A sunny day, a long fly ball, a slow trot around the bases…and an audible exhale.
Barry Bonds’ 715th career home run, the blast that moved him past the game’s iconic figure and into second place on the all-time home run list, was no cheapie. Bonds hammered a 3-2 pitch from Byung-Hyun Kim into the center-field bleachers at AT&T Park, setting off a long, sustained ovation from the Giants fans for whom Bonds has been a hero for 14 years.
I watched it, and I had no idea what to do.
I’d certainly had enough time to prepare. Bonds hit homer #713 on May 7, and ripped #714 May 20. The file into which this article is being typed is labeled “May 12,” the date when I started considering what the milestone shot would feel like. Yet when it happened, in a picturesque setting in the right ballpark to encourage forgetting, to allow a fan to let loose applause and a full-throated cheer, I couldn’t do it. I felt…something. Not the disdain or outright hatred that some people have for Bonds, certainly, but something pulled at me as I tried to enjoy and appreciate history.
What has been taken away from us, as baseball fans, is the ability to enjoy the moment with no reservations. Even for someone like me, who’s criticized the process and who thinks Bonds has been given something less than fair treatment, it’s clear that his last six seasons have occurred at the intersection of ability and something else, something of dubious legality or morality. Bonds has unquestionably taken a disproportionate brunt of the media’s manufactured outrage over the still-unclear effects of performance-enhancing drugs on baseball. He’s the only player who’s had six years of his medical history investigated and published in a best-seller. However, the end product of that investigation–“Game of Shadows”–makes it hard to watch any of Bonds’ feats without wondering. He’s never failed a steroid test, never been suspended, but there’s still a tinge of doubt with every at-bat, every long drive.
I’m someone who wants to celebrate the greatness of baseball and its players, and whatever Bonds has or has not done, he’s taken that away from me. I’m left with a choice between ignoring everything, cheering and feeling a little bit like a sycophant, or snarling at the feat and pointing to a hardcover book and reams of media coverage. Neither is satisfying.
See, there’s a great middle out there, between the people who think Bonds should be banned from baseball, the Hall of Fame and access to oxygen, and the people–largely with 94xxx zip codes–who cheer him wholeheartedly. The great middle consists of people like me, people who love baseball and who have been astounded by Bonds’ achievements in the latter stages of his career, who recognize that Bonds is a lightning rod as much because of his talent and his intolerance of the media as his decisions as to what to put into his body. People like me who don’t have “Game of Shadows”-level investigations for 2000 ballplayers over the last decade, and who never will. We can’t put Bonds’ actions into context; those of us who come to Bonds without an investment in his status have no frame of reference for his guilt. Was he the only one? One of 20? One of 50? One of a thousand? Is his crime that he cheated, or that he cheated better than anyone else?
We don’t have definitive answers to these questions, but they hang over every Bonds at-bat. They pollute what should be the moments that define a decade for fans, the moments that should be bringing people to the game and all that is great about it.
I don’t dislike Barry Bonds. His arrogance has never bothered me, and as I’ve written in the past, the public image of athletes is largely driven by how well they treat the media. Ballplayers are defined by whether they help writers do their jobs, and that’s a very thin thread on which to hang a reputation.
But when I do feel something towards Bonds, it’s in a moment like yesterday, which should have been a time to revel, to appreciate a moment I’d tell my children about, along with stories of Bonds’ prodigious power, amazing bat speed, near-perfect hitting mechanics and otherwordly selectivity. I should have been excited, the way I was in 1998. The days and weeks leading up to the homer should have been filled with anticipation, not ambivalence.
They weren’t, and for that, I blame Bonds. He has taken away our ability to savor the history he makes.