August 8, 2007
#756—It Is Done
On a cool, damp night, in the ballpark that he helped create, in the city that holds him dear, Barry Bonds set the record for career home runs by hitting his 756th deep into the center field bleachers. The blast, on a 3-2 count off of journeyman left-hander Mike Bacsik, could go into a time capsule so that future generations understand what a "home run" is: high, soaring, majestic and gone off the bat, 435 feet of power.
There is only one proper response to a moment like that: you stand and cheer. You cheer the accomplishment and you cheer the player. You cheer because we love baseball for the moments it provides. You cheer because when you're looking back on a moment like that, you'd rather say you cheered and were later made to regret it than that you didn't and later wish you had. You cheer because for one moment, there is nothing but that moment.
We can't say with certainty, on August 8, 2007, whether Bonds' career achievements come with a taint. What we can say is that any taint comes within the context of his time. Call him a cheater? So were many of his peers, if the storyline is to be believed, including the pitchers he faced. Unnatural advantage? I refer you to Jim Bouton's extensive coverage of amphetamine use two generations ago. Unfair playing field? You probably don't want to compare him to Babe Ruth, then. Bad guy? Get in a very, very long line.
It will be a long time before we can put the latter stages of Barry Bonds' career in historical context, and it's conceivable that the answers so many people want will never be there. What did he do, and how many of his peers did it? What impact did any illegal activities have on his performance? What are the long-term effects of any actions on his health? The simple storyline-Bonds did bad things, and those things made him bigger and stronger, and he leveraged that size and strength into history-making performance-is too facile given all of the potholes along that particular road.
I'm on the record as taking a benign view of Bonds' actions, not convinced that he did the things he's accused of, and less convinced that anything he may have done had a notable effect on his career. Today, on the day after his greatest individual moment, I stand by that. Perhaps this is a reactionary position, a contrarian reflex against the reporters resentful of Bonds' arrogance and his treatment of them over the years. Certainly if the image of Bonds in the public eye is a creation of both his own actions and those of the people charged with covering him, then my opinion of him, as an informed outsider, is also no doubt shaped by my biases.
Today isn't about evaluating the man, however. It's about standing, and cheering, and observing with respect and a little awe one of the greatest moments in baseball history, created by one of the greatest players in baseball history.
Years from now, I will tell my kids that I saw Barry Bonds set the record for most home runs in a career. I will tell them about the form of his swing, and the majestic flight of the ball. I will tell them how great it was to see Bonds' son Nikolai hop the dugout fence before the ball landed, celebrating his father's achievement and joining his dad at home plate, connecting three generations of Bonds men, Nikolai to his father, Barry to his own dad above. I will tell them how Nationals players applauded Bonds, and how history's victim, Bacsik, tipped his cap to the slugger. I will explain how Hank Aaron's image appeared, almost godlike in the night sky, to congratulate his successor.
Perhaps I will have to tell them more, explain to them the chemistry of performance enhancement, the legal and social ramifications of steroid use, the atmosphere within MLB in the early days of the 21st century. We will know more by then, I hope, and I look forward to having enough information to either confirm my current viewpoint or come around to the opinion shared by so many others. I want to be able to pass along to future baseball fans something we don't have today: the whole story.
History will judge Barry Bonds. All we can do is appreciate him.