On ‘Hammerin’ Hank’ and Hammering Bonds
This summer I’m rooting for Barry Bonds.That’s right. I am unapologetically, if not enthusiastically, cheering on the quintessential constantly sulking, steroid hulking, never-ever joking, ego maniacal professional ball player in his quest to drop more hits on the parking lot sides of big league outfield fences than any other player that ever earned a paycheck to play a game and call someone as ornery as he is a teammate.Bonds’ quest for infamy and ignominy will force our generation to examine the artificially improved era in which we live and bring it into focus. To see all of this clearly I had to begrudgingly alter my perspective on a sport I love and a man whose behavior I loathe.This era in sports is distinctly different from those past. From outlandish salaries and outrageous endorsements to hero-worshiping masses and around the clock media coverage, the context of sports is different today.First of all, I am certain that every fan of professional, collegiate, and even high school athletics is unknowingly cheering for athletes who are bolstered by illegal performance enhancing drugs. Presuming that awe inspiring, even inspirational, athletes are innocent does not mean that they are innocent. Drug usage is so prevalent that no achievement can escape skepticism as to its purity.Some say that a sad reality of this epoch is that honest athletes suffer. Maybe, but they clearly suffer in silence, unwilling to effect measures from inside sports that might bring meaningful change. They aid the cheaters. Vis à vis, are they cheaters? Players, unions, agents, and management are the antagonists in this undetectable war on drugs. Sports are governed by majority rule. Apparently the majority is OK with artificial performance enhancement.But don’t pick up a rock to chuck just yet. Now that we’ve seen what athletes can do on high test fuel, we, the fans, will never allow them to go back to performing on steam, despite what we say. We would be bored out of our minds watching athletics move backwards. We demanded what we got.History has never honored honesty in athletics. Nobody has been inducted into a sports hall of fame for virtue. These, at least, are a couple of things the present has in common with the past. Enough for me to link Bonds with the baseball immortals, anyway.A second point I want to make is that the statistical purists of baseball currently piling on Bonds must begin giving credence to the fact that Babe Ruth, perhaps the iconic figure of Major League baseball, played against weaker competition. Babe Ruth never hit a ball thrown by a pitcher fortified with Human Growth Hormone (HGH), which is believed to be a staple of modern hurlers.More to the point: Babe Ruth never hit a pitch thrown by a black Major Leaguer. Nor did he ever take a rip at a fast ball from the hand of a Dominican, Cuban, or Japanese ace. No, Babe Ruth didn’t consciously cheat. Society unconscionably did it for him. We prevented him, and ourselves, from finding out how great he truly was. So, there go your statistical comparisons. As econometricians would say, we are sampling different demographics.In attributing more history-changing influence to the drugs Bonds used (uses?) in his time than to the gifted pool of other-than-white skinned players allowed to participate since Ruth’s, we imply that modern chemistry has had a larger impact on the game than the immense talents of minority players. I know that it’s a subtlety, but if I believe that this phenomenon might be a lingering vestige of racism, how can I continue to place disproportionate concern on how much drugs have altered the game? The ironic fact is that I can’t without employing some sort of Bonds-esque rationalizing.Thus, if we are intent on highlighting cheating today by placing an asterisk next to Bonds name in the record books for his immorality, we need to consider placing one at the end of our country’s name for disgraceful behavior, as well.Thirdly, we live at a time when we want desperately to believe that cures for everything are synthesized into hermetically sealed capsules, easy-to-swallow pills, rub-on creams, inhalers, and quick-punch painless syringes. We’re baby boomers nearing retirement that want to believe that the hard work has been done. The failure of the industries we built up to provide us with ready remedies for everything that ails us would reflect poorly on what we have accomplished in this technological revolution.It is no wonder then, that we firmly believe that high tech pharmaceuticals are hoisting Barry Bonds into immortality. How many of us expect modern medicine to do the same for us? If we admit that he made his mark as the greatest home run hitter of all time primarily relying only on God-given natural talents, we have to admit to ourselves that chemistry is limited in what it can do for each of us, as well. Ouch!Finally, by this point in the column the astute reader has noted that I have not mentioned the name of the actual home run record holder. This is not atypical oversight. Hank Aaron, all 6 feet and 180 pounds of him, blasted 755 home runs during his 23 seasons in the Majors. He was lean, clean, and about as mean as a modern day batboy. All of the traits we claim to admire so much, and that he embodied, have relegated his name to relative obscurity.If Bonds breaks Hammerin’ Hank’s record, all of this will come to an end. Aaron will become an unavoidable constant in a debate that will last as long as our pastime. His baseball life will be poured over, commented upon, and compared to by every water cooler, barstool, and BarcaLounger pundit of the game. A truly exemplary hero will finally get his due.It’s almost too easy of a way out in exonerating the modern day antithesis of the all-American hero, but we should acknowledge this different era of sports for what it irreversibly and manifestly is and, even if resentfully, give Bonds his credit. He is a product of our time, and one of the greatest players of all time.Roger Marolt wonders if smoking stogies in the dugout was any healthier than is injecting The Juice in the clubhouse. He’s kicking asterisks at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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