May 18, 2013
Barry Bonds, Baseball and the Redemption of America
Posted on Jan 17, 2013
By Alan Minsky
To my ears, the sports media’s unquestioning celebration of Mark and Sammy eerily parallels the behavior of financial reporters of that era when the tech bubble was inflating, a performance they would repeat the following decade with the housing bubble. Not only did the media fail to uncover the truth in these instances, they actively cheered the illusion and the cheating. Why care about a company’s inventory? What matters is its stock value. Who needs a down payment? Housing equity will continue to increase indefinitely. McGwire and Sosa were the Ruth and Maris of our time. American heroes, bigger and growing stronger. Home runs and markets: The sky’s the limit.
The orgy of self-congratulation and willful blindness that characterized the sports press in 1998 recalls another familiar trope of contemporary American media—the patriotic hyperbole of the buildup to war. The ESPN montages opening “SportsCenter,” the constant, almost erotic replays of Big Mac’s latest towering blast that you couldn’t escape from in ’98, have their echo in the computer generated graphics of CNN and Fox News’ promos of the latest “inevitable” war, the glorious moment when America cranks up its killing machine to slaughter evil. The eagle soars with the F-16s, the crowd in a frenzy, Sosa with his lovable signature gesture, America defending all that’s right, the national pastime saved—no time to question. Especially not “who benefits?”
Years later, the truth leaks out, long after the real, almost invisible beneficiaries have pocketed their gains. Not much is made of the exposure of what was really going on—it’s all brushed under the carpet. Yes, we know the Bush administration lied and thousands died for it, but that’s all past; and yes we know McGwire and Sosa were cranked up on ‘roids. But the fans came back, the profits soared.
In each such case there were dissenters, challenging the lie—or, in the case of McGwire-Sosa, bringing skepticism to bear. But these voices didn’t reach the mainstream.
Bonds had worked tirelessly his entire career to be the best player possible; now he was shunning an obvious way to improve further, one that his rivals were embracing. We can sit around and tell ourselves that Bonds should have done the right thing and stayed clean, as he had until then. But let’s be honest: Barry Bonds was not hired to be a midrange star. He was paid to be an elite superstar. Anything less was failure.
Bonds had performed at a level above all other players in the game over the previous decade. Even with the steroid inflated seasons of his peers, the nation’s leading SABRmetrician, Bill James, not only ranked Bonds as the best player of the decade after the ’99 season, he noted that his performance so towered above all others that the second-ranked player in the decade, Craig Biggio, was closer to the 10th best than to Bonds.
And yet Bonds had to realize what the SABRmetricians’ numbers also showed: Early in the decade, he was head and shoulders above every other player but in recent years, steroids had propelled players up to and beyond his level of offensive production.
Also, Bonds was 34, and likely had only a few more years left in the game. Bonds didn’t have the luxury of waiting out the tidal wave of cheating to re-emerge as the game’s elite player. Anyway, no one was being exposed at that time and the number of players using was growing, as were their stats. But what certainly was the coup de grace, what sent the message clear as day, was the canonization of McGwire and Sosa. These two juicers, with their super-human bodies, were the toast not just of baseball culture, but all of American pop culture, transmitted across the globe. Outside of a few rote platitudes from the commissioner’s office when the question of steroids was meekly raised, all evidence at the time shouted that this glorification of the new long-ball era would continue indefinitely. It was a new day and there was only one way to compete with the elite.
What happened over the next six years is simple. Barry Bonds had been roughly 15 to 25 percent more productive than any other player of his generation in the years before the steroids epidemic, and he proved he was similarly 15 to 25 percent better than anyone else in the brave new world. Of course, 15 to 25 percent better than juicers such as McGwire, Sosa, American League MVP Juan Gonzalez and Alex Rodriguez meant performance on a level beyond anything ever seen in the history of the game.
Why are sports so popular? The competitions are thrilling, the athletic performances dazzling, we witness displays of character and courage, and, these days, big money sports are state-of-the-art spectacle. Still, there’s another thing, which speaks to our sense of justice: In an unfair world, sports have rules. Otherwise, the competition is rotten.
By 1998, baseball no longer had a level playing field. Indeed, the most heralded players were the most successful cheaters. A slugger had to accept playing at a disadvantage or take the dive into steroid use. Ken Griffey Jr. apparently chose the righteous path. He was younger than Bonds and within a few years was no longer his primary competition as the game’s best.
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