08 August 2007

Mr. Bonds

At long last Major League Baseball has a new all-time home run leader. Last night San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds hit No. 756, putting him one ahead of Henry Aaron on the career list and giving him sole possession of the most revered record in baseball or any sport. I watched it live, but after months of soul-crushing hype, the event itself seemed little more than an anticlimactic footnote. Events are not what they used to be.

People don’t like Bonds. People, in fact, dislike Bonds so much that there was much talk of whether he would be booed if he broke the record during an away game, a scenario that fortunately didn’t come to pass. Bonds is aloof, egotistical, and difficult to deal with. And then of course there’s the little matter of steroids. Is Bonds’s accomplishment “tainted” by his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs?

As with much else in our increasingly degraded public discourse, in which every issue of the day is presumed to have two and only two “sides,” discussion of Bonds and of steroids in baseball has been dominated by two simplistic positions. Either steroids are the worst thing that’s ever happened to baseball and Bonds is an affront to humanity or Bonds is the greatest player ever and this whole steroid controversy is a product of that sinister beast known as “the media,” a bogus scandal that real baseball fans don’t care about. The latter view is easily dismissed, predicated as it is on the implicit assumption that baseball fans are nothing but beer-swilling morons interested only in dumb spectacle. Proponents of the “nobody cares” argument have attempted to support their position by interpreting the steady attendance at MLB ballparks over recent years as a referendum on steroid use, an argument that makes no sense whatsoever. In any event, polling data tells a different story entirely.

Not generally a fan of drug-testing in the workplace unless public safety is at stake, I do support aggressive testing programs for athletes in baseball and other sports in the belief that players shouldn’t have to risk their long-term health in order to be able to compete on a level field. Having said that, I do not think steroids are the worst thing ever to happen to baseball. Or even the worst thing to happen to baseball in my lifetime. Or for that matter, even the second-worst. The 1994 work stoppage, which led to the cancellation of the World Series for the first time in 90 years, was by far the lowest moment the game has seen in living memory. And nothing of which Bonds has been accused rates comparison with the actions of the still-beloved Pete Rose, whose gambling cut to the very heart of the baseball’s integrity. Rose’s crimes against the game were worse than Bonds’s. Orders of magnitude worse. Yet polls indicate that most baseball fans are willing to forgive Rose despite his having done absolutely nothing to deserve it.

No, what we’re talking about here is merely cheating, pure and simple, a subject that has a long and ambivalent history in baseball. (For some reason when pitchers cheat it’s considered cute and charming, while when hitters cheat it’s considered some horrible affront to the sport.) This particular form of cheating is more dangerous than spitballs or corked bats because of the aforementioned health effects of performance-enhancing drugs, but ultimately the issue has been blown out of proportion, absorbed into a larger social hysteria about drug use, a topic that Americans have been largely incapable of having a rational conversation about since the Reagan administration, if not earlier.

Discussion of whether the record is “tainted” misses the point in at least one important sense. More than fans of any other sport, baseball fans tend to value statistics, records, and history. We love to compare players from different eras, to imagine how today’s hitters would stack up against the likes of Aaron and Babe Ruth. But underlying it all is (or at least should be) a wry acknowledgment that comparing players from different eras is ultimately a futile pursuit. Much is made of the fact that Babe Ruth never had to face any black or Latino pitchers, playing as he did in the era of segregation, but then there are also the advantages that today’s hitters have in terms of smaller ballparks and strike zones, not to mention video technology, which has probably benefited hitters more than pitchers. It would be one thing if Bonds were the only MLB player accused of taking steroids, but contrary to the impression one might get from some of the anti-Bonds folks in the media, this is not the case. Perhaps steroids are best regarded as part of the baseline of this particular era in baseball history, the "Steroid Era” as sportswriters have taken to calling it. And like it or not, Bonds is indisputably the era’s greatest slugger, as were Aaron and Ruth in their own times. Records and numbers may be hallowed things in baseball, but ultimately, when discussing athletic greatness, statistics are only a starting point, not the be-all and end-all.

It was nice to see Aaron last night, albeit via pre-recorded video, graciously offering his congratulations to Bonds. His reaction was a stark contrast to the ridiculous behavior of baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who offered only tepid public statements after both the tying and record-breaking home runs, qualifying his congratulations with dark insinuations about Bonds being “innocent until proven guilty.” (Related topic for another day: When did “he’s innocent until proven guilty” become one of the most damning things you can say about someone? This meaning of this phrase appears to have completely reversed itself.)

Selig was nowhere to be seen in last night in San Francisco—supposedly, he was to meet today with former senator George Mitchell, the head of MLB’s quixotic “investigation” into steroid use, which seems from this vantage to be little more than an attempt to nail Bonds. It’s hypocritical for Selig to attempt to distance himself from Bonds’s accomplishment when so much of the Steroid Era unfolded on his watch. Along with the owners, the players, the media, and of course the fans, the commissioner chose to ignore the issue for years, and now he’s dealing with the consequences. But for today, Selig and Bonds, along with baseball fans of all stripes, can unite in one sentiment: relief that the home run chase is finally over.

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