Tuesday, August 7, 2007

One Swing Away - Do you even care?

How strange it must feel to be Barry Bonds, a man who is on the verge of immortality yet scorned at every twist, turn and epic homerun along the way. He is in such a unique position that it may be beyond comparison. Has any other professional athlete ever been so reviled while in the process of rewriting the record books? None jump to mind. Race pioneers such as Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron may come closest, particularly Aaron who was the recipient of death threats as he closed in on the homerun record held by the beloved Babe Ruth. However, the hatred aimed at him was mindless, based strictly on his race rather than his actions. Surely he felt the scorn aimed at him, but he was entitled to dismiss it as the viewpoint of the unenlightened. On the other hand, those who take issue with Barry Bonds have considerably stronger legs to stand on when they shout him down for being a liar and a cheat. Once he owns the Major League Baseball home run record, they will also declare him to be a thief, in possession of what he did not legitimately earn. Hard proof of his steroid use may not be in hand, but circumstantial evidence is in such abundance that it’s impossible to ignore. Outside of his home stadium, the most positive feeling to be found amongst sports fans about Bonds’ assault on baseball’s most cherished achievement is massive ambivalence and lukewarm apathy. Aaron and Robinson may have been looked upon angrily in baseball fields across the land, particularly those below the Mason Dixon line, but they had plenty of people (not just fans of their particular teams) pulling for them as well. They were genuine heroes, practically mythological. As for Bonds’ exploits on the field of play, many words are being used to describe them: suspect, fraudulent, reprehensible, shameful, staggering, impressive, unforgettable, irrelevant. The term heroic is rarely among them.

Barry Bonds most likely did nothing worse than what many of his peers did. Steroids do not enhance one’s hand-eye coordination or increase the ability to differentiate between a 90 mph pitch that will be an inch out of the strike zone and one that is ripe for the picking. Bonds was a tremendous player back when his body type allowed him to easily fit through door frames. Before he ran roughshod over the single season “vitamin” fueled homerun record that Mark McGwire was barely done receiving congratulations for, way back when he could pee in a cup on any given day without an ounce of concern, Barry was a specimen of excellence at his chosen profession. He is not responsible for the strike that drove many away from his sport and kept them away even after both sides of the table came to reluctant agreement. The surpassing in popularity of professional football and basketball over that of our national pastime cannot be placed on Bary Bond’s improbably wide shoulders. It was not his decision to spur the rejuvenation of baseball by causing more runs to be scored (especially via the long ball) by shrinking the strike zone and juicing the ball. When it comes to dishonesty, it should be noted that he also did not invent sign stealing, spitting on or scratching a ball with sandpaper, or any other form of cheating that has been employed practically from day one by countless players in cleats and caps. At worst, he gave himself an unnatural advantage that many of those around him were also enjoying the benefits of. Barry Bonds simply got a better return on his investment than most because he was a better player than most to begin with.

Nevertheless, he races (not so fluidly as in the past, but still effectively) to the top of the heap playing the role of villain rather than godlike figure that fathers implore their sons to be just like. No doubt had Bonds been more personable throughout his career, the press would have chosen to cover his story in a more flattering light. Since sports scribes and sportscasters are largely responsible for shaping the perception of fans, it is entirely possible that if he was a more charming interview, the world would be preparing to sing his praises and pronounce him the undisputed greatest of all time. Instead Barry stubbornly plays on through his aches and pains and minimal chance of postseason play, mostly cheered at home, verbally abused elsewhere, preparing to break a record that has belonged in the classiest of hands for the past three decades. Hank Aaron knows a thing or two about excelling in hostile terrain. Jackie Robinson did too. You could even throw John Rocker in there if you wanted to, though for very different reasons. Like Rocker, Ty Cobb was considered to be quite a jerk, though only the latter was an all time great. Another all time great, Pete Rose, did not bring heat and wrath upon himself until well after his playing days. But when it comes to demonstrating that one is the best at what he does while simultaneously considered by so many to be the very worst of what sports is about, there is no other perspective quite like that of Barry Bonds. To walk a mile in his shoes would be an interesting stroll indeed.

My fantasy scenario for Bonds' record breaking homer has him lofting a fly ball that initially appears to be a sure out before being caught by a fortuitous gust of wind. The nearest outfielder adjusts to the ball's altered flight pattern by making a hasty backtrack towards the fence. Even with Mother Nature lending a hand, the arc of the ball shows the hit to be of less than historical proportion. In trying to gauge how close he is to the wall however, the outfielder finds himself off balance as the ball makes its descent, throwing the timing of his attempted catch a fraction off. This causes the ball to pop out of his glove and over the fence for a blatantly "assisted" home run.

- Roy Pickering (author of Feeding the Squirrels)


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