Sunday, August 05, 2007


I've always been intrigued by the concept of self-awareness, the ability to step back in the midst of a special moment and not only see its uniqueness, but understand how it fits into your life as a whole. What does it feel like when you know you've reached your peak? Do you comprehend on some level that nothing you do again will ever be this good? Is there an instant where you feel complete satisfaction or know that you will never achieve what you've always dreamed of accomplishing?

How many of us, while focused on reaching our own particular goals, take a second to consider the ramifications of what we're doing to achieve them, who's being hurt or taught a life lesson by our actions? Do any of us see exactly how the paths we take impact on even ourselves?

Saturday night, Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants hit home run #755 equaling the Hank Aaron record that has stood for 31 years. Sometime tonight or in the next few days, he will hit #756 achieving a record he's been pursuing all his life.

A lot of people want to see Barry break the home run record. A lot of people don't. That's because Barry has been accused of using steroids to achieve his dream. He's juiced. He's found an unfair edge. He's a cheater with no regard for his game, its fans or anything save his own ego.


I've been a Bonds fan all of his career. When he was young, he was explosive and acrobatic maturing over the years into a power hitter with the sweetest swing in baseball.

If Barry Bonds used steroids to accomplish what he is about to accomplish, I don't really have a problem with it. It's his body and if he wants to wreck it, that's pretty much his business. On a certain level, it's no different than the guys I've been admiring this week on the "X" Games literally risking their lives for their sport and its rewards.

On other levels, he doesn't have an unaccountable right to that kind of behavior -- and I'll get to that in a minute. But speaking as someone who has played and loved baseball all my life, I find the hypocracy of the Baseball establishment, politicians, sports media and fans commenting on Bonds more repugnant than whether or not Barry cheated.

You see, Baseball knew all along that many of its players were using steroids. Coaches, Managers and Trainers knew. Owners knew. The Players Association knew and the Sportswriters knew. They’ll all deny it now, but they couldn’t have not known and still have been doing their jobs. The obvious results of steroid use was staring them in the face season after suddenly musclebound season.

The reason nobody did anything is twofold. First – Baseball has always embraced and silently condoned cheating. It’s an acceptable part of the game. Benches make a practise of stealing signs from the opposing team. It’s okay to drill a batter with a pitch to send the message that you don’t like something he or a teammate has done to beat you. Bats are corked. Balls are scuffed. Double plays broken by sliding with your cleats up or made without tagging the lead runner or touching the bag.

There are former players still wringing Gaylord Perry’s spit out of their jerseys. He writes a book about how much he cheated (“Me and the Spitter”) and resides in the Hall of Fame, while radio sports jocks debate Bonds worthiness of sharing a nearby plaque.

The second reason is the nature of steroids themselves. I’m no expert, but I’ve had some experience with them. And while the Media and Dick Pound of the World Anti-Doping Agency make blanket condemnation, most people remain unaware of just how broad that family of pharmaceuticals actually is. Indeed, there are steroids banned in North America which are condoned for use by sports federations in Europe – and vice versa.

When I was working in Australia, we flew in supplements for our stunt players which required reams of regulatory paper to import, yet were purchased over the counter and without a prescription in LA. Visit any GNC in America and you’ll find products banned by their Canadian stores. It’s quite plausible that an athlete using a particular substance can be legal or illegal simply on the basis of geography.

According to Jose Canseco, hardly the most reliable source on the subject, yet far more honest than most in Baseball; 85% of players in his era were juiced. Even if Jose is only half right (and allowing home runs to bounce off your head and sleeping with Madonna can do that to a guy) it means that Barry Bonds and any other “clean” player in Major League Baseball was facing 2-3 pitchers per week (or even per game) who were juicing. A few times a week, he was trying to outrun the throw from a pumped up Fielder who had suddenly grown a gun for an arm.

In my view, Baseball allowed an environment to develop where drugs clearly gave some Players an advantage, so those who weren’t juicing had no choice but to get with the program or wave good-bye to their careers. If Barry Bonds started jamming a syringe in his butt, was he cheating or simply trying to level the playing field in a sport that was doing nothing to protect those who played clean?

You have to wonder if Baseball’s complacency robbed us of the full enjoyment of unknown talents by allowing lesser players to “cheat” their way to the top.

Much of what I’ve heard during this assault on the most venerated Baseball record reflects a desire by some to put an asterisk (*) next to Barry’s achievement so future readers of the record book know it is a diminished victory. It would be like the one they put next to Roger Maris’ name when he out-homered Babe Ruth, because he did it in more than the 154 games that made up a season in the Bambino’s time.

I’ve never really understood Baseball’s obsession with the sanctity of records in a game that changes exponentially on a regular basis. Would the Babe have hit 60 Homers if he’d had to endure the transcontinental travel, day games after night games and other rigors of a modern athlete? How would he have fared under the intense media scrutiny Bonds has had to deal with for the last few months?

Something tells me, he’d have been imbibing more than Beer and Hotdogs.

Every time I hear some Baseball geek quote stats I wonder if Ty Cobb (who once murdered a man) ever got a homer by sauntering up to a pitcher at batting practice and giving him the choice between tossing a fat hanging curve and extensive dental work. I wonder if Mickey Mantle ever invited some corn-fed rookie to his watering hole in Manhattan the night before a game for a couple of boilermakers that wouldn’t wear off til sometime in the 4th inning.

To paraphrase Churchill’s quote that Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all the others. Records are a poor way of comparing players, but it’s the best one we’ve got. Overall, Records reflect the era in which they were set and little more. They can’t be so sacrosanct that we diminish our enjoyment of the game or need to find a way to asterisk Players we don’t like for one reason or another.

If people need a villain in this piece, I nominate MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. Bud was present to see Barry slug #755, looking on glumly, hands firmly jammed in his pants as Barry circled the bases. It might be that he was trying not to show his appreciation of the moment. It might be that he was desperately searching for his testicles.

Instead of offering a long overdue “Mea Culpa” on behalf of all in Baseball for what’s gone on, Bud has stood by and let the media hounds and politicians savage one of his players (albeit an apparently dislikable one) at will. After the game he issued a press Release which read in part…

“…out of respect for the tradition of the game, the magnitude of the record and the fact that all citizens in this country are innocent until proven guilty, either I or a representative of my office will attend the next few games and make every attempt to observe the breaking of the all-time home run record."

How's that for an understated "Way to go, Slugger!"?

Bud then promptly announced he wouldn’t be attending the next few Giants games and failed to acknowledge that Clay Hensley, the San Diego Padres pitcher who served up #755 had been suspended for steroid use in 2005. In other words, the Commissioner and many others were rooting for a convicted “Cheat” over a Player merely suspected of doing something wrong.

Years ago, I did a show with NFL star Lyle Alzado after he became one of the first professional athletes to admit to steroid use; usage he claimed caused the brain cancer that would eventually take his life. While his doctors never shared that diagnosis, Lyle was completely convinced the same drugs which had prolonged his career also shortened his life.

The true victims of steroid use are not professional athletes who should know better, but the high school kids shooting up in the vain hope of winning a college scholarship. Bud and his buddies were in the position to make a difference to those kids, but they did nothing, and now they are praying that Barry Bonds will take the fall for their failings.

As for Barry Bonds…

When he crossed the plate, officially scoring #755, his son Nikolai was the first person in a Giants uniform to embrace him. I hope for both their sakes that Barry does not suffer Lyle Alzado’s fate and lives to see his son grow and achieve his own dreams. But that may have been put at risk by the way he may have chosen to reach a record that will inevitably be surpassed.

I hope he has the awareness to consider how this moment fits in his life and how much it really means when the moment has passed.


Tom said...

This is crap. I don't care if records are arbitrary. I don't care if the term steroids encompasses a large family of pharmaceuticals (though I agree that's an issue all sports should address).
The fact is, I don't care about this at all. The only thing I care about is seeing someone call other people repugnant because they don't still like Barry Bonds.

This whole story has made me care less about baseball, and not at all about the home run record. Were it not for Bonds (and his problems go beyond the steroids), I would have cared about this record. I wanted to care. This is one of those numbers you remember. Twenty years from now, this is the kind of thing I could have told my kids about at the game. Now I'll remember this like I do the record for most hot dogs eaten in one inning.

Barry's job isn't to hit home runs, or score runs or to win games. His job is to make me care. The job of every professional athlete is to make me care. True, home runs and wins usually help, but as a Cubs fan I know there's more to it than that. Michael Jordan wasn't the greatest NBA player ever because of any scoring or Championship title. It was because every kid in the NBA watching world wanted to be like Mike. Or maybe they badly wanted to see him lose games. But they cared.

And let's not complain about the arbitrariness of one aspect of sports without recognizing that all judgement of sporting is arbitrary. All rules that aren't naturally occurring (like physics) are arbitrary.

Different parks are different sizes. So a home run at one field is short of the warning track of another. But that's what we've accepted. Someone (MLB) decided to make things so. And a consensus of everyone else has agreed to go along with it.
Practically speaking, what makes a home run in batting practice or the All-Star game different from a home run during an official record affecting game? What makes Barry Bonds steroids different from Gaylord Perry's spitballs?
What makes a fan's experience of those events different from each other?

Nothing. These distinctions are arbitrary. And them's the rules.

Riddley Walker said...

“The job of every professional athlete is to make me care.”

Nope, the job of a professional athlete is to excel. Whether you care or not is (and certainly should be) of little to no importance to them.

Anyway, this is all about glorified rounders, ferchrissakes...

Sorry Jim, I had to pop that last bit in. ;-)

wcdixon said...

And now it's done.