Michael/Male/26-30. Lives in United States/Pennsylvania/Wexford/Christopher Wren, speaks English. Spends 20% of daytime online. Uses a Fast (128k-512k) connection. And likes baseball /politics.
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United States, Pennsylvania, Wexford, Christopher Wren, English, Michael, Male, 26-30, baseball , politics.

Monday, July 23, 2007

What's In a Number? 

Let me lead-off by noting what a terrific series this was for the team with the Padres. I had written the Phillies off during this West Coast trip and assumed that they’d be dropping 3 of 4 to the Padres, but they actually ended up taking 3 of 4, losing only a close 1-0 decision on Thursday while on their way to outscoring the Padres 28-7. Last night’s game was a masterpiece, as rookie J.D. Durbin hurled a nine-inning shutout where he allowed just three walks and five hits. Rookie Durbin thoroughly out-pitched the Padres Cy Young candidate, Jake Peavy.

In general, the Phillies hammered the Padres vaunted pitching staff over the weekend, which is a good sign for the future, particularly given that they were hitting in the most notorious pitchers park in baseball – Petco Park. The last three wins also give the Phillies a 6-4 record since the All-Star Break. Not too shabby. Today the Phillies get an off-day before taking on some creampuffs this week – the Nationals and the Pirates.

Alright, let’s move past current events to the subject matter of today’s post … What’s in a number? Very soon, possibly tonight, or sometime later this week, Barry Bonds is going to set the all-time record for home runs hit in a career, previously held by Hank Aaron, by hitting #756. The event is going to be monumental, and the challenges it presents baseball are no less significant. Unlike the quiet, likeable Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds has an abrasive, toxic personality. Few people in the history of the game have been as loathed as Bonds.

It is a moment baseball dreads because one of their most sacred records is going to be broken by an individual who is a horrible ambassador for the game, is hatred universally by fans, and may have knowingly used performance enhancing drugs to get here. What does it all mean for the game when #756 is hit?

Whenever people at work ask me what I think about Bonds, I shrug my shoulders. Bad person and we'd like to pretend that character matters in our daily lives, but it doesn't, I'll say. People will forgive him his sins because he can kill a baseball. True, character isn’t a prerequisite to be considered great or to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Ty Cobb was a horrible human being, a mean, vicious racist who was hated by even fans and teammates. Rogers Hornsby was an angry, rude man who allegedly hit someone in an argument and explained he had done so because he wasn’t making any headway in persuading them to see his point of view. (See, Bill James Historical Abstract at 486.) Hal Chase? A lying cheat, or so say the history books. (See, Historical Abstract at 463.)

Every one of them was a great player and there is no denying that they are giants in the game. Character doesn’t exclude them from greatness, and neither does it exclude Bonds. Bonds is a terrible human being, disrespectful to fans, angry, petulant, prone to outrageous statements and wildly paranoid accusations. He’s a jerk. But that doesn’t exclude him from greatness.

Surely we’ve all heard of Game of Shadows. We know what the book’s accusations are. Personally, I am satisfied that Bonds knowingly used steroids to enhance his performance on the baseball diamond. I don’t buy his explanations that he didn’t know he was using a cream with a steroid in it. Nobody as paranoid about training and nutrition as Barry Bonds would have used something without knowing absolutely everything he could about it. My belief is that Bonds was jealous of the attention Mark McGwire got in 1998 when he broke the home run record and wanted to eclipse him. That passionate pursuit of the single-season and career home run marks are what drove him to remake his body in the freakish manner he has, and being remembered is what motivates him every day on that baseball diamond.

It is a true shame that not every baseball player can be a good person like Christy Mathewson, or Roger Maris, or Mark McGwire, who is – steroid-user or not – a genuinely likeable person who inspires respect. Barry Bonds is who he is.

I’m reminded about what Bill James wrote about Richie Ashburn in his Historical Baseball Abstract:

Richie Ashburn combined the Pete Rose virtues and the Pete Rose style of play with the virtues of dignity, intelligence and style. Like Rose, he was a three-hundred hitting singles hitter who ran out every ground ball of his career, a player who got out of his body every pound of ability that the Lord had put in there. Unlike Rose, Ashburn did not extend his career beyond its natural boundaries to break any records. At the time he retired, he had only 188 hits fewer than Rose had at the same age, and had more than many of the 3,000 hit men had at the same age. He didn’t need records to tell him who he was. Ashburn was a reader, a family man, a man of restraint and taste.

(Abstract at 735.) James wrote those words to compare Ashburn to Rose, a similar player in many respects to Ashburn, but they are easily transferable to Bonds. Rose was a great player like Bonds, and like Bonds, Rose was a terrible human being who cheated on his wife and bet on the game of baseball. Rose's pursuit of Ty Cobb's hits record was one he followed with rabid tenacity because it defined who Rose was, why he existed, why people remembered him. Like Rose, Bonds is a man who needs records to justify his place in the baseball realm. Bonds may or may not be a reader or a family man (I suspect he is neither), but we can say with certainty he had no restraint and he has no taste.

So what does baseball do with the record? Well, wiping away the slate and striping Bonds of the record seems silly. There are so many of baseball’s records that are already tainted by allegations of cheating and drugs. An asterisk also seems silly – it was a tool utilized by baseball to punish Roger Maris for having the temerity to be the one to break Babe Ruth’s record instead of letting Mickey Mantle.

Bonds has embarrassed himself. There already is an asterisk next to Bonds record. He just doesn’t know it yet.

Bonds is just an angry, blustering, insecure man. There is no need to ban him from baseball or to wipe his records clean or to even suggest to future generations that they are tainted by placing an asterisk nearby. Bonds has already tainted his own record, has already written his legacy, and that record and legacy are for dishonesty, fraud and contempt of the game. He’s an angry, hateful person and history is going to record that. No need then to take any steps to assail Bonds.

As for when he breaks the record and hits #756 … Baseball should let it pass quietly and without a comment, aside from a bland congratulations to Bonds. He’s not a great ambassador of the game the way Aaron was, so why even pretend that this is a proud moment for the game? Just let it happen and try to refocus the public’s attention on the pennant races and the other things that are good about the game.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. Comments?


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