Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Still Struggling with Barry Bonds

Three and a half years have gone by since Barry Bonds put on a uniform after it appeared that he was blackballed from baseball. What else could it have been? He was 42 years old but still put up a 1.045 OPS in 2007. You would think somebody would have signed him as a DH. But he was frozen out of baseball from the way it looks. But that three and a half years have not softened the hard edges around this writer's opinion of the man. Why is that? The feelings the man still generate are hardly ones of enlightenment. Why does he generate more negative feelings than Sammy Sosa, for example? It's time to dig deeper and figure out what is going on inside the Fan's head. In the words of a famous writer, "How do I know what I think until I see what I wrote?"

First, the dislike of Barry Bonds started long before he hit 73 homers to break Mark McGwire's record. He was a black man who didn't care what we thought of him. Okay, that's part of the answer there isn't it? Let's be honest about this thing. There have been a lot of unlikeable characters in baseball over the years. This Fan never disliked them with the same fortitude of Bonds'. Race has to be part of the answer. And why is that? Well, part of the answer goes deeper than race. We fans like our ballplayers to have a genuine sense of how fortunate they are...how grateful they are for their abilities. We want them to grasp how silly it is to be able to play a kid's game in front of millions of people and make millions of dollars. Bonds was never one of those guys. Bonds acted as if it was OUR privilege to watch him play and not the other way around. From an ordinary man's perspective, that grates the wrong way. For an ordinary white man, the roots are deeper. And it's only fair to admit that with frankness. It's not right. But unless it is reflected upon, it can't be dealt with.

It also relates to race that we liked Ken Griffey Jr. more than Bonds. Both grew up with the proverbial silver spoon as the sons of ball players. But Junior seemed to be in it for the fun of it. He seemed to be like a kid on a perpetual Disney ride. That was different from Bonds and again, his race made that unacceptable. Of course that's absurd and unfair. But there it is.

And the two were entwined for eternity when that big article came out that stated Bonds talked to Griffey about McGwire and Sosa getting all the glory when he had more talent. Supposedly, that was when Bonds decided to rub on some funky cream and stuff. The image painted is an egocentric one. It hollered out loud, "I want the glory. I want to be the focus. I want all eyes on me." It wasn't enough to be the best all around player in the world. And that ego-stance compromised him in an age when nobody was looking. The stage had been set with half the baseball world already on illegal substances. Bonds became the pinnacle of the era.

And the shame of it is that had he not taken that stance, if he had not wanted to be the top media dog, he would still have wound up in the top five all around players that ever played the game. Before he hit those 73 homers, he already had 494 for his career along with over 400 stolen bases. He was already in the middle of a run with nine straight seasons with an OPS over 1.000. He had already compiled fantastic defensive numbers. He had already scored over 1600 runs and driven in 1400. He had already won three MVP Awards and had a World Series title, Gold Gloves and All Star appearances. He was already the most prodigious accumulator of free passes the game had seen since Mickey Mantle. If not for 73 and for that article that exposed him, he would have joined Willie Mays in the pantheon of best all around players to ever play the game.

If the 73 had never happened. If Bonds hadn't allegedly made those egocentric choices. If he hadn't become the poster boy for everything that was wrong with baseball during those years, we would have in time, embraced him for what he was. Nobody ever liked Ty Cobb either, but he is still hailed as one of the greatest ever. Bonds will be forever hailed as the one of the greatest ever....but. It's the "but" that will define him forever and overshadow what he was before the 73.

The intentional walks also grated us the wrong way. And baseball as a whole, and particularly major league managers are to blame for that. It ruined the game, absolutely wrecked it. Nobody wants to see an intentional walk. You can ask any fan that's ever plunked down money for a ticket what their least favorite event is in baseball and that fan will say the intentional walk. The 120 intentional walks in 2004 was pathetic. It was chicken. It was cowardly. And it wasn't just that year. Combine 2004 with the two previous seasons and Bonds was intentionally walked 249 times. Yet he was only walked intentionally 35 times in the year he hit 73. Ironically, if managers had walked him like in 2004, Bonds might be less reviled because he never would have gotten to 73. Those 120 intentional walks, though, were a low point. They created numbers that were more than mortal. They created numbers only Babe Ruth could even whistle at.

But it all boils down to the 73 homers, doesn't it? He allegedly cheated to get there. He did it out of envy for McGwire and Sosa. Everyone liked McGwire and even now McGwire is not the pariah in the public's eyes that Bonds has become. Part of that is race, part of that is their differing personalities, but a large part of it is 73. The 73 seems to be more of a concern than breaking Hank Aaron's record. Though everyone feels that he cheated to get to both. The Fan isn't sure about the career homer record. Bonds had an outside shot at getting there anyway. If his bulky body hadn't broken down at the end, he would have probably made it on the fair and square.

But the thing about Bonds' numbers is that they can't be undone. You can't erase the 73 and the 762 from the record books. You can't take the ridiculous OPS years of 2001 to 2004 away. They are here to bamboozle us and cause us consternation for many years to come. So, yeah, this writer still hasn't come to terms on Barry Bonds. The Fan isn't even close to working those feelings out. The race question is a start. That is distasteful to this writer and needs to be purged from within. But the Fan isn't sure that Bonds will bring peace even after the race question is worked out inside. The bottom line is that we simply didn't want him to do the things he did, and that goes for his accomplishments as well as for his indiscretions.

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