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In baseball, times change, and so do the standards

Pay attention: This may be the first time anyone ever has used the names Adam Stern and Tris Speaker in the same sentence.

Tris Speaker could not have made the great game-ending catch Adam Stern came up with Tuesday night, and the reason has nothing to do with an athletic gap between the 21st century Canadian and the early 20th century Texan Hall of Famer. I am simply saying that if the same ball were hit, and each man arrived at the same patch of grass where the baseball was descending, that Speaker could not have caught and held onto the ball, not with the kind of puny little glove he and his contemporaries wore.

If you were magically time-capsuled back to 1906, 1908, or 1912, you would recognize baseball as baseball a lot more than you'd recognize basketball as basketball or football as football. The essentials remain: 90 feet, three strikes, four balls, three outs, etc. It is the most timeless of our games.

But don't be fooled. The game has changed dramatically.

Please keep this in mind as Barry Bonds -- or should I say ''if" Barry Bonds -- pursues first Babe Ruth and then Hank Aaron. Many people are apoplectic on the subject of Bonds passing these revered diamond figures on the all-time home run list. If you listen closely to Commissioner Bud, sooner or later you will hear the phrase ''sanctity of the record book," or a derivative.


I think we need a timeout.

I love baseball more than any other sport or human entertainment activity, and part of the fun for the serious fan is discussion and analysis of the famous numbers. If 4,256, 4,191, 2,632, 2,130, 511, 755, 714, and 56 mean nothing to you, then I submit you are not a serious fan.

But revering the numbers helps perpetuate the myth that baseball is timeless. It is not. The framework of the game is, but the inner workings are not. We've got to be grown-up about this. As much as we love to compare the numbers in the hope of pretending that baseball is baseball is baseball, it is not.

The games being played all over the country today will look very much like the games that were played 30, 50, or 100 years ago, but they will not be played with the same equipment, or under the same conditions, or even with the same mind-set, and all this affects any so-called ''records" that will be set, which brings us back to Adam Stern and Tris Speaker.

Tris Speaker was a great player. No, I mean a great, great player, so great that he entered the Hall of Fame in 1937, part of the second class ever. He broke in with the Red Sox in 1907 and finished up with the Philadelphia A's in 1928. He had a career total of 3,514 hits (I grew up reading it was 3,515, but somewhere along the way a sleuth discovered a bogus hit, I guess), and he was generally acclaimed as the greatest defensive center fielder the game had seen until Joe DiMaggio materialized in 1936. Among other distinctions, he is said to have pulled off some absurd number of unassisted double plays, a feat that reflects both his willingness to play shallow and the dead ball featured until 1920.

But we know that Speaker, and all his contemporaries, starting with the great Cobb himself, got countless hits that would have been gobbled up by today's fielders, not solely because the best athletes who ever have played the game are on view today, but also because they have the benefit of magnificent hit-robbing gloves. How many grounders got through holes that would be 6-3s, 5-3s, 4-3s, and 3-unassisteds today? How many of Speaker's fly balls into the gap would have been caught by today's outfielders? We'll never know.

Ah, but what about the reverse? Speaker is the all-time doubles leader with 792. Had he the benefit of a lively ball during his prime, would more Speaker shots have gotten into the alleys, giving him even more two-bagger opportunities? Or is it possible he was the beneficiary of balls that sort of died in the grass, giving the speedy Speaker (he also had 432 stolen bases) a chance to stretch that single into a double? Again. Who knows?

What about that dead ball? How many more home runs would Ruth have hit in 1916, 1917, 1918, and 1919 were he hitting the same ball he was swinging at in 1920, when he increased his own record from 29 to 54 in the first year of the so-called lively ball? And we won't even get into the pitching business. Were the Babe a full-time outfielder from Day 1, would he have hit 20 more homers? 50? More? No one knows. What we do know is that when you add these mythical homers to the 714 he did hit, Aaron would be No. 2.

Oops, but wait a minute. There were many great pitchers out there the Babe never had to face, people of color being barred from the big leagues. I have a feeling Satchel Paige would have whiffed the Bambino every now and then. So multiply that one a few times over.

Where were we? Did I mention the 296 feet and very low fence in Yankee Stadium, a.k.a. The House That Ruth Built? Or did I mention that Ruth's home field from 1920-22 was the Polo Grounds, which was 257 feet to right (before sloping off dramatically)? And did you know that in the '20s, a ball that bounced into the stands was ruled a home run, not a ground rule double? Does anyone know how that affected Ruth's total? The answer is no.

Today, we know where every pitch is thrown and every ball is hit. It's all stored in the computer. It's a different world.

Cy Young won 511 games. But he started out in 1890, when the distance to the mound was 50 feet. The record book does not show how many games he won at 50 feet and how many he won at 60 feet 6 inches. It just shows that between 1890 and 1911 he won 511 games and lost 316 (again, I was raised to believe he had lost 315; where did that other L come from?) in an era when the concept of relief was totally different. But who doesn't know that?

Even in our time, we have two very different games being played. Winning 20 games in the National League is harder than winning 20 games in the American League because the DH allows American League pitchers to remain in the game longer. Then again, pitching in general is much harder in the American League because there is a DH, rather than a pitcher, occupying one of those nine slots in the batting order. So who has had the more impressive career from a strict W standpoint, Roger Clemens, who has spent most of his career in the AL, or career NLer Greg Maddux?

You tell me.

There have been offensive eras and defensive eras. The '60s and '70s were rough on offense. The '30s and '90s were very kind to offense. Is Andruw Jones a better slugger than Mike Schmidt? I don't think anyone would say that. But Andruw hit 51 homers last year, and Schmidt never hit 50. Neither did Harmon Killebrew or Frank Howard. How would you like to see vintage Frank Howard in Camden Yards? He would have check-swinged a dozen, minimum.

I could give a thousand examples. Batting records, pitching records, and, perhaps most of all, fielding records must be viewed in the proper context.

So let Barry do whatever it is he's going to do. Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs in his times, under his conditions, both personal and general. The same goes for Hank Aaron and his 755. The circumstances have not been created equal. Barry Bonds will hold the record for home runs in his time, period.

Meanwhile, nothing provides better sports conversation than baseball. Wouldn't you love to see one of those Tris Speaker unassisted double plays pop up on ''SportsCenter" tonight?

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist.

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