Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Mr. Inevitable


An essay by Gary Kamiya in Salon.com today, "Me and Mr. Bonds," (click on the title link above), takes an interesting look at the moral dilemma that Barry Bonds will present us next season as he moves towards breaking Hank Aaron's career home run record of 755 (Bonds is at 734 right now). As most people know, Barry Bonds has, along with many other modern day sluggers, been accused of using steroids, growth hormones and other performance enhancing drugs in the last few years running up to Major League Baseball finally banning them outright. To put a fine head on things, Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada's Game of Shadows presents so-called definitive evidence that Bonds knew exactly what he was doing.

Kamiya is a San Francisco Giants fan and a Bonds lover. He openly, and humorously, presents some of the basic excuses people are making for the beleagured slugger, and teases us with pronouncements that are somewhat nose-thumbing in posture, but pulls back admitting that, in his own words, he's "...full of shit" in several parts of the essay.

I was hoping Mr. Kamiya would get us baseball fans over the moral hump that most people don't even seem to be able to see yet. It's good that he makes the hump visible at least, but he should have gone all the way. There is no question this is one of the true conundrums sports fans have ever faced--especially those of us who love the game of baseball more than life itself.

I was surprised, however, that no mention was made by Kamiya of the structural changes in the game that sort of detract from all of the offensive records we've seen since the late 1960s. Dropping the official height of the mound seems to me to be one of the more obvious asterisk producers I can think of. After the Year of the Pitcher (1968) baseball required mounds to go from 15 inches down to 10.

Although it's not true of all ball parks, there's no question that fields are shrinking. Most of the new parks have power alleys designed for fan appreciation first and big muscled boppers. Rumors about a juiced ball are always ebbing and flowing as well. Who knows?

And what about the equipment? In the early days of the game they didn't even have home run fences. If you hit a bomb, you just ran like a bat-out-of-hell and legged it for all you could get. Gloves weren't as well made either, nor bats, and the courage it took to stand in there on an inside pitch when you didn't have a helmet (take a look at photos of Babe Ruth or even Ted Williams at the plate) is something we all forget--not to mention the fact that no one used elbow, wrist, and shin armor.

As I write, rumors begin to crop up that Bonds may be headed to the Oakland A's next year -- an American League team -- where more than likely old Barry will become a designated hitter extraordinaire. One has to wonder how many more homers Ruth or Aaron would have hit had they been provided with such a luxury.

And speaking of Ted Williams and moral character, most of the real baseball people I know don't give a damn about Ruth's old record, Aaron's current one, or Bonds and his enhanced possibilities. Everyone knows that Ted Williams, The Splendid Splinter, gave nearly 5 seasons of his career, from the age of 22 to 27 (kind of prime years) to join the military as a volunteer and defend this country in World War II and the Korean War. Five years is about a quarter of his major league sojourn. Williams ended his career in his last at-bat with his 521st homerun. He is number 15 on the all-time list. He'd be right up there near the top if they'd had the DH and he'd not been so patriotic.

Finally, of course, is the problem of modern professional baseball and it's 30+ teams versus the "good old days" when there were two leagues with 8-10 teams a piece. Those who made it up to The Bigs were truly ready back there in the Golden Age. Nowadays, and we all know this, a good 30-40% of the pitchers just aren't up to the level we want them to be. I don't know the statistics, but I'd like to see a study done on who Bonds is hitting his homers off of--(McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro and all the others supposedly disgraced by the game as well).

The point here is that if the moral issue about performance enhancing drugs comes down to the idea that some players are cheating and others are not, that's one thing. But if you're concern is about whether a performance-enhanced Bonds should get credit for breaking Hank Aaron's record for lifetime home runs, you can relax because Aaron hit practically every homer (though not all) in the era of bigger parks, less questionable balls, and taller mounds (and for that matter, higher grade pitching overall). In this regard, there's no way to take much of this record-mania very seriously. Post 1968 is a different era and there's just no comparison (I won't even go into the argument comparing Aaron's feat to Ruth's engenders, except to point out that a segregated pre-Jackie Robinson sport meant that Ruth never faced some of the best pitchers of his day but Hammerin' Hank got to look at pitches from Ferguson Jenkins, Bob Gibson, Mudcat Grant, Al Downing, and Dock Ellis--to name just a few--regularly). And I would imagine even Hammerin' Hank would tip his cap to Ted Williams and admit that his record and pretty much every other hitter in the 500 club should have an asterisk next to their names pointing out that Ted Williams service for his country makes all these numbers rather anti-climactic and flaccid.

But let's go to the question of cheating by using chemicals, because regardless of records, that's the real question. I am a 48-year-old squash player whose body has broken down. Five years ago I competed one night in a club match against a 17-year-old whiz kid (ranked #2 in the country in his age group). I stayed close for the first two games of our best-of-five match, but half-way into the third game my body began to turn into rubber and I was sucking wind like the old, feeble man I had just realized I was. I lost the match 3-1. In the final game I didn't get a single point.

These days I content myself with long walks in the woods, hitting the ball around with other old farts, and working out on the court by myself doing drills and trying to learn new shots. My days of intense competition are over. It is a sad, sad reality to face if you are a committed athlete.

Add to my situation $15-20 million a year (not that anyone would) for another few years, and I assure you I would have no problem getting help from anyone who had a "cure." In fact, I'm not sure whether there's anyone in this country who would not do what old Barry has done. (People make asses out of themselves on TV all the time for far less money). There's plenty of gym rats and running addicts and club competitors who have bought into the "fountain of youth" syndrome. In fact, there are doctors out there who are willing to provide any one of us with the necessary prescriptions to stay on the court or the track.

Is medical science taking a very serious look at what could reasonably be done for the likes of folks like me using low-dose therapeutic levels of steroids and hGH? Exactly what would the problem be if that were a real and acceptable option? Is it cheating when you're boss takes anti-depressants in order to function at work? How about truck drivers and night-shift workers with prescriptions for amphetamines? Or, simply, athletes who get cortozone shots or prescriptions for other pain meds? Or look at the case of Adam LaRoche of the Atlanta Braves who must take a banned substance in order to control his attention deficit disorder. Yes, he's a much better player under the influence. Is that natural? Is it right?

Where do we draw the line? I don't think we can. You can try, but you risk sounding awfully sanctimonious...and the louder you yell, the more obvious it will be that you haven't got a leg to stand on. This is the 21st century. We're kind of different than we were back there in days of yore.

In the end, it all comes down to two weird ideas that we seem to have about Sports: 1) competition must be based on equal playing fields and, 2) athletes should compete in "natural states." I'm not sure if these ideas are driven more by the basic philosophy of the fan as an innocent who needs to trust what they're seeing, or by the gamblers out there who govern so much of sports from the underground.

But there are no "equal playing fields" and no professional athlete is in a "natural" state. Special diets, special workout techniques, hi-tech excercise machines, scientific practice schedules, the fact that athletes can simply dedicate themselves to nothing but playing--all of this is unnatural, and truly, remarkably, presents room for massive amounts of inequality. If we took this logic to it's ultimate conclusion, maybe pro basketball should limit player height to 6'6", and maybe pro football should limit weights to 280 pounds. And maybe in baseball every field should have the exact same measurements and pitchers who throw over 100 mph should be penalized. Certainly, all the body armor that baseball players wear while at the plate needs to be banned. And it's common knowledge that many players in many sports take amphetamines on game day. Who's really making a big deal about that?

You may think I'm trying to let Barry off the hook here. I'm not. I think there's no question that his cheating sullies the sport (a sport I love more than life itself). But he's just adding insult to injury. I love The Game itself, but I've got a love-hate relationship with the major leagues. The Majors easily gets me confused about my feelings for The Game. I'm very happy coaching youth baseball where there's never an equal playing field. I love working with preternaturally gifted athletes side-by-side with kids who can barely catch. And I am happiest most of all watching high school ball where the only reason anyone is playing is to play, and there are usually no home run fences.

What I like about the pros is that they make fewer errors than any other level and that they are so monumentally talented. No matter what, the eye-hand coordination required to make full contact with a ball thrown 95-100 mph is a titanic feat--juiced or unjuiced. I'll take it however it's dished up. I always wonder how home run balls feel traveling so high above everything, knowing they are on their way to never-never land.

Barry will confuse many people, but not me. It will be marvelous to see him break the record, but it won't mean a whole lot...and you can be sure that Barry, a student of the game and Willie Mays's godson, knows better than any of us how stupid and pointless it is to make such a big deal out of this. He'll be happy for awhile; he'll be relieved; he'll make a good amount of money off his name for the rest of his life; but he will not be confused by what he's done. He prolonged his career (and money-making potential) by taking drugs, and maybe gave himself a little boost of power in the process. But the record? My guess is that Barry Bonds already understands that in the end records mean very little to a retired player. At best they're like trophies sitting in your den; at worst they're a reminder that you're done with the game, there's absolutely nothing you can do about it, and now you have to figure out how to be a real person in a world you never even knew existed. God bless you Barry Bonds. God bless the game of baseball. God bless us all. Think 756...


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