Occasionally, baseball players lose ownership of their own names. Steve Blass, Mario Mendoza and Tommy John have become adjectives, terminology rather than personality, their careers condensed into a single trait. Such is also the fate of Brady Anderson, who played fifteen seasons in the major league and yet in a very real sense played only one. In that infamous year of 1996, the reedy Anderson hit fifty home runs, nearly a quarter of his career total. It’s an accomplishment that only twenty-two players in baseball history can claim, and yet it’s invariably followed by an invisible asterisk. It’s not that the home runs didn’t happen; it’s that they shouldn’t have.
The value embedded in the phrase “Brady Anderson”, naturally, is its connection to the steroid era. It’s one of those cumbersome tasks that every discussion like this has to start with, even though author and reader alike already understand the implications. Amazing feats of baseball abounded in the era directly following Anderson: names like Luis Gonzalez, Ken Caminiti and Bret Boone flung themselves onto the headlines, while Sosa and McGwire smeared their fingerprints ontorecord books, distending the numbers. The resulting chaos has left fans weary and confused, unable and unwilling to sort through the ashes. Anderson has firmly denied any steroid use, but such denials are useless; it isn’t Brady Anderson that has become attached to juicing, but greatness itself.
Several months ago, Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated wrote an article about Jose Bautista. Bautista’s career began even more ignominiously than Anderson’s, and has since soared even higher. And much like Anderson, Bautista has faced a significant amount of scrutiny for his achievements. Posnanski begins with the simple question: “Do you believe in miracles?” He then conjures the familiar names of the great and unlikely, Lance Armstrong and Kurt Warner and Dazzy Vance. We’ve grown skeptical, as a nation and as a sport.
It’s the ultimate condemnation of Anderson and Bautista: what they did doesn’t make sense. But was Brady Anderson’s 1996 a miracle? Is Jose Bautista’s ascension? Voltaire wrote on the subject of miracles in his Dictionnaire Philosophique, defining a miracle as “the violation of those divine and eternal laws. If there is an eclipse of the sun at full moon, or if a dead man walks two leagues carrying his head in his arms, we call that a miracle.” This is the ultimate condemnation of Brady Anderson and Jose Bautista: what they did doesn’t make sense. A man doesn’t go from hitting fifteen home runs to fifty. He doesn’t go from being cut by losing teams to being an MVP candidate. These things aren’t independently possible, and so there must be something else causing them, something unnatural.
But though Voltaire’s eclipse and his headless man were both considered miracles at one time, they’re very different. One violates the natural laws as we know them. The other violated the natural laws as we knew them at the time, but later came to be understandable. As we grow more knowledgeable about baseball, and we become increasingly skilled at analysis and projection, we become increasingly resistant to aberration. The flaw in so much of analysis (baseball and otherwise) is that while we smirk at the ignorance of the past, we neglect to factor the ignorance of the present. We do not know what we will know, and what fails to make sense now may be perfectly clear tomorrow.
In this sense, miracles are dangerous, revolutionary things. They challenge the solidity of accepted wisdom. They force us to question our assumptions about the world. They challenge the laziness of our thinking. Steroids have become one example of this laziness: a refusal to examine greatness, to admit the possibility of being impressed. Occam’s razor has gone from being a guideline to a law.
Perhaps most importantly, miracles chip away at our fundamental preference for certainty. Luck is something we understand, at least when it turns against us. We want to believe that our successes, however, are the result of nothing except our own pluck and determination. Anderson seems to agree. He described 1996 as “just one more home run per week, just one more good swing. That is the data that simultaneously comforted me and haunted me, the small difference between greatness and mediocrity.” The role that luck plays in the success of a baseball player is only an exaggeration of what goes on in our own lives. How many people who have condemned Anderson’s achievement as impossible have gone home to play the lottery?
Ultimately, I’m not in a position to say whether Brady Anderson used steroids or not. The possibility exists, as do other possibilities. What interests me is the potential for greatness, the acceptance of outliers. Every game, every season, something happens in baseball that defies expectations, and demands that we dig deeper. Call them miracles, call them flukes, call them statistical deviations. Regardless of what they are, they bring vitality to the sport, and in some cases, they form the origins to amazing narratives. It’s a possibility I find infinitely more palatable than the predictable alternative, no matter how much sense it might make.