Sunday, August 05, 2007

My Barry Bonds Rant

What? You were expecting something else after three-ish weeks off? Well, I've got a lot in my head, but it's all stuck behind this, so bear with me. I'm a baseball nut, I can't help it.

Back when we were anticipating the dawn of the Millennium, everybody and their dog had a list of the Top Whatever of the Century. ESPN had the Top 100 Baseball Players of the Century and there was a lot of debate on who should be on top. I remember debating with friends then, the merit of Barry Bonds. I would have had him in my all time outfield, and this was before he hit 73. Most of my friends thought I was on crack for thinking so, but you couldn't deny the numbers. He was a 400-400 man. He was a pretty good fielder (at the time). And he hit lights out. He was like Tony Gwynn or Kirby Puckett with a lot of power. You couldn't get a ball by him. And I was looking forward to watching him and Ken Griffey Jr. chase each other for the Big One. 755. Hammerin' Hank Aaron. But history took a different turn.

I remember there being a lot of debate on the inflated numbers of home runs in the league at the time, but little discussion of steroids. I argued that smaller parks, expansion and therefore thin pitching staffs, smaller strike zones, and a stupid rule on hitting batters that pretty much prevented any pitcher from pitching inside were to blame. Oh yeah, and then there was the "juiced ball." But then came BALCO, and Canseco, and Game of Shadows, and that all changed. Never mind Brady Anderson hitting 50 one season only to never really be heard from again. Never mind (much to our shame) the downward spiral Ken Camenitti's (forgive my spelling) life took before it prematurely came to an end. It was now all about Bonds and his inevitable trajectory to 755.

I rooted against him. I prayed to the Baseball Gods (can I blaspheme on a blog about Christianity?) that something would keep him from it. I begged and pleaded that he'd just come clean, because face it, none of us would've cared if he would've come out when the firestorm began. Be contrite. Respect the fans and respect the game, and we'll cheer you to 800 of that's where you take us. But it wasn't to be. Here's a guy born into baseball with a silver bat in one hand and a golden glove on the other. And he knew it. And he wore body armor and hovered over the plate daring anyone to come near him with a pitch. And he hit home run after home run after home run.

I wanted to find a reason to root against him. He was limping to the record. Aaron never took all those days off, I'd rationalize. But then I'd remember how Ruth was an embarrassment to himself at the end. So the golden number really should've been something like 690 instead of 714.

But there I was, hoping for some baseball poetry a week ago to see if it would happen against Hank's own team, the Atlanta Braves. This had some significance for me as well. My mom is from Atlanta and despite my allegiance to the Cubbies, I've easily been to more Braves games than all other teams combined. So it felt right to be there. And it was only right for the Baseball Gods to see to it that the game before went 13 innings so Bonds would sit that day. Go figure. I met up with my sister to see if we could see Swingin' Sammy hit any onto Waveland in that milestone year of 98. He went 0-fer both days we were there. So it's only fair that he'd tie the record on the road against the Padres, where I couldn't see it, while I was distracted doing something else.

This isn't about race either. I found an article online on how if Bonds' record is tainted by steroids, all these old records are tainted because the players from the Golden Age of baseball didn't play against black competition. I was only able to read half the essay (about 10 pages) before my blood was boiling too much to continue. Not because I'm some racist. But because anyone who makes that argument isn't a baseball fan. I hear it a lot on sports-talk radio, and poll numbers back it up, that whites are much more opposed to Bonds breaking the record than blacks. But why then, do we care so much that he's passing another black player in Aaron? One who came out of a segregated and impoverished Mobile, Alabama? My other counter argument is that if that's the case, then Aaron's record should be considered tainted as well because he didn't play against the Japanese. After all, the professional record isn't Aaron's, but Sadaharo Oh, a Japanese player. And soon, the all time record for hits in professional baseball will be held by a Japanese player--Ichiro. So do all those records not count?

We revere the records because they stand the test of time, not because of the era that produced them. We respect them because so many seasons come and go without anyone even approaching them. And the names that are spoken of with awe are regarded by history not by the numbers they put up but by the legends that surround them. Shoeless Joe Jackson is a great example of this. Despite the numbers put up by Charlie Hustle, his legend is sealed by his gambling. And regrettably, Barry Bonds' legend will be forever tied to steroids. And it's a shame too, because he's one of the best to ever swing a stick.

I guess you could file this under Off Topic. But to tie it in, I recommend this book, "The Faith of 50 Million" on baseball and religion and baseball as religion. It's pretty dense as an academic book, and I haven't finished it yet myself, but it really puts into perspective why we'd root against someone like Bonds and for someone like A-Rod. It also puts baseball in a role as a cultural religion with living parables and endless moral lessons. So maybe this isn't as off topic as you'd think.

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