Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Barry Bonds*

Today has been declared Barry Bonds Day in San Francisco. Bonds is being given a day because last night he broke one of the most revered records in sports—the career home run record. He hit career home run #756 off of Washington Nationals pitcher Mike Bacsik.

I put an asterisk beside Bonds’ name in the title of this post in order to make the point that the record of his accomplishment should perhaps be qualified in some way. Having made that point, I must hasten to say that I don’t believe that asterisks should actually be used in that way, even in this case. When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single season home run mark in 1961, then Commissioner of Baseball Ford Frick decreed that Maris’ total of 61 would bear an asterisk in the record books because he had hit those home runs over a 162 game season whereas Ruth had hit his 60 over a 154 game season. Such distinctions are misguided because each era of baseball is different from every other era. Stadiums change, baseballs change, bats change, and athletes change. If baseball is going to have records, distinctions cannot be made due to the differences in eras.

I say that even about the “steroid era”—with some qualifications.

I don’t believe that an asterisk should be placed beside Bonds’ career total, whatever that turns out to be, unless and until it is proven that Bonds used steroids. Should such use by him ever be proven, I still don’t believe that an asterisk should be placed beside his total. Perhaps, though, multiple asterisks should then be used, as is sometimes done when respectable publications need to let readers know that a curse word was used but don’t want to spell it out—he would thus be listed in the record books at B***Y B****S. Truth be told, I really believe that if it is ever proven that Bonds used steroids, asterisks will not go far enough. Instead, his name should be removed completely from the record books. I would, by the way, say the same thing about Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa or anyone else were it to become known for a fact that they had used steroids.

The way that many (perhaps most, maybe even the vast majority) of us baseball fans have been compelled to think about Bonds’ pursuit of Aaron’s record is a shame, really. On last night’s Atlanta Braves radio broadcast, announcer Pete Van Weiren pointed out how strange last weekend was for baseball fans. It should, he said, have been one of the greatest weekends in baseball history. New York Mets (and former Braves) pitcher Tom Glavine won his 300th career game, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriquez became the youngest player ever to reach 500 career home runs, and Barry Bonds tied Hank Aaron’s career home run record. But, Van Weiren pointed out, while there was some excitement about Glavine’s and Rodriquez’s accomplishments, there was not much excitement about what Bonds had done, at least not outside of his home base of San Francisco.

I remember very well the excitement that accompanied Aaron’s pursuit of Ruth’s career home run record. That is not to say that all was sweetness and light, because it wasn’t. Ruth was and is venerated and rightly so; some people still regard him as the greatest home run hitter of all time even though his record has now been eclipsed twice. He was far and away the greatest home run hitter of his era while Aaron did have some peers who were right up there with him, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson in particular. Ruth also is usually credited with being the individual most responsible for making major league baseball the cultural phenomenon that it is. So, some folks had legitimate respect for the Babe and genuinely regretted seeing his record fall. There was an ugly side to some people’s negativity toward Aaron’s pursuit, especially in those who just did not want to see a black man break a white icon’s record. At least we are spared that sort of thing this time around. I was a fifteen year old devoted Braves fan in 1974 and so I was thrilled when Aaron broke the record, although, because of a misguided sense of religious duty, I did not actually get to witness it because our church’s youth choir was singing at a local church’s revival service that night!

I want to say what many others have said: in America a person is innocent until proven guilty and Barry Bonds has not been proven guilty of anything. On the other hand, he has not been charged with anything so the fairly abundant circumstantial evidence has not yet been put to the test. The way that we jump to conclusions makes me a little nervous. On an episode of the Bob Newhart Show, Bob was hosting a local television talk show. One night he had as a guest a man who owned “the world’s smallest horse.” Bob asked him, “How do you know it’s the world’s smallest horse?” The man replied, “Just look at him!” We’ve done that with Bonds. We look at how he appeared when he was gangly young outfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates and at how much larger and stronger he became late in his career and we say, “Of course he used steroids—just look at him!” I myself weigh seventy pounds more at age 48 than I did at age 20. Still, Bonds' real power surge occurred late in his career in ways that are unprecedented in major league baseball. I can’t honestly say that my power has increased. But I say again: if it is ever proven that Bonds’ used steroids, his name should be erased from the record books.

I have a picture of Hank Aaron hanging on the wall in my study. Beneath it is a framed editorial cartoon by Marshall Ramsey that depicts a young boy and his father visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame. The father is holding a copy of Juiced by Jose Canseco. His son, pointing at the plaques of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, asks, “What kind of performance enhancer did they use?” The father replies, “Talent.”

Ruth and Aaron, so far as anyone can tell, used no artificial performance enhancers. Ruth died long before I came along, but I have seen for myself the dignity and class with which Henry Aaron has carried himself and the fine way in which he has represented the game of baseball. Let’s face it—Bonds would be an unpopular home run king even if steroids did not exist. That is true because of his perceived egotism and self-centeredness. The allegations of steroid use just make it worse.

We can argue from now until A-Rod breaks Bonds’ record about who the greatest home run hitter of all time truly is. But given the choice of having either Aaron or Bonds speak to your church or civic group or elementary school or of having either or them come to your home for dinner, whom would you choose?

And that’s because ethics, dignity, fair play, class, and respect still mean something in this old world, thank God.


Jen Smith said...

I found myself thinking the same thing about Bonds breaking the homerun record—that it was largely kept quiet except in San Francisco. I thought it strange, but I chalked it up to people disliking him so much that they wouldn’t allow him to enjoy the moment of breaking this record. I don’t think the dislike for Bonds has as much to do with his perceived steroid use, as it does with his general attitude and demeanor. Many people consider him to be a jerk, who is not humble by any means about his athletic abilities. These statements can be supported by watching him on TV or on the field, but how can one remain humble when you dedicate your whole life to succeeding at one sport and then your big break finally comes?! When other people outside of your immediate family are eager to celebrate your accomplishment with you (i.e. Giants fans), what is the harm in enjoying it and really taking it all in? Granted, there is a more graceful way of celebrating your successes, but this kind of record breaking only comes once in a lifetime. I do support Barry Bonds and celebrate this milestone with him, as he has worked and trained harder than I ever could hope to do. He represents the dreams of many young American baseball players coming true. I hope people are able to put aside their negative thoughts about Bonds and allow him this short-lived celebration, because the record will be broken again. As a Christian, this reminds me of the way some people will judge Christians for the things they say and do just because they know they are Christians. We know Bonds is a professional athlete and we have expectations about how he should behave and respond to events. Similarly, Christians have expectations for the way they should respond and carry themselves in the world. It’s important for others to provide accurate reflections on how our actions are perceived in the world so we can make necessary changes, but it’s equally as important to appropriately place expectations on others. Bonds has many expectations he didn’t ask for simply because he’s a professional athlete, but I hope we can all show some compassion and excitement for him.

Marshall Ramsey said...

Hank Aaron asked for that cartoon. I sent him a copy and he signed it for me. It is one of my most prized possessions. The only performance enhancer that Aaron would test for would be class.