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September 20, 2005
Can Of Corn
One of the shopworn accusations leveled at Baseball Prospectus from time to time is that we're as vulnerable to creeping groupthink as anyone in the mainstream circles. Of course, it's silly to accuse any broad population of homogeneity, intellectual or otherwise, and this instance--our instance--is no different.
This calls to mind the eloquent and cogently argued piece that our own Christina Kahrl wrote on Barry Bonds' return to the Giants lineup. While Christina (and others at BP) and I (and others at BP) aren't diametric opposites on L'Affaire Bonds, we do, ultimately, see things a bit differently. There are two thrusts to the issue, both raised in Christina's piece: what role the media's filtering of Bonds the man plays in all of this, and the legitimacy of his accomplishments.
There's no skating around the race issue as it pertains to Bonds. It's perhaps Pollyannaish to think we're past the days when the sporting media was at seeming ease with only the "safe" kind of black athlete. One need not reflect long to recall the noxious treatment of sportsmen like Muhammad Ali, Dick Allen or Jim Brown. Perhaps this reached its nadir, at least in the post-Jim Crow era, when Brent Musburger, frothy over the infamous "black power" salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics, referred to U.S. track stars Tommmie Smith and John Carlos as "black-skinned storm troopers."
On the other end of the continuum, we get writers like Rick Reilly, who, in some desperate attempt to achieve "with it-ness," write sepia-toned and humiliatingly docile puff pieces about a homophobic misogynist like Allen Iverson. So while we in the media may now have a better idea of how to cover the black athlete, we still don't entirely know what we're doing. However, there's another stratum to the debate on Bonds.
Bonds was born into privilege, and he's remained there ever since. A certain amount of animus toward the upper reaches of society is, I believe, not only acceptable but also healthy. To cite a recent example, it's possible to see the Hurricane Katrina atrocities, once Mississippi is made part of the calculus, through the prism of economics and not race. One of the tiresome refrains among GOP leaders is to bellow "class warfare!" whenever someone questions the wisdom of regressive taxation/supply-side policy-making. To this I'd say: you're damn right.
Anyhow, that's no doubt at play in the media's rendering of Bonds. He's a multi-millionaire; those who cover him are, for the most part, middle class. That he's on occasion a considerable jerk only ferries along their preconceptions. While middle-class anger toward the upper classes isn't as desirable or justified as lower-class indignation, it's certainly understandable. Racism probably plays a part in the thinly-drawn media sketches of Bonds (I'm reminded of a Lewis Grizzard column in which the author seemed poised to take a hostage because of his righteous anger over Bonds' dangling earring), but the strains of it shouldn't overshadow whatever upward-flowing classism there is. After all, the former is bad, while the latter is necessary in a democracy-cum-plutocracy. The prevailing point is that mixed motives on the part of those who cover Bonds don't change what Bonds did; the sociology of it all is secondary to the matter of how we should feel about Bonds' assault on history.
I'm fine with pulling for him to supplant Babe Ruth in the number-two spot on the all-time home run list. Whatever Bonds' human and pharmacological failings, they haven't adulterated his performance to the degree that playing against an all-white peer group dampens Ruth's numbers. But what of his pursuit of Hank Aaron?
Consider that, according to leaked grand jury testimony, Bonds has used human growth hormone, Depo-Testosterone, undetectable steroids (now known in the juiced-era parlance as the "cream" and the "clear"), insulin and Clomid, a fertility drug used to enhance testosterone levels. That's a harrowing litany of misdeeds. Throw in the doping calendars found at the home of Bonds' trainer and that Bonds used steroids during the 2003 season--when they were banned in accordance with the Collective Bargaining Agreement--and there's really only one conclusion: Bonds was cheating. To feign otherwise is, I believe, to indulge in the rankest kind of myth making.
Bonds' defenders often try to import the "innocent until proven guilty" standard from the courts of law into the courts of public opinion. I myself feel no compunction about ignoring said standard. While I might not be able to convince a jury of Bonds' credulous peers of his guilt, grand jury testimony, his unprecedented performance spike and the demonstrably astounding changes in his body are enough for me to convict. And convict I have.
Whether Bonds' lavish efforts to tamper with his genetic limits have resulted in improved performance (I certainly believe they have) is largely immaterial to me. The repeated attempts to do so are damning enough. In other words, Bonds is a cheater even if his efforts to cheat came to grief. Besides violating the law, the CBA and any reasonable sense of ethics, Bonds also added to the groundswell of coercive forces that many players no doubt felt until codified (and deliriously belated) steps were taken to rid the game of this scourge. Those are profound disservices to baseball.
I'm dismayed, but not surprised, to see Giant fans full-throatedly cheering Bonds on now that he's returned. They probably see themselves as being nobly defiant, giving hard-won support to a beleaguered and wronged pariah; I see them as being willfully ignorant or perhaps wittingly valuing their own entertainment over notions of competitive integrity. That's not something any good baseball fan should be a part of.
I don't wish Bonds serious injury, but I do hope he fails to overtake Aaron in the all-time home run chase. Once Bonds passes Ruth, I'll be rooting against him in feverish fashion. You should do the same.