Sunday, July 22, 2007

Taking Stock of Bonds

So what about Barry Bonds? What are we supposed to make of this if we care about baseball? Does he deserve our respect, if not our adulation? Or should we boycott the celebrations, hold our noses, turn our backs?
There are lots of ways of looking at it. Imagine this: imagine that Barry Bonds, instead of being famously surly, conceited and arrogant, had the sunny disposition of a Mays or a Sosa. Would we care about the steroids?
Not nearly as much, is my guess. If Barry Bonds were not so personally repellent, we’d be finding ways of excusing the drugs. If he were media-friendly, congenial to fans and popular with his teammates, we’d be rooting for him. We’d be pointing out that baseball had no policy on steroids at the time he was allegedly taking them and that the pitchers were furiously bulking up at the same time. We’d be sheepishly groping for reasons to overlook the cheating because we love heroes. But heroes can’t be jerks, at least not in public. Bonds’s toxic personality has hurt his case immensely.
Here’s another way to look at it: no matter how strong you are, you still have to hit the ball. Baseball history is full of muscled-up sluggers who could hit the ball a mile but couldn’t hit it often enough. If sheer strength were the only factor in hitting home runs, Frank Howard or Dave Kingman would be the home run king. The fact is that Barry Bonds was, even before the steroids and the hormones, one of the best there ever was at making contact with a pitched baseball. Throughout his career he has displayed all the virtues you try to teach: pitch selection, patience, taking what the pitcher gives you. He is a smart and disciplined hitter and should be remembered for that even if his late-career power totals are discounted as the product of cheating.
What produced that extraordinary run of power hitting in the latter half of his career was not just the steroids, either: it was a confluence of factors including diluted expansion-era pitching and smaller retro-style ballparks. Bonds benefited from these along with everyone else. Homer totals for everyone went up in the nineties, and I don’t think they were all doing steroids.
Factors other than innate skill have always affected baseball numbers. How many homers did Willie Mays lose to the treacherous Candlestick winds? How many of Hank Greenberg’s homers were due to stolen signals flashed from the coach in the stands? Because any individual event in baseball is hostage to so many factors, we require large sample sizes to make judgments. And even those judgments have to be taken with a grain of salt. All of them.
So how much difference did the steroids make? Some, for sure. That conclusion is unavoidable. If you’re already a good hitter, extra strength is going to turn warning-track outs into extra homers. It’s impossible to deny that Bonds (and the others who have been caught cheating) saw their homer totals inflated by the drugs they took to add muscle that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
Enough to disqualify him from the record books? That way madness lies. Records are just an accounting of what happened on the field. And monkeying with the accounting doesn’t change what went down. Everyone saw it. You can’t go back and change the records and make home runs vanish. If you don’t want Barry Bonds to show 756 homers in the record book because you don’t think he deserves it, you have to find a way to keep him off the field. You have to suspend him for cheating. If you’re that concerned about it, you have to ban him for life. If you don’t have the courage to do that, you have to record what he does between the lines along with what everyone else does. If you couldn’t muster the authority to put in place a policy on steroids, you have to accept what happened on the field.
So we have to give Bonds his place in the record book. Do we have to applaud him? That’s a matter of taste. We’re not obliged to like everyone who breaks a record. Ty Cobb was another famous jerk. Pete Rose wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. We don’t have to like them, but we have to recognize what they did.
Barry Bonds may be a scoundrel, but all those home runs really went out of the ball park. People saw them. If you really can’t stand the idea of Barry Bonds as home run king, the only thing to do is wait until Rodriguez or Griffey or somebody more to your liking comes along and eclipses him. And it will happen—that we can be sure of. Like everything else, time will take care of Barry Bonds.

Sam Reaves

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