Not Hating Barry Today

Today’s All-Star game in San Francisco, which Barry Bonds will start in left field, has prompted sportswriters all over the country to get in one more lick against the controversial slugger before he breaks Henry Aaron’s home run record. Like the ever-predictable Bill Plaschke:

(Bonds) thinks he can disappear this winter having avoided asterisk and indictment. He will probably be voted into the Hall of Fame by those who consider him greater than his flaws.

It’s all finally coming together. The perfect crime is nearing completion.

Barry Bonds thinks he’s getting away with the murder of baseball’s integrity.

And here in the final stretch of his great escape, man, did he rub it in.

“Do you know me?” he scolded one of the dozens of reporters who surrounded him Monday. “What have I done? Do you know anything I’ve done? Have you seen me do anything wrong? I ask you a question. Have you seen me do anything wrong? So how can you judge me?”

I hate Barry Bonds because he is a member of the San Francisco Giants. I hate all the Giants, unless like Jeff Kent and Jason Schmidt they join the Dodgers. It comes with being a Dodger fan. I also hate Barry Bonds because he sounds like a complete jerk, a toxic personality.

But I don’t hate Barry because he allegedly used steroids and human growth hormone, which allegedly helped him hit a lot of his home runs. I’ve made my peace with his record, and I don’t think it should be stigmatized. His home runs are a reflection of his talent and perseverance, not his cheating.

First of all, you can’t take a drug that improves your hand-eye coordination. No matter how much extra muscle Barry might have added, his ability to put wood on the ball didn’t come with it. He was a Hall-of-Fame level hitter when he was still skinny and presumably substance-free.

But the more compelling reason Bonds’ record should be acknowledged is this: Steroids and whatever he used were being used throughout baseball during the entirety of his career. If Bonds’ home run records are tainted, then so is every baseball record from roughly 1987-2003. During that period, some have estimated that 50-90 percent of all players used something. Barry Bonds’ substance abuse didn’t give him a competitive edge. It met the competitive level he faced — including that of pitchers.

The league and the teams knew that a lot of players were doping themselves, but did nothing until their hands were forced by the embarrassment of Jose Canseco’s revelations. Bonds surely figured, as many players figured, that this is what his profession demanded of him — what he was being paid all that money to do. He was supposed to help his team win, and he did that job. The home runs were hit in games. They weren’t just an exhibition of strength. They were runs, and all those runs helped the Giants win.

Who is to say that if all these chemicals had been effectively banned throughout Bonds’ career, so that a clean Bonds only faced clean pitchers, we might not be right where we are now, on the verge of Aaron’s record being broken? Seeing fewer 96 mph pitches might have compensated for the loss of an inch or two on his biceps. For all we know, steroids vs. steroids left us with a wash, competitively.

If a baseball fan wants to be angry at anybody today, be angry at the commissioner and the team owners. They had to know what was going on, the health risks all the players were taking for the sake of staying in the competition, and they did nothing about it for nearly two decades.

High-level baseball officials gave all would-be ballplayers a Hobson’s choice between doing what needed to be done to stay competitive, or protecting their health and likely falling out of the majors.  There’s no document they sent to young ballplayers where they said this explicitly, so they undoubtedly think their hands are clean.  But the league bears the moral responsibility.

Right now, former Senator George Mitchell is slowly completing an investigation of steroids, etc. What I hope Mitchell has the courage to say is, steroids and growth hormones were ubiquitous in baseball for many years. Because they were ubiquitous, they did not effect overall competition. But because the players were taking a major health risk, the league should have been policed the game better.  For that, the league should be ashamed, and should impose some kind of sanction on itself that hits the pocketbooks of owners, not players.

Players shouldn’t take the blame for the failure of the league–not even the obnoxious Barry Bonds.


4 thoughts on “Not Hating Barry Today

  1. John, I think you pretty much nailed it in terms of my views on Bonds…and I’m a Giants fan! So, after watching him in an SF uniform since 1993 and seen him completely carry the team offensively at times over the last 15 seasons, I am predisposed to like him. (However, it should be said that lots of Bay Area fans do not respect him at all; kids, in fact, I find are the hardest on him. Most the players on my son’s little league team consider him a cheater.)
    Absolutely true that the league and the owners are trying to focus the blame and fan venom on Bonds so that they don’t face it themselves. Commissioner Selig’s artless bumbling about whether he will or will not attend the games when Bonds has the potential to break the record speaks volumes about his and MLB’s hypocrisies.
    And finally, Bonds is probably correct that his record will be broken in a few years by another famous a-hole, A-Rod.

  2. Baseball commentators are not very logical. During the All-Star Game broadcast, Tim McCarver implied there was a direct causal link between steroid/HGH usage and the increase in the number of players who have hit 50+ home runs in a season.

    Really? He’s discounting an awful lot of variables to make this conclusion:

    1) There used to be only 16 major league teams. Now there are 30. The talent pool of pitchers who can stop great hitters is thinner as a result.

    2) The DH rule in the American League has had an overall statistical impact on baseball offense — increasing it.

    3) The addition of a team in Colorado, where the air is thinner, increased the overall number of home runs hit by players who played there, even as visitors, until the Rockies figured out how to put balls in a humidor to reduce the number of home runs.

    4) Several other new ballparks, such as Pittsburgh’s, Philadelphia’s and Cincinnati’s, were deliberately constructed to maximize home runs.

    5) The popularity of the home run, which is one of the pretexts for the players’ use of steroids, has also changed batting styles, and is having an impact on player development.

    6) “Pitch counts” that have greatly reduced the number of innings starting pitchers will pitch in order to preserve their health has had the effect of giving more innings to inferior middle-relief pitchers.

    This is not to say steroids play no role. They play a big role in the increased power we’ve seen, to be sure. But the level of analysis of this issue has been unbelievably weak. Most baseball commentators start with conclusions, and that’s about as far as it goes.

  3. The bats are different, too. It seems like concave barrel tips became the norm during my lifetime. I don’t know enough about it (apart from hearing Vin Scully bemoan how many more bats are cracking and splintering than used to do), but Bonds, and many (most?) players have switched over to Maple wood bats, instead of ash.

    One point on which I’m not sold is the effect of steroids on pitchers being a wash with the effect on batters. I’ve always understood the limiting factor with pitching speeds to be ligament strength, not muscle strength. It’s possible steroids are as helpful to pitchers, but I’d be inclined to think they weren’t.

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