Wednesday, August 08, 2007
Soundtrack: Fast Computers- "Sweden Hasn't Changed"
Barry Bonds hit number 756 yesterday, and I'm automatically supposed to either value the sanctity of the game over anything else, basically envisioning an asterisk over his face each time I see him on TV, or I'm supposed to appreciate him and discount the taint of his talent.
As is often the case, the sports media has pushed me into an extreme corner in which I'm not comfortable.
I'm as anti-steroids as anyone, but I'm still inclined to be impressed that a guy--doing most of the leg-work in his chemically-enhanced thirties--has assaulted a record that has only been touched once in eighty years. Besides Jordan, Jerry Rice, and maybe Shaq or Emmitt Smith, Bonds is probably the best athlete I've seen in person. (I watched dude go 0-3 at a Padres game five years ago.) And it should be noted that he hit 756 in one season fewer than Hank Aaron did.
Many of the people who so vehemently believe that Bonds has sullied the game point to statistics. The all-time home run record is the most sacred of all sports records, and it's in large part due to how uniform and pure baseball records are. Since the game's invention, there have been almost no innovations in equipment or rules. Even the size of the ballparks hasn't changed drastically. Thus Hank Aaron's home runs are in the same ballpark, sometimes literally (lollerskates), as Babe Ruth's, and Babe Ruth's homers are equivalent to, say, Randy Bush's, a cat whose son played on my little league team back in the day. For Bonds to gain an advantage from steroids is not only unfair to his contemporaries, but an insult to everyone who played the game on a level playing-field before him.
Watch your back, Nikolai. We wouldn't want him going Chris Benoit on you. (Yeah, I know the name of Barry Bonds' son without having to look it up. Chili dog.)
I'd like to believe that baseball is that fair and simple, but it has to be more complicated than that. Everything in life is relative, and not only is baseball no exception, it's way more relative than statistics hounds give it credit for.
Babe Ruth, who held the home run record before Hammerin' Hank, played in a league that excluded all Black players. Many of the best players in the world had no chance to pitch to him. Hell, Satchel Paige threw so hard he might have somehow subtracted home runs from Babe's total. That's pretty illegitimate. Should Babe Ruth have an asterisk next to his records?
Hank Aaron, a man who received 97.8% of the vote in his first Hall of Fame ballot, a man who broke the record in an era during which he had to suffer the ignominies of racism, had lots of advantages over other players. He played half of his games in County Stadium in Milwaukee and Fulton-County Stadium in Atlanta, two notorious hitters' parks. Plus, he hit behind fellow power hitter Eddie Mathews, so it was difficult to pitch around him. (Bonds is the all-time leader in intentional walks, with 679. Number two? Incredibly, it's Aaron's paltry 293.) Mathews was a hall-of-famer and twelve-time all-star; this isn't Matt Williams we're talking about. Those edges certainly aren't the same as having a syringe in your ass, but shouldn't they be mentioned in the conversation? That Hank Aaron hit 755 under perfect circumstances? Should his records (which still include the all-time RBI mark, arguably more important but less exciting than the home run number) have an asterisk next to them? How do we define advantage? Don't so many stars have to align for someone to even get into the major leagues?
I mean, he hasn't ever failed a test...
And Bonds' record is just as relative. Bonds never had to endure death threats because of his race, but he has spent his entire career with a covetous global media that has afforded him no privacy or dignity. (I'd give the edge to Aaron though. He handled his problem a little more respectably.) With that same globalization and advances in scouting, the talent of the major leagues Bonds plays in is much more concentrated. The major leagues make sure he plays against the best in the world: If a five-tool player were on Mars, a pro team wouldn't only find and sign him, they'd teach him hydration conditioning. On a real level, Bonds has more fierce competition than any of the greats who played before him.
Yes, he cheated to stay at the level of his competition, but we can never measure how many of those pitchers--pitchers with new deliveries and refined mechanics--were just as juiced up as he was.
I'm not saying the record rightfully belongs to Barry Lamar Bonds. I'm saying that you can't define how good he or Ruth or Aaron was, or how much they meant to us, by that one achievement. Despite all the hoopla, because of our different experiences with the game, because of the new challenges players at the highest level face, a record that spans decades means nothing. Maybe, deep down, we all know this, and that's why we need it to be an important milestone. Because if it doesn't matter, connecting other time periods and human experiences to our own, then maybe nothing does.