Monday, May 22, 2006

Barry and the Babe

On Saturday, Giants leftfielder Barry Bonds hit his 714th career home run, moving him into a second place tie with the immortal Babe Ruth on the all-time list. Bonds is now 41 homers behind the all-time leader, Hank Aaron.

A funny thing happened to Barry Bonds. He played his first seven years in Pittsburgh, never hitting more than 34 home runs in a single season. About the time he signed with San Francisco, he entered his prime and became one of the most feared hitters in baseball. Since moving to the left coast, Bonds has failed to reach 34 homers in a season only twice. In 1995 he hit 33, and last year, an injury-plagued season in which he appeared in only 14 games, he managed only five. But along the way, Bonds transformed from a trim, lithe player into a muscle-bound behemoth. The whispering started. Whenever anyone speculated about which baseball players might be using steroids, Bond's name was always high on the list. The powers that be in baseball couldn't have cared less. No, that's not right -- they were happy about it. Nothing in baseball gets the average fan more excited than the long ball, and suddenly there were these gargantuan players hitting bushels of them. In 1998, Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa treated fans to the greatest home run race of all time. Both would surpass Roger Maris's single season record -- McGuire finished with 70 homers, Sosa with 66. Baseball officials were giddy about the increased attendance and the renewed interest in the game. Then, in 2001, Bonds took it one step further and surpassed McGuire's record by clouting 73 homers.

Now, caught up in the BALCO scandal, all of Bonds's career achievements are viewed through a cloud, a steroid taint. A poll on ESPN.com asks, "If Albert Pujols hits 62 home runs this season, who would you consider the single-season record holder?" Your choices are Pujols, Bonds, McGuire and Roger Maris. At the time I cast my vote, Pujols was polling ahead of Bonds 45% - 40%. Similar polls (with similar results) have sprung up everywhere. Some people think that Bonds's records should be marked with an asterisk, a la Roger Maris. The baseball powers that be now seem sheepishly embarrassed that Bonds has reached such lofty heights. No official ceremonies were planned to commemorate the passing of the Babe; the whole escapade has largely been greeted with an air of indifference.

In this country there is a presumption of innocence. Bonds, thus far, has never failed one of baseball's drug tests and hasn't been convicted of any crime. Granted, it has only been in the last year or so, with some serious prodding from Congress, that baseball has implemented anything resembling rigorous testing. Granted as well, the circumstantial evidence against Bonds is pretty overwhelming. Grand jury testimony that has seeped out from the BALCO case makes it almost a sure thing that Bonds was juiced. The few public statements he has made on the subject reek of an "I didn't know and I didn't want to know" mentality - a setup for some plausible deniability. There was some cream, there may have been some pills, it might have been linseed oil, my trainer gave them to me, et cetera ad nauseum.

Assuming Bonds did take steroids, it's impossible to say how much they might have helped him. They didn't sharpen his eyesight or enhance his hand-eye coordination. They didn't help him make contact with the ball, something he did better than almost anyone for quite a long time. What they did do was give him that little bit of extra oomph, that extra little bit of power and bat speed that turned a warning-track-out into a round-tripper. Would he be passing the Babe now without the steroids? No. But how many homers would he have? At ESPN's Page Two, Patrick Hruby puts the total at around 616. That sounds just about right. A fine career total for the one of the greatest players of his generation, but not quite challenging the immortals, the Babe and Hammering Hank.

In addition to the steroid taint, Bonds comes off as a complete jerk. Almost every current and former teammate of Bonds's describes him as a great, fun-loving guy. Maybe he is. But he has yet to find a way to translate his private persona into a public persona that people can relate to. The public Bonds, a moody, whiny jerk, is all the public ever sees of him. Personally, I could cut him a break on this. If I had reporters dogging me 24/7, delving into all aspects of my private life, the public would probably not see me at my best either. Bonds's latest whine-fest is "Bonds on Bonds" on ESPN. Here, in a documentary-type setting, he bitches and moans about how hard it truly is to be Barry Bonds. Yet, one of the very first vignettes on the show was Bonds showing up at Family Court to discuss alimony and custody of his children. He rounded the last corner before the hearing room and there were 20 or 30 reporters waiting to document this private moment for posterity. Maybe it is hard to be Barry Bonds.

Another online poll, this one for AOL asked, "Who is the better slugger?" The choices were Bonds or the Babe. The Babe was outpolling Bonds by about 4-to-1. Well yeah. The Babe is a legend. He revolutionized the game, revitalizing it after the Black Sox scandal, transforming it from a deadball base-to-base game into a game of longball. Oldtimers like Ty Cobb were nonplussed, but the public loved it. Attendance and revenue reached all-time highs. He set records that still stand and others that took a generation or more to be surpassed. But it's difficult at best to compare players of different eras. The Babe played a segregated game with no blacks, Latinos, Japanese, etc. players allowed. The Babe never had to play night games, never had to fly to the opposite coast on extended road trips, never had reporters exposing any of his dirty little secrets for public consumption, never had to face the relief specialists of the modern era, never had to face the higher level of competition inherent in today's more modern game.

This will probably be Bonds's last hurrah. Unless he finds his groove soon, he won't pass Hank Aaron this year. Or next. He's aging rapidly as sluggers are apt to do. His knees are shot. He can't reach and drive the pitches that he could just a couple of years ago. His only real chance is to sign with an American League team and spend the rest of his playing days as a designated hitter. So maybe we should take this time to give Bonds his due. We don't have to show him the love, but we should probably show him a little respect. He's put together a Hall of Fame career. He's won seven MVP titles and should have won a couple more. He's put together some career numbers that, even adjusting for the steroids, are mighty impressive. Love him or hate him, for almost two decades he's been one of the greatest players to play the game.

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