I’ve been reading (like everyone else) “Game of Shadows,” the book about Barry Bonds and steroids and the BALCO scandal. It’s quite a remarkable feat of reporting. What striking about it is something that you might not notice unless you’ve journalist—which is the absence of obvious lawyering. If you ever write something even remotely critical of someone, the lawyers invariably go through it, and before you know it your prose is strewn with “apparently” and “allegedly,” and “according to” and so-so “denies. . .” There’s almost none of that in “Game of Shadows,” which is amazing considering the book accuses, in devastating detail, several of the biggest names in sports—Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield, Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones, among others—of being serious steroid users. The two writers—Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams—must have had really impeccable sourcing. When the book first came out, and several baseball writers predicted that Bonds’ reputation was destroyed and his chances are getting in the Hall of Fame seriously damaged, I thought they were overstating things. Now I’m not so sure. “Game of Shadows” is a death sentence for Bonds. More to the point, it’s impossible to read the book and accept that Bonds has a right either to the single season home-run record or, assuming he keeps playing, the career home run mark.
So what should we do? I think we need to set the bar a little higher for record-setters. Justin Wolfers, an economist at Penn, just did a study analyzing college basketball scores, concluding that there is ample statistical evidence for point-shaving in about five percent of college games. Steven Levitt (I know, I know. I’m obsessed with him) has done the same kind of work on student test scores. Forensic economics look at large data sets and draw surprisingly sophisticated inferences about behavior and intention. I think we should loose the forensic economists on all record-setters, and require that athletes pass a statistical plausibility test in the wake of their achievements.
Florence Griffiths Joyner, in 1988. Before that year, her best times in the hundred meters and the two hundred meters were, respectively, 10.96 and 21.96. In 1988, at the advanced (for a sprinter) age of 28, a suddenly huskier FloJo ran 10.49 and 21.34, times that no runner since has even come close to equaling. At the time, people in the track world just rolled their eyes. But since FloJo never failed a drug test, there was nothing they could do. Well, there is something we can do. We can bring in the forensic economists—and any statistical analysis of the career marks of world class sprinters would have told us that marginally world-class 28 year old do not, in the absence of some kind of help, suddenly turn into the greatest runners the world has ever seen.
Bonds falls into the same category. From the moment he started his late career surge, everyone who knew anything about baseball suspected mischief. “Game of Shadows” points out that Bonds had the second, ninth and tenth greatest offensive season in baseball history at the ages of 36, 37, and 39 respectively—and the average age of everyone else on that list (Gehrig, Foxx, Ruth and Hornsby) is 27. No one—no one—turns himself into one of the greatest hitters of all time in his late 30’s. His home run record should have been denied as statistically implausible.
Will raising the bar this way mean we occasionally deny a genuine record? It’s certainly possible. Bob Beamon jumped 29 ft, 2.5 inches at the Mexico City Olympics, and had never jumped more than 27 ft, 3 inches before that, and never again jumped more than 27 feet. No one has ever doubted that Beamon was clean. But it’s a totally weird performance. On the other hand, it was at altitude. Because of the difficulty in hitting the board, long jump performances are highly variable. And the effect of drug enhancement is sufficiently long-lived, that a single anomalous performance in an otherwise quiet career is more statistically plausible than a string of closely-linked anomalous performances in an otherwise quiet career. FloJo had a fantastic year in 1988, which is why she raised so many eyebrows. She wasn’t Beamon. She was Bonds. I think if we’re smart about it, we can learn to distinguish the fluke performances from the phony performances.
One obvious objection to this idea is that we have a tradition of presuming people innocent until proven guilty, and prima facia statistical tests violate that. But the presumption of innocence is a legal principle. We’re dealing with sports records here, and it seems reasonable, particularly in this day and age of advanced athletic chemistry, to ask a bit more of record holders.