Straight From the Mule's Mouth

by Sam Rendall | 5/22/06 5:00am

There are somewhere between a half- and a full-million words in the English language. But only a few of them deserve an elevated treatment. Whether someone is discussing the peculiarities of pro athletics, Cromwell's beheading of Charles I or the most complicated tenets of Kierkegaard's philosophy, our grasp of any situation can only be explained by accounting for "context." It defines us.

I'll start with a personal anecdote: After more than a year into this journalistic expedition, I feel that it's time to genuinely explain the significance of the column title, "Straight from the Mule's Mouth."

At first glance, the word "mule" connotes a pitiable creature -- a complacent, half-bred stepchild of the equine family incapable of reproducing; engineered for labor, but with hardly a trace of the distinguished poise of an actual stallion.

That said, nicknames are an integral part of most people's close day-to-day social interactions. Somewhere back down the line, "Samuel" was abandoned for the unique and abbreviated moniker of "Mule." (Truth be told, I regret that my name wasn't a bit closer to Secretariat.)

I can't take credit for the nickname, nor can I lay claim to the titling of my column. We can attribute all that creativity to our emerging Poet Laureate, who coincidentally has fallen into a multitude of playfully derogatory pseudonyms himself.

But what then about context? You take a name for an unnaturally created pack animal, make it funny and make it stand for a little something more than its pathetic realistic counterpart. On some level, it's nothing more than an inside joke. But inside jokes too need context. Without the context, the name would mean nothing. With it, I'll just assume it fits me.

Just like real life, context is tied up with absolutely everything in sports. We all desire to accept numbers as facts, or indisputable evidence of an accomplishment. Perhaps we accept the data for the benefit of society, though we just as frequently accept the statistics for individual recognition.

But the statistics the networks compile from all the sports games -- along with the plethora of information that anyone can download in real time from ESPN -- cannot incorporate the crucial aspect of the context within the game. That's the x-factor you can only hope to grasp by devoting your life to watching or attending as many sports games as possible. Sure, you can watch the numbers if you want, but it's only in comparison to the players out there that one can be judged.

The topic is not abstract. I'm not trying to put an asterisk on every milestone passed over the last decade. Baseball never made steroids against the rules; McGuire, Bonds Sosa, Giambi, Sheffield, etc. were looking for advantages, but Major League Baseball gave them no deterrent to try something that might make them $5 million or more a year richer on their next contract.

But instead of putting an asterisk next to achievements that, proven illegal or not, each demonstrated excellent performances, you have to break them down by periods.

When Cy Young won his 511 games, baseball pitching etiquette in the majors was very different from that of today. Young was expected to pitch entire games, and had many more starts than his modern counterparts.

Young was also pitching against a different breed of hitters, the size and strength of whom can't compare to the batsmen of today. While Young's record won't be touched for a long, long time, comparing Roger Clemens to Cy Young is impractical in such different eras.

Rules change, and records have to be reevaluated. With the rapid advance of golf technology in recent years -- the same technology that required Augusta to lengthen its storied course -- scores are falling.

Tiger Woods, anomaly that he is, has finished an unheard-of 18-under par in the U.S. Open. Sam Snead was also an amazing golfer who won a record 82 PGA events, but so much has changed in the sport that it's hard to compare their feats.

And while much of this may seem a bit obvious to grasp, the point is this: Baseball has lived through its steroids era, and no matter how many committees they had to investigate steroid-use in the 1990s, the fact is that (a lot of) these guys were cheating the system. Unfortunately for baseball, the drive to be the best and to make the pages of the history books got too strong, and people took unfair advantages.

Every sport has to reevaluate its records in context while accepting that the sport evolves. Baseball, unfortunately, now has a 10-plus year window in which the context of steroids is required to understand where all of the inflated numbers came from.