Monday, May 29, 2006

Second place

Nobody remembers who finished second is a primal sports cliche. Yet the holiday weekend was dominated by a pair of runners-up.

Barry Bonds hit his 715th career home run, passing Babe Ruth to stand second on the all-time list. Sam Hornish won the Indianapolis 500. Hornish isn't a runner-up, but Indy is. Once the premier auto race in all the world, the 500 is now an exercise in nostalgia for regular sports fans and gearheads alike.

Let's dispose of the less interesting second placer first. Bonds' feat, like many of baseball's great career accomplishments, became a grim actuarial forced march during its end game. This isn't surprising. By definition, all-time career accomplishments take place towards the end of careers, when a player is not the man he was in his salad days. Add the pressing that comes with approaching a sacred number, and voila, instant mediocrity. Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn remained stuck on 299 wins for almost the entire second half of the 1962 season, and had to come back as a pity part of another team's roster in '63. He got 300 on this third try, then retired.

Bonds would be well-advised to follow Wynn's example, but we should be so lucky. Knees shot (30 pounds of extra muscle are just as hard on the body's joints as 30 pounds of extra fat), nationally loathed, fanatic perfectionist Bonds must know he's just another imperfect player now. Why keep it up? Perhaps Bonds enjoys how uncomfortable he's making everyone else with an interest in baseball.

At any rate, Bonds' quest for 715 made it clear any quest for 756 homers to pass Hank Aaron is almost surely beyond his powers now. There won't be many takers for a $15 million a year .240-hitting DH next winter. Bonds is nearly out of our lives. Com'on Barry, take the last step out the door. You'll feel better.

The Indy 500 used to be the most of everything in auto racing. It was the fastest, richest, most famous, and, oh yes, most deadly contest the sport had. That's what made it an irresistable spectacle. This year's edition, where the final margin of victory was fractions of a second, the lead changed hands on the last lap, and runner-up was the son of the third-place driver, scored high in the spectacle department. Wonder if anyone noticed?

You used to be nothing in auto racing until you tried Indy. Formula One drivers came from Europe, stock car drivers from the South. This year, Tony Stewart, the most gung-ho driver extant, one of the last to believe in crossover racing, skipped Indy for his regular NASCAR Sunday drive. Contractural obligations come first. Formula One was busy with the Monaco Grand Prix, as the drivers hauled away their usual freight train full of Euros.

NASCAR has better marketing and rules-mandated close competition. Formula One is infinitely more technically sophisticated than either form of American racing. It's not just the occasional right turn, either? A political argument led to a disastrous split in the open-wheel (Indy car) racing community that has yet to heal. All those factors have contributed to Indy's loss of stature.

Here's the puzzler. Despite its faded glamor, Indy remains by far the FASTEST of the world's most celebrated auto races. Drivers turn green flag laps at 220-plus mph, far faster than NASCAR lets its cars go, or that's possible on Formula One courses. Yesterday's average speeds for the three races mentioned here were as follows.

Indy 500: 157 mph.
NASCAR Coca-Cola 600: 128 mph.
Grand Prix of Monaco: 93 mph.

What am I missing here? Wasn't the desire to see who had the fastest car the whole point of auto racing in the first place?


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