Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Barry Situation

Through seven games and 22 at-bats this season, Barry Bonds is hitting .227, with one home run and four RBI. He has walked six times. While it is not a foregone conclusion, it seems more likely than not that Bonds will hit the 20 home runs necessary to equal Hank Aaron's career mark of 755, as well as the one more he will then need to better it.

The record is stained, of course, by rampant allegations that Bonds used performance enhancing steroids (some would say overwhelming evidence, given that he basically admitted it) that were at best not allowed in baseball, and at worst illegal. For the record, I don't know that Bonds used steroids, but I also don't know that OJ did it, I don't know that man landed on the moon, and I don't know that the sun will come up tomorrow. Instead, I look at all the evidence available to me, and form an opinion. As open bar pointed out to me the other day, the "innocent until proven guilty" standard, while probably the right one when debating whether to imprison someone, doesn't bind us in forming an opinion about another person outside of a court of law (side note: in fact, a different standard is used even in court when money, rather than jail time, hangs in the balance. In a civil suit, juries are instructed to make their decision based on the preponderance of the evidence (i.e., 50.1%) standard). My point is simply that I can honestly believe (and believe strongly) that Barry Bonds used steroids to enhance his performance, and I don't have to apologize to the "innocent until proven guilty" crowd in holding that belief.

So what?

What does it mean that baseball fans (I daresay a majority, but I can't be sure) think that the most famous record in all of sports (side note: I guess we can debate that, but come on) is going to be broken by someone who cheated? Well, it means a lot of things to a lot of people, and reactions can range from the very indifferent (at the end of the day, the world has much bigger problems than this) to the outraged (he's tarnished the game, he cheated, what does this say to kids, steroids are a huge health risk, etc.). I'm not sure exactly where I fall (I'm somewhere between the middle and the latter), but there are a two specific steroid-related issues that I keep coming back to:

1. The Hall of Fame

I know that a lot of people out there believe that, because of the steroids, Barry Bonds should not be admitted to the Hall of Fame. First, let's all agree that, but for the steroids, Bonds would be a lock for first-ballot admission to the HOF. His career numbers are up there with the greats of all time, and it can hardly be disputed that those numbers justify admission. Enter the steroids, though, and the implications of cheating that accompany them, and it seems at least possible (if not likely) that Bonds will not make the Hall of Fame, at least not on his first try. Just ask Mark McGwire.

Do you still "amaze yourself," you arrogant, cheating prick? (No, not you, Barry, the guy on the right).

In a vacuum, fine. No great loss in my book when a guy who cheated gets denied entry into the HOF. Some could say that keeping Bonds out is nothing more than the sportswriters (who vote on a player's admission) performing their gatekeeping role admirably. But what about the next guy? What happens when Sammy Sosa is up for admission? Well, he's kind of like Bonds, right? Everyone knows he did it, so he doesn't get in. Ok, fine. What about Roger Clemens? Well, wait, he's never done steroids, has he? No, ok, he gets in. Are you sure? How about Mike Piazza? Steroids? No way. Wait a minute. Did he? That groin injury when the muscle separated from the bone when he was merely leaning back to avoid an inside pitch? The lunatic rant when Guillermo Mota hit him in spring training in 2003 (yes, that Guillermo Mota)? You're still not convinced? Ok, good. I love Piazza, so he's in.

My point is only that in the easy cases it is . . . well, easy. In the closer cases, where well-informed people can genuinely disagree, it is a much tougher call. Someone could come back and say that the "close calls" on steroids are no different than "close calls" with respect to statistics; the writers simply have to make up their mind. The problem with steroid allegations is that you have issues unrelated to the player's on field achievements informing that decision. In such a case, I worry that unrelated factors (a player's popularity, willingness to talk to the media, race (yes, race)) will factor even more in to the decision than they already do. To me, that would be a very, very unfortunate result.

(Side note: Please don't tell me that player popularity, as well as race, do not affect HOF admission. Jim Rice, who played in 2,089 games, collected 2,452 hits (.298 AVG), went yard 382 times, and knocked in 1,451 runs in his career is not in the HOF; Ryne Sandberg (2,164 games, 2,386 hits (.285 AVG), 282 HR, 1061 RBI) is in the Hall of Fame. Don't even get me started on Andre Dawson.)

I don't have the perfect answer, but I do think it is a problem. Steroid allegations could quickly become a smokescreen to keep unpopular players out, yet be overlooked when writers want to elect a more beloved player.

Maybe Tiger would have won the Masters if
he had partied with Barry the night before.

2. The Witch Hunt

The Hall of Fame problem is a concern for players after their career is over, but the witch hunt starts sooner than that. It seems that every two-bit sports reporter (I'm looking at you, Bob Klapisch) has an opinion about who is, was, isn't and will be on steroids at any given point in time. It's not uncommon to hear the Mad Dog (puke) rattle off a list of names, as that fat self-proclaimed sage of all things sport Francesa gravely announces, or not, that "he's juicin', dawg." (puke twice).

The truth is, of course, that we don't know. Does Pudge Rodriguez look like he's lost 50 lbs.? Yes, he does. Was Giambi great, then crappy, now great again? Well, yeah, sort of. What about A-Rod? He sure looks clean, but I can't stand him, so it's kind of fun to throw the steroid thing around.

Given that you can probably never know for certain -- unless the MLBPA agrees to aggressive, frequent testing (and there is no indication that (a) they will, or (b) the testing could keep up with the development of undetectable steroids) -- it seems almost a foregone conclusion that at least one or two cheaters will get away with it, and at least one or two innocent guys will get dragged down by it. In both cases, it could be a lot more than one or two.

To me, that will always be Barry Bonds' legacy.

1 comment:

ChuckJerry said...

I think Bonds is taking the fall for all of major league baseball on the steroid issue. It's abundantly clear at this point that baseball in the 1990's was rife with steroid users.

Based on the modicum of evidence it seems clear that a ton of players from Bonds to McGwire, Sosa, Giambi, Sheffield, Canseco, Palmeiro and down to the less prominent players like Brady Anderson and Lenny Dykstra, not to mention the pitchers were all taking steroids.

The league at least tacitly approved of the steroid use by not banning their use. Both sides of the league (management and the players' union) went kicking and screaming into the current steroid policy only after the Congressional pressure (what was that about, by the way?).

We blame Bonds because he went from fantastic to inhuman, but how many guys with marginal talent went from career minor leaguer to everday player through steroids? My suspicion is that there were far more than we really care to think about.

This is probably a porous argument, but you could argue in that respect that baseball in the 1990's was a level playing field. Now that argument pushes aside the records by Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, and Hank Aaron, among others, but Bonds was probably at least on level footing with his contemporaries.