This morning over breakfast I read on as Sally Jenkins agonized over Barry Bonds incipient breaking of Hank Aaron’s lifetime HR record. As I read, and then drove in, I pondered her lament and her question:
Many of us are cringing at the prospect that Barry Bonds will break Hank Aaron’s home run record, starting with yours truly, because of allegations he used performance enhancers. A record should be joyful, but this one makes us regretful. Why should Bonds’s personal health choices matter to us so much? Because he forces us to address head-on the possibility that sports have become utterly riddled with doping.
These are good questions, and made me wonder why Barry Bonds ticks me off…
It caused me to consider in the elephantine velocity of the capital beltway why his obvious doping bothers me. I have come to terms with his breaking the record, although I will always consider Babe Ruth the greatest slugger of all time. Despite the absence of a positive test for steroids, his complete body transformation and carrer change in focus at the age of 37 leaves no doubt in my mind. But beyond the the matters like using controlled substances and setting a bad example, why does it bother me so?
Today it hit me-it’s a matter of ingenuity and rascality and team support and even motivation.
While I view all these doping matters as bad, I tend to analyze them against the backdrop of their sport. Every sport has its own unique backgrounds, and doping has to be analyzed against the sports traditions. For instance, I imagine one reason why Americans react so vehemently against doping in track and field and aquatic sports is because during the Cold War our boys and girls, amateurs all, got to go up against soviet and eastern bloc atheletes who were not only state supported, but highly juiced.
Baseball has its own traditions, including winking at those who skirt the rules. Groundskeepers water baselines to slow runners, and slightly grade the baseline dirt from home plate to 1st or 3rd to keep balls fair. Back in the day outfielders kept hideaway balls in the tall grass in case a ball got by them and were lost. Pitchers doctor the ball by applying substances or nicking it, and are assisted in this by other players. Teams try to steal signs from the opposition to anticipate what is about to happen. Baseball fans have even been annoyed with those who seize on legalisms and the letter of the rule to defeat the spirit of the game. The late Billy Martin was a fan favorite, but he probably lost a couple of points from the Pine Tar incident, even though he was correct in his reading of the rules.
But therein is the difference with traditional baseball ingenuity and juicing. When it came to the ingenuity the whole team had to be in on it. Everyone benefitted from signs being stolen. If groundskeepers doctored the field, they did it on orders from club management who had discussed it with the players. Pitchers not only doctored the ball, but often teammates did it for them. Everyone was in on it…because they did it to help the team win.
There was also the need to have the brass to not only figure out the scam and try these stunts, but also a willingness to pay the price if caught. Gaylord Perry loaded up, but on the few occasions he was caught he took it on the chin, kept his head up, and waited for his next rotation and dared the umps to catch him again. He had to be a “wascally wabbit” to get away with it over a career.
And at sum it is not just what Barry Bonds did but how he did it that ticks me off. By all accounts in the end range of a Hall of Fame career Bro Bonds decided he was not getting enough attention or money, and started to juice so he could beat Mark McGwire at his own game. Guys like Perry did it to to survive in the major leagues-Bonds did it out of pique because no one was genuflecting to him. Groundskeepers played with the field, players scuffed the ball and stole signs to help the team win, not to pile up statistics…Bonds did it for personal glorification. Yes, he did play a major role in getting the Giants to the World Series in 2002, but personal aggrandizement was the prime motivator, not winning.
Then there is the method. Bonds did his cheating outside the ballpark, safe from discovery. He hooked up with a sports wannabe (Greg Anderson) who pushed ‘roids and hgh created by an unscrupulous charlatan (Victor Conte of BALCO), substances that at that time could not have been detected in a drug test. His manipulations took place behind closed doors and away from the clear sunshine of the ballpark. It is an industrial manipulation of the body done in private and with boutique drugs and a process that would not have been caught even if there was testing. Remember, the BALCO drugs did not come under the spotlight until a disgruntled Conte associate sent a sample of the substances to the USADA. The SF Giants, although they were certainly enablers and took advantage of Bond’s new HR production to build a new stadium, were never part of the plan.
So there it is….Baseball has always had its cheats, but they took place on the ballfied, in view of everyone. There was a daredevil aspect to it, a combination of ingenuity and rascality done with team support in hopes of helping the team win. Bonds was done in private, using tools that defied detection, in pursuit of personal glory. It was done not to survive in the game, or even to thrive, but to enhance ego.
That is the difference between Bonds and guys like Gaylord Perry…that’s why Barry Bonds ticks me off.