July 31, 2007

Barry Bonds Really is Our Homerun Champion

As I write this, San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds has 754 career homeruns. He stands one homerun behind all-time leader Hank Aaron who hit 755. Be it in a matter of hours, games, or days, Bonds will soon break Aaron’s record and be the career leader.

Janie McCauley, writing about Bonds for the Associated Press yesterday in the article “Big day brewing in baseball: Bonds, A-Rod and Glavine could go for milestones all at once”, put it succinctly, “The 43-year-old slugger… is booed and derided on the road, partly because of steroid suspicions surrounding his quest.”

Aaron himself spoke as loudly about Bonds’ pursuit of the milestone. Michael Melia reported that Aaron told the AP yesterday, “I am making a comment by not making a comment.” Aaron was offering neither encouragement nor congratulations to Bonds.

After Bonds hit number 752 and 753 in Chicago against the Cubs on July 19, Commissioner Bud Selig relented and decided that in fact he would go and see Bonds play in person and perhaps be present for the record tying homerun. From Chicago, the Giants traveled to Milwaukee for games on July 20 and 21. Selig was the long-time owner of the Milwaukee Brewers and maintains a personal residence and office in the city. It would have been hard for Selig to have been unavailable those nights.

Selig was spared from attending the Giants’ games this weekend in San Francisco against the Marlins. The Baseball Hall of Fame induction weekend took place in Cooperstown, New York. One of the duties of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball is to attend such festivities. (What, you thought Commissioner’s only pursued gambling officials and dog-fighting superstars? They do fun things, too!)

Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn were inducted into the Hall this weekend but baseball fans could not even escape the shadow of steroids in idyllic Cooperstown. Ripken and Gwynn retired at the end of the 2001 season. So did Mark McGuire who would have certainly been standing on the stage with Ripken and Gwynn on Sunday afternoon had he not cast himself under the same dark shadow in which Bonds now plays.

The Giants begin a three-game series this evening in Los Angeles against the rival Dodgers. The fans are expected to boo Bonds relentlessly. There is a picture from the July 19 game in Chicago. As Bonds rounds the bases during of the homeruns, one can clearly see a fan in the stands holding up a white poster-board with an asterisk on it.

Major League Baseball did not test for steroids until 2002. Under the terms of this testing program, a positive test resulted in counseling and the player’s identity was kept confidential. The MLB steroids test as we know it today began only with the 2005 season.

Barry Bonds hit his season-record 73 homeruns in 2001. Bonds hit well over 500 homeruns before MLB began testing. To date, Bonds has never tested positive – at least to public knowledge – for steroids. Thus, every article about Bonds and about his pursuit of the homerun record uses words such as “suspicious” and “alleged”. There is no smoking gun as Major League Baseball has defined the smoking gun. This is the reason that Selig has to show for Bonds because Selig as official MLB adjudicator does not have his conviction.

I could type a couple thousand words recapping the thousand points of evidence of Bonds’ use. Bonds has changed his story about his not using; his personal trainer remains in prison for refusal to testify to the grand jury currently investigating Bonds; his change in physical characteristics. One can go on.

For the sake of this piece of writing, let us pretend that Bonds really did use steroids. Let us pretend that that we do not need to use the word “supposedly” or any other clarifying words to say what we want to say without saying so. Bonds used steroids and will break the record.

My buddy Jake was over for dinner on Friday night and declared that sports was dead. It was not nearly as funny as last week, when having just seen Transformers, he kept booming ala-Optimus Prime, “When the time comes, put the cube in the chest!”.

It was a rough week for professional sports and I suppose it was all an example of just how professional (which means, “for money”), professional sports are.

Michael Vick, quarterback for the National Football League’s Atlanta Falcons entered a plea of not guilty in the federal courthouse in Richmond, Virginia on Thursday. Public opinion has turned on him so much that Reebok pulled his Falcons jerseys from retail stores and the Upper Deck sports-card company removed his football cards from card sets. This was the same week that a National Basketball Association referee was accused of betting on games for which he officiated. This was the same week that the Tour de France became a Tour de Farce as top readers were led away in handcuffs by the French police.

Bonds was one more reason to be gloomy about sports. Former United States Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren is quoted as having said, “I always turn to the sports page first. The sports page records people's accomplishments; the front page nothing but man's failures.” Last week, the ongoing devastation in Iraq was beginning to look a bit more promising than the sports section.

Bonds and his pursuit of Aaron’s record remains unpopular. PollingReport.com, to which I usually turn for updates on presidential races, has a section cataloging public opinion surveys regarding Bonds. You can explore it at http://www.pollingreport.com/baseball.htm.

For all the public displeasure with Bonds, I have a hard time vilifying him, let alone rooting against Bonds. The new career homerun record will belong not only to Bonds and testify to his steroid use, it will be about us and how much we wanted our baseball heroes to use steroids. This record is as much for us as it is for Bonds.

On a certain level, we wanted ballplayers using steroids. We did not want to talk about it and we did not want to call it what it was when so many individual voices called to us of its elephant presence in the middle of the living-room ballpark.

The Baltimore Orioles’ Brady Anderson appeared with ripped muscles in 1996 and hit 50 homeruns that year. This was at age 32. He had broken 20 in one season only once in his first eight seasons in the major leagues. It must have been the juiced baseballs or the short fences in the new ballparks.

Sammy Sosa went from a high of 40 homeruns a season in 1996 to 66 in 1998. Sosa made $5.5 million in 1997 and saw his annual salary jump to $11 million in 2000, according to baseball-reference.com. In January 1999, Sosa was a guest of the President and First-Lady at the Capital for the State of the Union. It pays to hit the homeruns.

There are more examples of how individual players benefited from using steroids and how we as baseball fans loved the explosion of offense. We showed our approval and joy with the new state of the game in how we tuned into McGuire’s and Sosa’s 1998 pursuit of Roger Maris’ single-season homerun record. We showed our approval in joy in the merchandise we bought. Todd McFarlane purchased McGwire’s 1998 homerun ball number 70 for almost $3 million.

Major League Baseball showed its own approval for the steroid use by refusing to test or push for a test with the MLB Players Association. MLB showered praise on Sosa and on McGwire. It sold tickets and television contracts and counted the dollars pouring in. MLB waited until 2005 to start testing with juicy consequences.

We loved what steroids was doing for baseball. We loved the offense that steroids brought us that revived interest in the game after it was devastated by the 1994 players’ strike. We chose not to ask too many questions or press too hard.

Barry Bonds thrived in an environment that the Commissioner’s office condoned in its silence and which we the fans encouraged in our spending. Bonds looked around and saw the opportunity – there was no test and he would not be caught – and he used steroids and put on tremendous displays of offense for our pleasure.

The use of steroids in pro sports is so complicated. We do not know precisely how long they have been used in baseball. We do not know who used how much and when. Even today, current tests cannot detect all kinds of steroids so players may still be using. We know some are as they continue to fail tests (see Neifi Perez). For all of Commissioner Selig’s assertions, we do not know for sure.

Bonds is now at the center of the baseball world, at a crossroads in our reckoning with steroids in the game, and on the verge of the record. I believe we boo Barry Bonds because he has come to embody all of our baseball-world ambivalence and anger around the proliferation of steroids in the game. We cannot return to 1989 or 1998 or 2001 to stop the game and be that child on the parade route laughing at the king for not wearing any clothes. Even if we could, we might have been enjoying the balls flying over the fences too much to even notice or be that child.

It is not so much that Barry Bonds deserves the career homerun record but that we deserve Barry Bonds. He really is our homerun champion.

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