After bringing peace to Northern Ireland, and trying to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which proved a tough order even for him, former Sen. George Mitchell, has turned his talent for straightening things out to baseball’s steroid mess. The Mitchell Report tried to lay blame where it was deserved (everywhere) and named numerous names, of which the most prominent was the ex-Yankee Roger Clemens, and the current Yankee, Andy Pettite, along with a parcel of other Yankees, in part because a former Yankee trainer was one of the few people who spoke on the record about steroid abuse.
It’s a dispiriting report, because it is probably the tip of the iceberg in terms of the real problem with steroid use, and it has already implicated the best hitter of the recent era of baseball (Barry Bonds) and the best pitcher (Clemens. ) During Bonds's recent pursuit of Henry Aaron’s home run record, it was widely suggested that his home run record deserved to be asterisked, that is to say, in some ways noted as not being the "real" record. And today a parcel of Mets fans are suggesting, given the 14 Yankees named in the Mitchell report, that the Yankee victory in the 2000 subway series be similarly asterisked. By this logic, it is a short step to one giant asterisk being placed on all baseball records and results from about 1990 to the present
The asterisk as a term of baseball art was coined in 1961, the year major league baseball went from a 154 to a 162 game season, and the year Roger Maris challenged and beat Babe Ruth’s old record of 60 home runs in a season. If, Frick, ruled, it took Maris more than 154 games to beat Ruth’s record, it would be in its own category. (It never officially had an asterisk.) Maris broke Ruth’s record in the 162nd game of the season, and the metaphorical asterisk was applied. It was a grossly unfair ruling—no one came close to Maris’s record in 30 years of 162-game seasons until the steroid cases of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds broke Maris’s record in the late 1990s. (And of course Maris supporters now argue that he alone has the unasterisked record.)
Anyway, it’s an interesting historical devise, the asterisk, to be applied whenever a result is achieved through unfair or illegitimate means. To give one example of this might work, at least until 1968, the first presidential election after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, all presidential elections systematically excluded a large percentage of Americans from voting. All the presidents from Washington to Johnson should be asterisked, and Richard Nixon becomes the first real president, the father of his country.
The closest analogy to the baseball asterisk I know of is the Roman Catholic notion of the antipope, a pope who is deemed not to have been canonically elected, and is kept off the official list of popes. In the past 2000 years, there have been about 266 popes and about 30 antipopes. In recent years, since the ascension of Pope John XXIII in 1958 there have a number of conservative critics of Vatican II who have argued that there have been no real popes since the death of Pius XII, but on various technical grounds, only antipopes, while the See of Rome remains vacant. This is a doctrine known as sedevacantism, and like the baseball asterisk, it might have uses outside its original use. Whatever you say about American presidents through Nixon, there is no doubt that the person who claimed victory in the 2000 election was elected irregularly, and confirmed by a biased court. According to sedevacantist doctrine, once irregularly put in office,the illegitimacy continues throughout his tenure. George W. Bush has been an anti-president, and since Jan 20, 2001, the White House has been empty.
But of course the problem with the asterisk and sedevacantism is that history is not concerned with fairness, and that if human history were limited to contests and conflicts that were fairly decided, without bias or prejudice, historians would soon find themselves with nothing and no one to study. There is no record book that we can change to reflect our sense of what should have happened, but didn’t, no Hall of Fame from which to exclude cheaters. History is what it is, or what it was. We can’t change it, though I have long thought that studying history is a very poor substitute for what we really want to do, to change it, and be the assassin who gunned down Hitler, or to tell Julius Caesar to get out of Rome for a March vacation. As Santayana said, those who can’t change history are condemned to live it, or something like that, and the steroid scandal is history at its messiest and most complex, and no amount of burnishing the record book with asterisks will be able to change what actually happened.