Saturday, May 12, 2007


Time for an experiment in baseball research. Don't worry, there's no math, just a little mind expansion required.

Imagine a pair of parallel universes. They're almost exactly the same, and in each of them, Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants has 745 career home runs.

In universe A, which closely resembles the one we're all stumbling around in now, Bonds goes on to break Hank Aaron's record of 755 career homers sometime in the 2007 season. But in Universe B, Bonds is simultaneously indicted for perjury, hit by the team bus, and struck by lightning this morning, and remains stuck on 745 home runs forever.

Here's where the experiment begins. Fast forward each universe 100 years into the future. Now imagine what baseball historians of THAT time have to say about Bonds and Aaron in each universe.

Time's up. Pencils down. I now posit to you that with the exception of a few paragraphs, the assessment of each slugger and their role in the game are EXACTLY IDENTICAL in each universe. Whether Bonds has the most or second-most career homers of any player in baseball history is profoundly irrelevant to how he'll be portrayed by future generations of the game's followers.

The whole 2007 brouhaha over Bonds' records, "steroids: threat or menace," "Should Bud Selig and/or Aaron be there when Barry hits it", etc., is an annoying example of one of baseball's most annoying fallacies- record worship. It's a subset of statistics worship. Like all stats, records are merely one way of examining reality, they ain't reality itself. History contains a lot more than records. July 4 matters because that's when the United States chose to celebrate its independence. It isn't even when the Declaration was written. That's July 3.

Perhaps I can make that point better with a sports analogy. Bob Beamon's long jump at the 1968 Olympics is no longer the world's record in that event. But every track and field fan and most plain old sports fans have the number 29-2 burned into their heads. Almost 40 years later, Beamon's jump remains one of the most famous moments in his sport. Without stopping to use Google, I cannot tell you who currently the long jump record or what it might be. Records and fame are different. Records and historical significance are different.

Bonds' part of baseball history is set in stone. He could hit 900 home runs, retire, and spend the rest of his life working with the Third World poor, and it wouldn't change. Babe Ruth is one of the nation's symbols of the Roaring Twenties. Bonds will stand for baseball's Shady Nineties, when everyone in the game, players, owners, media, fans, every damn one of us, did everything in our power to artificially create another Babe to wash away the sins of the Strike of '94.

Performance-enhancing drugs are a big part of that story, but only part. The less we focus on them, the more clearly we can see the recent past. It's worth remembering that talk about players breaking both Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs in a season was all the rage at the very moment the strike began. Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, and Matt Williams (of all people) were on pace to threaten it.

Bandbox ballparks. Expansion and its little brother lousy pitching. The acceptance of power hitters walking instead of swinging (Ted Williams used to get killed for that). These were things we could see. Hell, Bonds, who's smarter than most folks, saw them, too. We all accepted baseball was striving for a new era of homers, and we reveled in it.

Speaking of homers, the "Simpsons" rerun on Channel 25 last night had Mark McGwire as guest star. Baseball is spying on Springfield with a satellite. McGwire appears and asks "Do you want to hear the terrible, unimaginable truth, or do you want to see me hit some dingers?"

Springfield, of course, shouts "Dingers!" The show was written when McGwire was a national hero, long before his congressional non-testimony in 2004. Prescient satire is kind of a scary concept.

Bonds was acknowledged as the best player of his era. We are told, and it rings true, that he turned to performance-enhancers out of jealousy at the acclaim won by McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Since Bonds was way better than those two to begin with, Bonds 2.0 soared past their slugging marks with ease.

The Depression ended the Roaring Twenties. Our nations' puritanical, hypocritical, nonsensical reaction to the word "drug" ended the Shady Nineties. Since Bonds was and is an unlikeable paranoiac megalomaniac, he made an even better whipping boy than idol. Arguing about Bonds as he nears 756 homers is a convenient substitute for examining one's own role in baseball's conspiracy of ignorance back in the just the day before yesterday.

As noted, Bonds' place in baseball history is secure. He will share a room (and it's pleasant to think they'd have to put up with each other for eternity) with Ty Cobb. Like Cobb, Bonds will be acknowledged as a genius of the game, one of the top five to ten players ever. Like Cobb, Bonds will be a subject polite baseball people prefer not to discuss. Books about Ruth are published every other day. Go tell a literary agent you want to write a new biography of Cobb. I dare you.

Aaron's place in history won't change when Bonds' passes him. On pure baseball grounds, leaving drugs out of it, Aaron's career homer mark stands for a much more impressive feat than does Bonds' mark. Aaron hit his home runs in the era where pitchers dominated the game more than they had at any time since 1920. Bonds hit his homers in an era where homers were more commonplace than at any time in baseball history. It's really that simple.

In the larger sense, Aaron's historic significance cannot be altered. Young people may be surprised to learn that when Aaron played, right up until he got to about home run number 680, he was baseball's second banana immortal to Willie Mays. I was there, gang. Mays remains the best player I ever saw.

But when Aaron got closer to Ruth's 714, he quite unwillingly became a racial symbol. The hate mail and death threats Aaron received were a chilling reminder of the white racism that lurks under the rock of our national consciousness. Happily for Aaron, there was an upside. When he hit homer 715 in April 1974, it wasn't just a number. Aaron was seen as having finished what Jackie Robinson started. And for that, justly, he's now MORE famous than Mays.

We note one final irony. There is no fiercer defender and advocate of Mays' status in baseball history than his godson Barry Bonds. This, of course, is like having Alberto Gonzales as your defense attorney. If Mays hadn't been almost as miserable a prick as Bonds during his playing days, it'd be sad.

Time to publish our research conclusions. We find the following. Sometime in the summer of 2007, Barry Bonds will hit his 756th career home run. Big bleepin' deal.


Post a Comment

<< Home