Thursday, April 06, 2006

Recognize Bonds For What He Did, Not For What He Did

(Look out -- I'm going to step back and do a little serious sports commentary. Don't get used to it.)

It's been a long time since I followed baseball. Few players yet remain from the days before the strike that wiped out the last two months of a major league season and caused me to turn my back on a sport that I had enjoyed watching for over twenty years. One of those players is former Pittsburgh Pirate Barry Bonds, who has been in the news lately for his apparent history of performance enhancement medication. Or, to put it another way, he's in trouble for taking steroids.

Bonds was the star of the future when he came up with the Pirates. He had speed, he had agility, and while he wasn't recognized at the time as a great home run hitter, there was no doubt that he could command the ball while at bat. The team's management might have overemphasized his speed by making him the leadoff batter. (For several years, the Pirates automatically had whoever was their center fielder batting first.) In time, the team would recognize that Bonds would function better lower in the batting order. Along with Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds served as one half of the formidable "Killer B's" one-two punch for some of the best Pirate teams of the last twenty years. Bonds helped lead the team to three consecutive playoff appearances, but somehow lost the ability to hit after late September and accomplished little as the Pirates failed to make the World Series.

Then, in 1993, Barry Bonds left Pittsburgh to return to his hometown of San Francisco. This loss of talent had a lasting effect on his former employer: The Pirates have not had a winning season in the last thirteen years.

After joining the SF Giants, Bonds's statistics have gone through the roof. He managed to find the power that he had only hinted at during his Pittsburgh days, and his batting average has been at or above .300 annually for most of his career as a Giant. Still, the suggestion that Bonds would someday surpass the single season home run totals of Ruth, Maris, McGuire and Sosa, followed by a run at Henry Aaron's career home run record, would have been fantastic. He wasn't like that as a youngster in Pittsburgh. But now he was getting older, having reached the age when many of his contemporaries were out of baseball or contemplating retirement, and performing better than ever.

In 2001, when Bonds hit a record 73 home runs, people began noticing that he didn't look the same as he did in Pittsburgh. Not only was he more muscular, but his body was bulky from top to bottom, including his face. The puffed up face was evidence, for many, that the late-career power surge was enhanced by the use of steroids. Anyone who has followed Football, Bodybuilding, or Pro Wrestling in the last forty years can recognize that look.

Now that Barry Bonds is under fire for his alleged steroid use, a public debate has arisen over whether an asterisk should be placed next to Bonds's home run stats in Major League Baseball's official records to denote that his greatest achievements occurred while he was using illegal performance enhancers. The asterisk issue has come up before, most notably when Roger Maris surpassed Babe Ruth's single-season home run record in an era after the baseball season had expanded by a few games; Maris would not have reached the mark had his season been as short as Ruth's. Longtime Pittsburgh fans recall the game in 1959 when Harvey Haddix pitched twelve perfect innings in a game that the Pirates lost in the thirteenth. Some of us consider that to be one of the greatest accomplishments in major league history, and deserves at least an asterisk in order to recognize what Haddix did, even if it was not truly a perfect game (or a no-hitter, for that matter).

But should Barry Bonds get an asterisk next to the record of his accomplishments? The unalterable fact is that he did indeed hit all of those home runs, whether he was taking steroids or not. Adding an asterisk and a footnote to the statistics accomplishes nothing, except to tell future generations that a lot of people hated Barry Bonds and wanted to punish him in the silliest way possible.

For more on the idiocy of the asterisk, I would refer you to Shelly Anderson's column in this morning's PG. She has it exactly right.

1 comment:

jipzeecab said...

Here's a little known fact about Roger Maris's asterisk*(of course the writers hated him and he was chasing the "Bambino"), Roger hit 60 homeruns in 154 games and the 61st in the 162nd.(first year of the 162 game season also):
Maris hit his 60th homerun in his 684th plate appearance. Ruth's 60th came in his 689th.
I fell asleep listening to Harvey Haddix's 1959 game during the first inning. I woke up just in time to hear the 13th inning debacle.
Nowadays it isn't even recognized as a no hitter because the game ended after he had given up a hit whereas before it was counted because he finished 9 no hit innings.
I agree that it is one of the greatest accomplishments in baseball ever.