Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Battle Lines Drawn on Barry Bonds

Late last night (Eastern Time), Barry Bonds clubbed an offering from journeyman Mike Bacsik into the left-center-field bleachers at AT&T Park in San Francisco to pass Henry Aaron and become the all-time home run king in Major League Baseball.

While the Giants fans were ecstatic, across the country the reaction was decidedly more complicated. Outside of the Bay Area, the first words associated with Bonds are not "home run hitter" or "future Hall of Famer" (even though both of those terms might be accurate). Rather, the name Barry Bonds elicits exactly one word in the minds of most baseball fans: "Steroids."

In September 2003, investigators raided the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, better known as BALCO, and soon charges were being leveled that BALCO was supplying illegal performance-enhancing drugs to professional athletes, including Barry Bonds. In fact, Bonds's personal trainer, Greg Anderson, was one of four people eventually convicted in the BALCO case. It became impossible to turn on a sports television show without seeing side-by-side pictures of a wiry Bonds in his younger Pittsburgh Pirates days and a beefier Bonds wearing a Giants uniform.

Bonds is surely not the only person who has taken heat over being perceived as a steroids cheat. After Mark McGwire's pathetic testimony to Congress, in which he answered virtually every question with a lame statement that he didn't want to talk about the past, his esteem in the baseball world plummeted faster than President Bush's approval rating. Once thought of as a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer, McGwire's name appeared on less than a quarter of the voters' ballots for this year's induction. Rafael Palmiero, who achieved two separate milestones that were generally considered a guarantee for induction to Cooperstown (3,000 hits and 500 home runs), has fallen off the face of the earth. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks Palmiero will be voted in when he becomes eligible after the 2010 season.

Bonds is, however, the face of the steroids debate, mainly because he was also one of the most dominant hitters of all time. And, as it became apparent that it was inevitable that he would pass Aaron, much hand-wringing ensued in some quarters. How can a steroids user hold the most revered record in baseball, maybe even in professional sports?

But San Franciscans are not the only ones defending Bonds. There is another group of fans and writers that have reacted to the assault on the slugger by arguing that he is being unfairly targeted.

I am often asked how I feel about the Bonds situation. While I don't think my view is particularly unique, I do feel like many of the defenders of Bonds completely miss the point, while Bonds's critics often fail to recognize his talent.

I would have to say that, for the most part, I am in the anti-Bonds camp. I think it's clear that this guy was pissed off when McGwire and Sammy Sosa got so much attention during their (most likely) steroid-fueled assault on Roger Maris's single-season home run record in 1998, and he felt like if he juiced up, he could break the record himself (and three years later, he did). As such, I feel like Bonds's records are tainted. Bob Costas has pointed out that without the performance-enhancing substances, Bonds would not have amassed the home run total he did, no matter how great he was, and I think Costas is correct.

At the same time, I think it has to be recognized that Bonds is a superior talent. Had his numbers from 1999 to the present followed his earlier career patterns rather than the bump in home runs that actually occurred, Bonds would still be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he still would be considered the dominant player of his era (thanks, in part, to the injury-induced blockade of Ken Griffey Jr.'s production). To reduce Bonds to wholly a product of steroid use is naive. It's not like "the clear" and "the cream" taught Bonds to hit, and it's not like the other players in his era were all clean. No matter how you look at it, Bonds was better than everyone he played with or against.

I find some of the defenses of Bonds to miss the point, though. Ron Parker, filling in for Mike Golic on "Mike and Mike in the Morning" this morning, kept arguing that Bonds shouldn't be singled out because he's not the only one that may have used steroids. What Parker and others who make this argument seem to forget is that Bonds didn't break McGwire's or Sosa's records. He broke Henry Aaron's mark, and Aaron was completely clean. So, even if every baseball player was doing steroids in the 1990s and 2000s, it doesn't make passing a record set by Aaron legitimate. It only proves that Bonds was great relative to the players of that time.

What I find the most troubling about the support for Bonds is the race aspect that seems to accompany it. I have heard more than one person say that Bonds is taking so much heat for breaking the record because he is African-American. While I acknowledge that race plays a role in virtually every corner of American life, I do feel like in this case, such a charge is misplaced.

First of all, the record was held by an African-American player, Henry Aaron. And, while Bonds has had to deal with the scrutiny that has come with the steroid accusations, Aaron had to handle death threats from people who were outraged at the prospect of a black man passing Babe Ruth's sacred home run record. Aaron's ability to merely step on the field, let alone hit home runs and remain a strong, positive presence to the public, was courageous. Bonds, on the other hand, is a victim of a situation of his own choosing. It is hard to feel bad for him, and it is insulting to what Aaron had to survive to suggest that the backlash against Bonds is in any significant way about race.

Further, the overwhelming rejection of McGwire, both by the writers who vote for the Hall of Fame and the fans who watched his testimony, shows that if baseball fans think you've done something wrong, they don't care if you're black, white or purple with pink polka dots.

What do I think this is about, more than anything? Simple. We (that is, baseball fans) are pissed off because Bonds is a jerk. We like when good guys (or, at least, players who appear to be good guys) break records. Watching Aaron set an example of how all people (of all races) should behave in a difficult situation made most Americans root for him. When Cal Ripken, about whom you won't hear a bad word said, broke Lou Gehrig's "unbreakable" consecutive games played record, everyone rejoiced.

But Bonds is not a good guy. He comes off as disrespectful, grumpy, spoiled, entitled, paranoid, and out of touch. He was involved in high-profile infidelities and a nasty divorce. He has failed to realize that writers are the conduit to the fans that make his multimillion-dollar paydays possible, no matter how much he may not like them. And, on top of all of this, he not only got caught doing steroids, but rather than be humbled by it, he kept denying it in the face of all evidence and acted, well, like a jerk. Speaking of jerks, I don't want to be in the business of agreeing with Curt Schilling, but he has a point about Bonds. With all that has been printed about him, if it wasn't in large part true, wouldn't he sue, or at least do something?

There is nothing "everyman" about Bonds. He is not relatable. He doesn't have a great background story about his upbringing, since he was raised in privilege as the son of a baseball star. When the average fan hears him complain about his situation (especially since, in large part, he created it himself), there is no rush of sympathy for the "poor little rich kid."

The bottom line is, I think, most fans didn't want to see a jerk pass Aaron on the home run list. The fact that he is a steroid-using jerk only makes it worse, and it gives the fans something to hang their hats on other than Bonds's unpleasantness.

I'm not ashamed to admit that it was no fun seeing a guy like Bonds break an iconic record held by a man like Aaron. But, I am also honest enough to admit that Bonds is one of the greatest players of all time, steroids or no steroids. Keep both of those points in mind the next time you hear someone joining the Bonds debate.