May 23, 2013
Barry Bonds, Baseball and the Redemption of America
Posted on Jan 17, 2013
By Alan Minsky
Still, a bad taste lingered in the mouth, as an African-American star became the target of an unprecedented witch hunt that a white star like McGwire never had to face. Quickly, Bonds became as unpopular as O.J. Simpson. The national press piled on a player who it believed never showed adequate respect. It seemed an old story: a surly white star was dubbed a competitor; a prickly black guy was public enemy No. 1.
Bonds’ unpopularity with the press and his race were likely contributing factors as to why he was singled out and so unrelentingly investigated. Of course it didn’t hurt that he was also close to breaking perhaps the best-known record in baseball. Still, the chorus of hatred that descended upon him played a role in ending the steroid fueled long-ball era.
Bonds held center stage like never before during his final two seasons, as he proceeded to catch and surpass Aaron’s home run record. American sports had never seen anything like it. Bonds was met with an avalanche of boos in every ballpark outside of San Francisco, where he was embraced by an equally fervent love (Bonds is correctly viewed as the man who saved baseball in San Francisco, as the Giants would likely have departed if not for his return to his father’s team in 1994—a tale that would have been pulling on the heartstrings of every American were it true of someone other than Barry).
The circus surrounding Bonds was surreal, and miraculously in the midst of the chaos he maintained his concentration. His detractors cited his decline from a few years earlier, and conveniently neglected that he was producing by far the greatest pair of seasons ever by a batter over 40. They also failed to acknowledge that he was now certainly steroid free. In 2007, at the age of 43, Bonds led the National League in slugging percentage and on-base percentage, which, by that time (thanks to SABRmetrics) was recognized as the best and simplest way to assess productivity. His output would have, undoubtedly, been even greater had he been able to skip playing left field on his tired legs and been afforded the opportunity to perform as a designated hitter in the American League. But no one signed Bonds the following year. It was as absurd as it was predictable: Any other player producing at that level would have been signed for a couple of more years. He ended his career effectively blacklisted.
SABRmetricians will put players into context, but for a different reason, in order to compare them across generations. Bill James argues the best way to do this is to assess them against their peers, seeing which of the greats has the largest gap over his contemporaries. By that standard, Bonds will always rank near the top of the greatest players ever. But Bonds’ story is about more than numbers.
That is where the Hall of Fame comes in. Bonds should be inducted, but the museum there should also make him a prominent part of a special display where there’s no glory in being the focus of attention.
Indeed, I can’t think of any better service the Hall of Fame could do for the ongoing welfare of the game than to establish a permanent major exhibit on baseball’s steroid era. Cooperstown is a fun place, but it is also home to some serious work by historians. Thus, this new exhibition should go along with a research project that not only produces a responsible chronicle of the era, but also tracks the current use of steroids in sports as well as the latest research into the dangers of performance enhancing drugs. It’s a tremendous opportunity for a hallowed institution to perform a serious social service, provide insight where the mainstream sports press fails to and help protect baseball’s future.
At the end of his career, Bonds faced an unprecedented, multimillion dollar federal investigation, which left him without the familiar, albeit maudlin, path for seeking mercy in which the disgraced athlete comes (partially) clean and asks the public for forgiveness. This option was basically taken off the table for Bonds (and for Clemens), since he’s tied in knots by perjury and obstruction of justice charges.
That these high-profile cases might engender some broader soul searching never gains momentum. And yet can anyone really challenge the notion that baseball’s steroids era is not just a few bad apples, but rather one episode in an endless string of episodes befitting a society willing to sacrifice the welfare of individuals, the integrity of supposedly sacred institutions, even the virtues of fairness and decency—all in pursuit of short-term gain? Nope. Safer not to go there.
Is it overreaching to claim such significance for the fate of a bunch of ballplayers? You would be a fool to think so. Sports provides a platform on which many Americans debate the meaning of life. What is right and what is wrong is determined in heated exchanges on talk radio, in bars, and on couches in dens and living rooms across the land. It is fact, not hyperbole, that every top tier football, basketball and baseball game (there are thousands) receives much more scrutiny than almost any congressional bill.
Much like the celebrity gossip that also dominates mass media dialogues, sports are a privileged sphere where people wrestle with ethical questions. However, even in the potentially democratizing era of Twitter, sports discourse remains overwhelmingly determined by dominant voices in pre-Internet media (TV and print)—no doubt in part because sports feeds off of live spectacles that require billion dollar infrastructures. Even more than in the show business realm where a blogger like Perez Hilton can, to a degree, be an agenda setter, the consensus on every sports controversy never remotely challenges the established code, let alone the money behind the curtain.
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