Wednesday, May 24, 2006

#715

Barry Bonds hit a line-drive home run off Oakland Athletics pitcher Brad Halsey on May 20 to reach 714 home runs in his career, after a long dry spell finally tying the career home-run record of one George Herman Ruth.

Whenever Bonds digs in and blasts career home run No. 715 into the bleachers of some stadium sometime this year, and bet the mortgage that he will, no one from the stands will be on the field to run the bases with Bonds, as some exuberant souls did on April 8, 1974, when Hank Aaron banged out One Past Ruth. Security will see to that.

And after it happens, you can be just as sure that baseball's numerical hierophants will warm up the asterisk-printing machine, placing what some have called the most significant typographical symbol in baseball right next to Barry Bonds' name.

The reason, of course, will be Bonds' alleged use of steroids in recent seasons, in defiance of federal laws and the hallowed traditions of baseball. But even as the Bonds drama heads toward its conclusion, it's high time to step back from the media and the public’s relentless focus on Barry Bonds to take a more comprehensive view of cheating, even a broader sense of how "cheating" itself is defined for a game whose past is as much one that is checkered as it is one to be cherished.

Dictionary definitions aside, in the context of baseball, it's fair to say that to cheat is to compromise the values of the game. By that perfectly reasonable yardstick, you can make the case that Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the monstrously intransigent commissioner of baseball, stained the game in his fashion, by continually barring black players from participating in the National Pastime for the 24 years of his stewardship, with at least some acquiescence of the team owners. Landis’ action for none other than purely racial reasons blocked such great players as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck O'Neill and others from playing in the major leagues.

Had players like Gibson and others been allowed to play in the majors, had their statistics been weaved into the folklore and nomenclature of the game, we would no doubt have seen a completely different statistical baseline for setting records. The single-season records for Babe Ruth and Roger Maris, for example, might very well never have been the sequoias of achievement they became. Don Larsen’s El Perfecto might have taken a back seat to one thrown by Satchel Paige.


That’s not to excuse what substance or substances (erythropoietin? human chorionic gonadotropin?) Barry Bonds may have taken to give himself an illegal edge; that’s not to say that what Bonds may or may not have done wasn’t cheating. It is to say that cheating in baseball needs to be put in a broader historical context than just Barry Bonds 2006. In a game whose history is rife with embroideries of the truth of inches the game lives and dies by, it won’t do to pillory Barry Bonds forever.

From the 1919 Black Sox scandal to Mark McGwire’s pumped-up single-season record to past (and present?) literal tweaks of the surface of the baseball itself, the game has seen more than its share of cheating. Barry Bonds’ tainted achievement, when it comes, will join a pantheon of prevarication that’s hand in fielder’s glove part of the same game as that which we more loudly celebrate -- at Cooperstown.
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Image credits: Top: Sports Illustrated magazine. © 2006 Time Inc. Bottom: Onetwo1 (public domain), through Wikipedia

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