces (even on the lowly San Diego Padres) are unique to this time. Even if we are in a period that seems to favor pitching (how many recent years now have been the “year of the pitcher?”), the way that hitters refine their craft, from specific weight lifting and training to specializing in a certain facet of offense to the technological advances in the equipment they use, means that Jamie Moyer’s style, whether he was 29 or 49, isn’t supposed to work.
Finally, we analyze players, teams, and games at an extraordinary and sometimes overwhelming rate. This does not mean that there is no such thing as a “throwback” or “old school” player in this harsh reality. It means that there are many opportunities to discount or diminish something. It looked like Jamie Moyer was nothing more than a gimmick, perhaps even a publicity stunt. And those opinions circulated at an astounding rate. Just like the celebration of Moyer’s accomplishment will be entirely different than if he won this game in a different historical moment, there was that much more skepticism leading up to it.
We will not know the historical reality of 2012 and this era in baseball until it is, well, history. But we can reasonably speculate about what will stand out as unique as these years are considered in the larger arc of baseball and its records. It is imperative for the critical usefulness of any debate about baseball accomplishments to grant each period its distinctiveness. This does not necessarily have to take anything away from the record in question, even that is what happens in certain cases. Sometimes this approach enhances the accomplishment. That is what we are talking about, at least right now, when we look at Jamie Moyer’s moment last night.
What Moyer did would be awe-inspiring no matter when he did it, but it is fascinating to consider the reasons why it is such in 2012.