Not Exactly a Love-fest, But…

In a variety of ways, members of The Starting Five collective have suggested that the coverage of Barry Bonds is, at least to some extent, driven by something other than the man’s character (and, it’s noteworthy how much more highly his peers appear to think of Bonds than does the public at large). And, the coverage of Bonds, it seems to me, was almost uniformly personal and negative as he approached Babe Ruth’s mark in 2006. Perhaps that coverage was driven by the fact that the highly publicized Game of Shadows had just come out, which focused attention on Bonds’ misdeeds, his temper and ill-treatment of others and general unpleasantness as a human being.

But, as Bonds approaches the all-time home run record itself in 2007, there appears to be a somewhat different tenor to the discussion surrounding Bonds, steroid use and the sanctity of one of sports’ most hallowed records. Bonds has not become Mr. Popularity. But, a wide range of commentary over the past ten days or so has de-emphasized Bonds’ alleged cheating, and focused on the bigger picture: that, even if Bonds did cheat, he’s far from alone in having done so. And, given that fact, condemning him personally and unequivocally for the sins of, perhaps, an entire generation fo baseball players and executives, is more than a bit churlish and myopic. It may be that one reason why, according to the article linked to above, only 34% of baseball fans will recognize Bonds as the greatest homerun hitter ever after he hits No. 756, nearly three quarters of baseball players would hold him in such regard.

If baseball players have intimate, first and second hand knowledge of the prevalence of usage during the past decade, the fact that Bonds may have himself been a regular user would not influence their judgments in the same way that fans’ judgments would be influenced by the constant stream of negative coverage directed toward Bonds.

One line of argument, about which I wrote a few days ago, has been a focus on the commissioner’s own negligence (if complicity is too strong a word) in the steroids era. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Bryan Burwell chimes in on this front:

All the complexities, complications and contradictions of baseball’s once not-so-secret embrace to its troubling steroid past – and now its haunting discomfort – once again have plopped themselves into Bud Selig’s rumpled lap. And once again the fearless leader of Major League Baseball is handling everything with the dexterity of an elephant on roller skates.

So far as we know, the commissioner of baseball will be on those metaphorical roller skates all summer, or at least until after Barry Bonds breaks Hank Aaron’s home run record. The good commish will be rolling as far away from Bonds as humanly possible, knowing he is in a damned-if-he-does, damned-if-he-doesn’t predicament regarding whether he should attend the historic – and embarrassing – event.

The simple answer to this perplexing question is this: Of course he should be there.

No one other than Bonds himself more deserves to be witness to this uncomfortable event than the commissioner who presided over this shameful chapter in baseball history. If Bonds must feel the contempt of baseball fans everywhere (except in San Francisco), if he must be the central character in a morality play about good and evil, if he must pay for all the sins of every drug cheat who ever pumped a designer steroid into his butt, then surely The Grand Enabler of All deserves to be right there at his side.

So he frets and he moans and he deliberates. He ponders and pontificates. And then he goes out and once again exposes himself for what he really is, which of course is The Great Enabler of All. He is the man who presided over the biggest scandal of his sport, big as, if not bigger than the Black Sox betting mess, bigger than the Pete Rose mess – bigger than all of it. He is the man who keeps telling us he knew absolutely nothing about steroids in baseball over the past 20 years, which probably means he’s either blind, incurably naive or just a big liar.

No love lost for Barry there. But, a noteworthy shift of the focus of attention from Bonds to the man who has been the shepherd of the game since 1994.

Salon.com’s King Kaufman also calls out Selig in the matter of People v. Barry Bonds:

Asked for the eleventy billionth time whether he plans to be at the ballpark when Bonds hits his 756th career homer, breaking Aaron’s 33-year-old record of 755, one of the sport’s most honored marks, Selig said, “I don’t have any different thoughts than I have had the last month or so” and “I’ll make up my mind at some appropriate time, and nothing has changed” and “I’m really not going to comment on it anymore.”

Any more than what? He has been avoiding this question for years. And when would the appropriate time be? Assuming Bonds stays healthy, he could break the record any time after about mid-June. He’s halfway to the 22 he needed at the start of the year to break the record, though he’s without a home run in his last seven games, his longest such drought of the season.

“I understand everyone wants to know where I’m going to be and where Hank Aaron is going to be, but we will just let that go until I finally make a decision,” Selig said.

We’ll be over here holding our breath, Bud. The only decisions Selig makes quickly are the ones about money. Anything that raises revenue today, no matter the cost to tomorrow or anything else, Selig says yes. Everything else, we wait. If it were up to Selig, he’d still have a few more years to decide what to do about the Montreal Expos, never mind how to handle the 12th inning of the 2002 All-Star Game.

Like Burwell, Kaufman also thinks that Bud’s presence at No. 756 should be a given, though not for the same reasons as Burwell:

When Bonds gets to home run No. 753 or so, you get on the plane, go to wherever the San Francisco Giants are, and plant yourself in the front row for every game until he hits No. 756. Then you congratulate him, shake his hand and head for the exit.

You don’t have to give a speech extolling his virtues — which would be a very short speech indeed: “Dude sure can hit!” You don’t have to give a speech downplaying the record and saying we really can’t be sure what it means because we don’t know all the facts, or one that condemns Bonds as a cheater but explains that your hands are tied, there’s nothing you can hang on him yet, or one that tries to explain away the roughly two decades when you and the other owners ignored the steroid issue.

All you have to do is stand up in the front row, call Bonds over, shake his hand, say, “Congratulations” and walk up the aisle. You’re free to go. You can even go to your own house if Bonds breaks the record in one of the six games the Giants play in Milwaukee between June 18 and July 22. Bonus.

Selig has to go because otherwise he’s sending the message that Bonds is hitting illegitimate home runs and setting a new, illegitimate record. Is that baseball’s official stance? “Our product is bogus”?

Selig is not above that, of course. For years he presided over a marketing campaign in which Major League Baseball tried to convince anyone who would listen that the game was going down the tubes.

That was stupid then and it would be stupid now.

Kaufman also notes that some important questions need to be asked, such as: how much did Bonds use, and is he still using? How many other players have been using? How many pitchers have been using? Did those drugs help Bonds? Did they help the pitchers he was facing?

On the question of pitchers’ usage, the New York Post’s Mike Vaccaro recognized the hypocrisy of the focus on Bonds as the Giants arrived in New York last night for a three game series. Why?Because Mets’ reliever Guillermo Mota is just finishing his 50-game suspension for having failed a PED test last Fall.

Vaccaro’s no more a fan of Bonds than are most baseball scribes:

The Barry Bonds Circus rolls into town across the next three days at Shea Stadium, bringing all of its freak-show majesty to Flushing. The star of the show will conduct a press briefing a few hours before the first pitch, even if it’s unlikely he’ll take part in the Mets-Giants game to follow, other than to pinch-hit.

Mets fans, we can assume, are prepared to pounce, in the same way that baseball fans everywhere have taken great joy in lending their voices to the anti-Barry tide that’s followed him for years. On one level, that is precisely as it should be. Bonds is the greatest player of his generation, and he belongs in the team photo of the greatest of all time, a tiny snapshot that solely includes surnames plucked out of baseball royalty: Ruth, Cobb, Wagner, Williams, DiMaggio.

When you are that good, you’re going to get booed a lot, even if you spend much of your off-field time as an agreeable altar boy. When you are that good and you’ve been a lightning rod of disagreeable dourness much of your public life, those boos are going to resonate even louder.

With Bonds, of course, it’s different. Whether you believe every syllable of “Game of Shadows” or not, whether you believe your eyes implicitly or not, it is difficult on the cusp of June 2007 not to believe Bonds had some help the past nine years or so, the kind of mother’s-little-helper help that stained so much of the game’s recent legacy.

But:

Mets fans will boo Bonds, all right, and that is their right. But those boos had better be rooted in the malice of jeering fearsome opponents, not just one currently embroiled in a scandal. Because this week, the Mets will welcome back a relief pitcher named Guillermo Mota who is sure to strengthen an already-rugged bullpen, a pitcher who showed flashes of electricity last autumn, a pitcher in whom Willie Randolph hopes to be able to entrust plenty of seventh and eighth innings across the next four months.

A pitcher who today will complete a 50-game ban imposed by baseball because he did something that Barry Bonds has never yet done: He flunked a steroid test. He peed in a cup and that cup practically turned fluorescent from all the chemicals swimming around in it. He cheated. Say it again. Mota cheated. He is not a suspected cheater. He is an adjudged cheater.

Writing in the most recent issue of ESPN the magazine, Eric Adelson expounds on the reasons why he wants Bonds to break the record. Among those are that:

I want Bonds to break the record because he is not the first star baseball player to show poor character, but he might be the first star baseball player to show poor character without a world of apologists who look the other way.

I want Bonds to break the record because baseball made a mistake, and now all the punishment is landing on one person. It is easier to blame one person than to consider that perhaps a majority of players have broken the rules. Then whose fault is it?

I want Bonds to break the record because even though Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron never faced a split-finger fastball or a pitcher on steroids, no one believes they deserve asterisks by their names.

I want Bonds to break the record because I am tired of baseball’s constant celebration of its past, when its past is tinged with bigotry and racism. What would the record book look like if blacks were allowed to play when Jack Johnson won the heavyweight title or when Jesse Owens won an Olympic gold medal?

I want Bonds to break the record so that kids will ask their parents, “If the commissioner is reluctant to come to the park for the celebration, why is he also reluctant to insist on testing for HGH?”

I want Barry Bonds to break the record because I believe baseball sold its soul to the home run devil, and it deserves to crown a home run villain with its most precious mark.

Dann Howitt, an ex major leaguer, went beyond merely contextualizing Bonds’ transgressions. Howitt, in a column for the Grand Rapids Record, positively extolled Bonds’ greatness and, in the process, suggested that great players using a little help from the apothecary is as old as the game itself:

Here’s my take for what it is worth: Barry Bonds is the greatest hitter. Ever.

I’ve been a student of the game my whole life and I’ve been fortunate enough to play with and against Hall of Famers, future Hall of Famers and have met with many of the old greats. I played with and watched every day results of Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Harold Baines, Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez and Frank Thomas to namedrop a few. (Junior was the most natural player I’ve ever played with. Still doing it too. Amazing.)

I’ve heard tales of older players in the Hall using all sorts of performance-enhancing drugs (not steroids) to get back out there day after day for 162 games. The difference was in the timing of their use. In days past, these guys were considered heroes, and to slander them with accusations of substance abuse would be career suicide for a sports writer.

Nowadays, with the envy of million-dollar contracts, real time information sharing and an acquired American taste for watching the best fall from grace, reporting on it could get you a Pulitzer Prize.

Until recently, steroids were not a banned substance in baseball. From a legal standpoint, a player who used them prior to the ban should not be penalized for their use. However, if you think for a second that any player who has used them is getting a free pass to fame and millions, you are sorely mistaken. Takers of steroids have and will fall victim to multiple degenerative and substantial physical ailments as they get older. That part isn’t reported. The only upside is they can actually afford their own dialysis.

Steroids provide faster recovery from injury primarily. If there is an unfair advantage, that is it. Making you look impressive in your uniform is ancillary. Taking them cannot and will not help you hit a baseball. There is no hand-eye steroid. Period. I wish I could make younger people understand these things, but often when you are young, your health at age 50 is not a serious concern.

What Barry Bonds has done, with or without steroids, is absolutely ridiculous.

He has walked 200 times in a season, hit over 70 home runs in a season and will break the all-time home run mark.

All this with little or no supporting help. There is no Alex Rodriguez or Manny Ramirez hitting behind him.

He is a jerk.

That aside, I can’t think of another hitter in the game’s long history who could do what he has done and continues to do. He deserves to break that record and celebrate.

When Curt Schilling attacked Bonds on WEEI a couple of weeks back, I was surprised by how thoroughly the sports media in general repudiated Schilling’s comments. In part, that was probably a sign of how annoying Schilling is. But, it was, I suspect, also a sign that many in the media recognize that the Bonds-as-villain storyline mocks the depth of the failure of sports media to get the bigger story right – namely the pervasiveness of steroids use over the past decade. Given how embarassing it is that those who presided over the game and those who covered it let such a big story roll through their collective wickets, it may be that a little humility is creeping into Bonds/steroids coverage. And, with that humility comes, perhaps, a little less sanctimony about a single player’s presumed misdeeds.

2 Responses to “Not Exactly a Love-fest, But…”

  1. although I’m much more sympathetic to Bonds after a daily dose of TSF, I’m still not quite on the bandwagon. Yes, I think Selig is to blame, the owners, too. Yes, I think other players did steroids. Yes, I think Bonds probably faced pitchers using steroids as well. However, as a non MLB fan, it’s easy for me to write them all off. I don’t have to like any of them.

    I agree that sports reporters don’t give Bonds a fair shake, so that makes him a more sympathetic figure with me. But, for _all_ the cheaters and their enablers, the sympathy well has run dry.

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