With tonight’s Houston/Philadelphia game washed out, we can turn our attentions — as Chris Russo did for most of Tuesday — to Ryan Howard’s 2006 campaign. Impressive though it may be, the New York Sun’s Tim Marchman reminds us that not only is the Philly 1B’s display of power hardly out of character, but he’s not really pursuing a record, either.
Howard doesn’t look like a freak out of the pages of a bodybuilding magazine, certainly, but that doesn’t mean much. He is subject to the same drug testing anyone else is, and he hasn’t failed, but there’s a reason those tests are said to be, more than anything else, IQ tests. The only real answer is that no one knows if Howard is clean.
I don’t say this to impugn him, just to interject a note of caution as people prepare to be triumphal should he pass Maris. There were many euphoric and glowing testimonies to the spirit of McGwire and Sosa written eight years ago that seem in retrospect incredibly foolish and naÃ¯ve. The lesson the intervening years should have taught us isn’t that all ballplayers are on steroids, but rather that we should presume we know a lot less, one way or the other, than we think we do about these matters.
The fairest thing to do is to say that Howard hasn’t failed a test and should thus be presumed clean, and also to say that merely not failing a test is no reason to trumpet a player’s integrity. If this kind of painfully ambivalent conclusion is the best we can do, it’s at least better than we could do in a world without testing.
At the least, there’s nothing particularly out of character about Howard’s hitting. Two years ago, he hit 46 home runs in 131 minor league games; last year, he hit 16 home runs in a third of a season with the Phillies.
Putting it all together, there’s nothing about Howard’s startling performance that should really raise any suspicions of any sort at all. After what we’ve seen in baseball, it would be silly to simply brand it legitimate, and clean as Howard might be, he’s not going to be the “real” record holder or anything of the sort even if he does pass Maris. The single-season home run record is held by Barry Bonds, and Howard isn’t getting it. There’s no grand lesson to be learned here; a hellaciously talented young player is having an awesome season because he’s a great hitter getting his first chance to play every day in the majors. Nothing more, and nothing else.