Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Surly Bonds of Earth

I would love to be able to say Barry Bonds is twice the ballplayer that Cal Ripken is, but that kind of hyperbole would be inaccurate only because Cal is about 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds now. But Bonds is twice the size of ballplayer he once was due to the absorption of who knows what kind of artificial substances.

Anabolic steroids are now illegal in baseball, but they weren’t when Bonds began bulking up at age 35 and, in defiance of natural law, got bigger and stronger when every one else's skills were starting to deteriorate.

Bonds, as most know, is on the verge of breaking the most hallowed record in all of American sports – the lifetime number of home runs. According to some testimony, Bonds got mad in 1998 that the single-season home run mark that lasted 34 years had been breached by Mark McGwire. McGwire refused to tell Congress whether he used unnatural substances, thereby confirming that his record was suspect.

So Bonds, who after his first 10 years in baseball already was a lock for election to the Hall of Fame for his prodigious slugging, his speed on the bases and his defense, decided no white man was going to steal his thunder. And within three years, he busted McGwire's record easily. The Steroid Era of baseball was in full syringe.

Cal Ripken, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame today, was a very good ballplayer, and his two Most Valuable Player awards, while not comparable to Bonds’ seven such awards, validate his credentials, as did his 432 home runs, 3,184 hits and 19 All-Star Game appearances

Oh, did I mention that Ripken played in 2,632 consecutive games – an unfathomable achievement of will and talent -- and came to represent everything right about baseball and America?

They both came by their talents by dint of fathers who were better than most at baseball. Bonds’ dad was Bobby Bonds, a talented hitter and base stealer, and Ripken’s was Cal Ripken Sr., a minor league player and Major League coach, manager and teacher.

Whereas the Ripkens were quietly dedicated to the ins and outs of the game, the Barry Bonds is flashy, loud, surly and contemptuous of the journalists who report on his exploits and of the fans who pay his salary.

The contrast could not be ignored on a day when Ripken went into the Hall of Fame and Bonds – a hateful, dishonest, selfish and mean misanthropic malcontent – had at least the good grace not to steal the spotlight, by hitting home run No. 755.

Some baseball fans say using steroids wasn’t illegal in the ‘90s and early 2000s and, besides, fans love to see home runs. It used to be said “home run hitters drive Cadillacs and singles hitters drive Fords.” That was back in the day when even the big sluggers were paid just enough to buy only one Cadillac.

This is true, and perhaps some pitchers were juiced more than the Florida citrus council headquarters and made it harder for hitters to hammer home runs. But steroids in sports are bad, period, for several reasons:

  • The risk-reward ratio is terrible. On the positive side, they might, just might, improve performance marginally while causing malformations of the body, brain disease, shrunken testicles, acne, psychotic behavior and early death.

  • The Bondses and McGwires of the world were going to be top performers without help, although any superior athletic performance requires exercising muscles and brains, not just tweaking them like setting back some odometer on a jalopy. So, at the margins of Major League talent, some guy who played the game right was stuck in the minor leagues hitting .280 with 20 home runs while a peer who used steroids hit .300 with 30 home runs. That is the tragedy. Steroid use tilted the pinball machine.

  • Sports is a human endeavor in which complex rules mediate man’s competitive spirit and where merit means everything and personality or race mean nothing. So to use illegal, or physically harmful, substances to gain competitive advantage negates the point of the whole exercise. Just as crooked basketball referees do.

  • It sets a bad example. Ripken, in his Hall of Fame speech, was talking directly to and about Bonds: "Whether you like it or not, as big leaguers, we are role models," he said. "The only question is, will it be positive or will it be negative?"

  • I am an iconoclast and believe in no one except myself and family. And although Cal Ripken is probably a closet Republican, I can’t think of anything else negative about the man and, so, he remains as close to a sports hero as I have had since Roy Sievers retired.

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