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Barry Bonds, Baseball and the Redemption of America
Posted on Jan 17, 2013
By Alan Minsky
On Jan. 9, we learned that the two greatest baseball players of their generation, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, would not be inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. Bonds and Clemens’ failure to win enshrinement on the prestigious “first ballot” has nothing to do with their achievements, but reflects the dark cloud of suspicion about their assumed steroid use. It’s a telling moment, not just for the national pastime, but also for our society at large.
Although many fans understandably wish to enjoy sports without thinking about politics, economics and social issues, that’s simply not possible for an industry that commands billions of dollars and the rapt passions of tens of millions of Americans every day. Indeed, the Bonds saga speaks directly to matters of justice, ethics, historical memory, the role of media and spectacle at the beginning of the 21st century, and, of course, the priorities of business. As such, this contemporary tragedy reflects an America that seems adrift, morally challenged, in decline and with a profound loss of faith in established institutions.
Contrary to popular opinion, Bonds is not the villain in this drama. Rather, I see him for what he is: one of the greatest baseball players of all time, who performed on the stage provided by the society of his time.
No one claims that Bonds used steroids before the 1998 season (the summer of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa), when he may have concluded, with very good reason, that without taking drugs he was at a competitive disadvantage. At that juncture, the entire baseball establishment was embracing two lesser talents, formerly thin but now ripped like comic book caricatures, as the game’s greatest sluggers and saviors.
The Baseball Writers’ Association of America was complicit in that travesty, and its members ought not punish Bonds and other athletes by denying their rightful places in the Hall of Fame. They should instead petition Cooperstown (site of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum) to build a permanent high-profile exhibit that openly documents the steroid era. Anything less would be an injustice to the players and irresponsible to history and future prospects of the game.
Barry Bonds’ career splits neatly into four phases: First, the early years through 1993, when he established himself as baseball’s premier superstar, winning an unprecedented three MVPs in four years; next, the post-strike steroid era (1994-1998), during which he watched other players catch and even surpass his level of productivity; third, the years of his assumed steroid use (1999-2004), in which he strung together the greatest four-year stretch ever by a hitter in the history of the game; and, lastly, the coda to his career (2005-2007) when he faced unrelenting allegations of steroid use and broke Henry Aaron’s all-time Major League Baseball home run record.
Bonds was an immense talent, hitting for average and power with blinding speed and exceptional defensive skills. But he was more than that. He had an uncanny, disciplined batting eye. Bonds rarely chased pitches out of the strike zone and accumulated a huge number of walks. Opposing pitchers dreaded Bonds, who could crush the ball if you threw him a strike and wreak havoc on the base paths if you walked him. Every year, Bonds was one of the leaders in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage, the two most important indices of offensive prowess.
In the 1980s, a group of baseball analysts called SABRmetricians was coming to prominence. They used mathematics to determine which hitters were truly the most productive. By the early ’90s, it was clear to them that Bonds was head and shoulders above his peers.
Bonds did not use steroids early in his career, even though they were becoming more prominent in the game. The sluggers on the dynastic Oakland Athletics of the late ’80s and early ’90s, the “Bash Brothers,” were allegedly juicing, as were stars on other teams. Still, steroids didn’t entirely distort the game yet as the most successful teams of the early ’90s continued to prioritize speed as much as power, with Bonds rapidly surpassing the A’s gigantic Jose Canseco as the game’s biggest star.
Then came the 1994 players strike. Suddenly the sport, which had been prospering through the ’80s into the ’90s, was in a traumatic crisis, arguably its greatest since the 1919 Black Sox betting scandal. Famously, baseball bounced back stronger than ever in the 1920s thanks to Babe Ruth’s revolutionizing home runs. The long ball would come to the rescue again, this time with chemical assistance.
As baseball struggled to regain its popularity through the mid-’90s, more and more young sluggers emerged, offensive power numbers increased, and biceps grew while the game’s establishment chose not to notice. Bonds remained a perennial All-Star. Only Ken Griffey Jr. approached him as an all-around talent, but Bonds’ home run totals were eclipsed by the new breed of sluggers. A SABRmetrician would have explained that Bonds remained the game’s best player, but with the media paying ever more attention to home run totals, his star seemed to be on the wane. He failed to win an MVP from 1994 through 1998. Three of the National League winners in those years are now known (or strongly suspected) to have been steroid users.
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