Monday, May 15, 2006

Ba-a-a-rry, Ba-a-a-rry

Barry Bonds will pass Babe Ruth on the all-time Major League home run list this week, as sure as George W. Bush will do something to make us wish either he or we had been born elsewhere. The Home Office will greet Bonds’ accomplishment with unsurpassed indifference. Henry Aaron holds the record, not Ruth. As far as I’m concerned, Aaron will hold the record even if Bonds hits 800 home runs.

This isn’t just the pre-Alzheimer ranting of a middle-aged fart who remembers Bad Henry as an icon of his youth. Hearsay and circumstantial evidence may be all we have, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Bonds cheated. Baseball can’t really put any asterisks next to Bonds’ records; even if he was on the juice, it wasn’t against the rules when he did it.

Everyone has an opinion about Bonds, most of them unfavorable. Many reasons have been put forth for this, ranging from racism to steroid use to his being a California-sized asshole. The big question lately has been why the reactions are so visceral. In the interests of time, we’ll distill some of them into their essence.

Why does Bonds receive more venom than the other steroid-tainted players?

He’s he one who has broken, or about to break, the biggest records. Mark McGwire got a pass in 1998 because the steroid bubble hadn’t burst yet. When Bonds hit 73 in 1991, the clear and the cream were out of the tube.

Another reason may be that Bonds never needed to cheat. He had Hall of Fame talent from the time the Pirates brought him to the bigs. This is not at all the same as some poor sap hanging on by his fingernails to the 25th spot on a roster.

Compare Bonds’ career with that of Ken Griffey, Jr. Similar body types and skill sets, except Griffey was a superior outfielder with a much better arm. (Full disclosure demands informing the reader that, as a Pirates fan, I still remember Rag-Arm Bonds’ inability to throw out Sid Bream in his wheelchair from deep short, costing the Pirates a trip to the 1992 World Series.) Griffey was well ahead of Bonds’ home run pace until a few years ago, when injuries destroyed most of several seasons. Bonds has been injury-free, or at least blessed with remarkable recovery times, until the big push to root out steroids coincided with him missing virtually all of last season with a minor knee injury.

Baseball has tolerated amphetamine usage for years; what’s the big deal about steroids?

There’s no defense for the wide-spread use of “greenies” in baseball; it’s about time they did something about them. Steroids are on a different plane of cheating; they make physiological changes to the player’s body.

So what? They don’t increase eye-hand coordination. Bonds still has to make contact.

True, but how much distance does the extra muscle mass add to a well-hit ball? Even a five percent increase turns a 380-foot fly to the warning track into a 400-foot blast into McCovey Cove.

Why the fuss about passing Ruth? Josh Gibson probably hit more home runs, but wasn’t permitted to play in the major leagues. Plus, Ruth never had to hit against Satchel Paige, Smokey Joe Williams, or Bullet Rogan.

Negro league records are scanty, so Gibson’s numbers are impossible to verify. (His HOF plaque lists “almost 800 homers.”) If we’re keeping track of who Ruth didn’t have to hit against, it should also be pointed out that Gibson didn’t have to hit against Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson, or Herb Pennock. Besides, the records being debated are for Major League baseball. If we’re going to include all leagues, the guy to catch is Sadaharu Oh, with 868.

Bonds is reviled because he is the point man for an ugly open secret that has blown up on him. Most of those implicated in the steroid scandals had the good grace to slink into the shadows. Jose Canseco blew the whistle, but he was already out of baseball. Mark McGwire is the largest invisible man in history. Sammy Sosa didn’t fuss when no one offered him a contract this year. Rafael Palmeiro disappeared after his now-comical protestations blew up in his face.

Last year’s repeated surgeries gave Bonds ample opportunity to bow out gracefully. As usual, he missed it. Whether he’s refusing to sign balls for the kids at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh or asking for a child-support reductions during a strike, Barry Bonds is a self-pitying prick. His father had a long major league career and Willie Mays is his godfather: they ensured he learned to play the game right. He also has more talent than any three people have a right to. Barry will endure if the world never gives him his props, or shares the love. He has enough love for the whole world. Too bad he uses it all on himself.

The day is coming for Barry to take his oversized ego and undersized balls and leave us alone. Maybe they’ll give him his own wing in the Hall of Fame, like he has in the Giants’ dressing room. Even better, he can share one with Ty Cobb. They could name it the Sphincter Wing.

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