Barry Bonds and Homer # 755
Bill Long 8/4/07
In Defense of Barry Bonds
I, along with millions of other people, saw Barry Bonds hit his 755th major league home run tonight. He hit a 2 ball/1 strike fastball 382 feet to the opposite field (left), and after the expected scrum in the stands, it came to rest in the hands of an employee of San Diego County. I hope that Bonds doesn't hit # 756 for several days. I have tickets to the San Francisco game on Friday 8/9, and I have been planning to catch the that home run ball, though those plans may be brought to naught because my brother got tickets in foul territory. Oh well.
Well, we can tell that Major League Baseball and America are of at least two minds in recognizing this most visible accomplishment in sports. On the one hand Commissioner Bud Selig has been following Bonds--present at every one of his games for the last week or so. But, on the other hand, when Bonds hit # 755 Selig stood and was expressionless, with no smile or applause. He refused to be interviewed by FSN sportscasters. Perhaps he will have a statement some time in the future, but his action already contrasts significantly with his congratulatory phone call to Trevor Hoffman in 2006 when Hoffman broke the record for career saves in MLB. So, we see that Selig knows how to dial a phone and give a call when he wants to....
What's At Stake
As most sentient adults know, Bonds' home run statistics have been under a cloud since the BALCO steriod sports scandal broke in 2003, and Barry Bonds was one of the athletes on the list of 20 or so professional athletes with whom BALCO had a professional relationship. The pressure on Bonds intensified as other professional baseball players have admitted using performance enhancing (even if not prohibited by baseball at the time) steroids or human grown hormone.
Here is what we know. Bonds met the President of BALCO in 2000. Bonds, who was born in 1964, has had the following home run production from 1990-2007:
1993-- 46 (He began playing with San Francisco)
49 (He met the President of BALCO this year)
2007-- 21 (to date)
Numbers alone can't tell you everything, but anyone can see that one of the numbers in the list above doesn't seem to "fit" with the rest. It is numbers like this, combined with the early results of the BALCO investigation (which has resulted in five convictions already) that fuels peoples suspicions about the "legitimacy" of Bonds' achievement. I think it is highly likely that Bonds used stuff that everyone knew was illegal at least for some time during 2001-2004. For the rest of the essay, however, I want to put Bonds "in context."
America, and Home Run Hitters, in 1996-2001
My thesis here is simple. During this five-six year period America saw some remarkable changes. The most significant, I think, was the unprecendented growth of the stock market. The metaphor "in the air" for the last half of the decade was "growth." Everyone wanted big, immediate, growth. And, guess what? We got it. Stocks like America Online and Amazon.com, followed by Yahoo and other internet businesses, exploded in value. People got rich overnight. Marvelous fortunes were made, and the people who made their fortunes are currently building 10,000 square foot homes in every major city/suburb of America. Not only was growth "in the air," all Americans seemed to want to cash in on this bigness and growth. We believed that the sky was the limit, if there was a limit at all.
My contention is that MLB athletes, like everyone else in the culture, "caught" this message and decided that they, too, would "become big." So, they beefed up. They beefed up, not simply with milkshakes and burgers, or with super-duper weight programs, but with steroids, growth hormones and whatever else might help enhance performance. And their performances were "enchanced," to use an understatement. Beginning in 1996 home run records either began to fall or were threatened. Mark McGwire started it all, hitting an eye-popping 52 in 1996. This was followed by McGwire's 58 in 1997 and Ken Griffey's 56 that same year.
Too much of a good thing is never enough. Then in 1998 McGwire hit his astounding record of 70, with Sammy Sosa hitting 66 and Griffey 56. In 1999 McGwire hit 65 and Sosa 63. The year 2000 was an "off" year, but in 2001 Bonds hit his 73 and Sammy Sosa hit 64. Clearly things had gone off the charts. After 2001, however, things have "calmed down," and since the BALCO scandal broke in 2003 only one player has hit more than 55 home runs in a season. Of course, the stock market collapsed in 2001/2002, America was attacked in 2001 and we seem to be less obsessed just with being "big" as we were in 1996-2001. Things ebb and flow, and now we are in a real "ebb" mode with respect to home runs.
The Point--and Conclusion
Here are my "conclusions."
1. Barry Bonds was part of a culture in baseball, and America, that wanted "big" at almost any cost in the late 1990s.
2. The reality of McGwire and Sosa getting so much publicity in the late 1990s probably had an influence in Bonds' decision to meet up with the BALCO folk in 2000.
3. Bonds' 73 in 2001 is not a credible number for one who performed without "enhancements." What is sometimes hard to learn in America is that a "too good" performance is as suspect as a sub-par performance.
4. Bonds is an incredible athlete even without any enhancements, and I, for one, will salute his achievement almost as if it wasn't "tainted."
5. Barry Bonds only gave America what we all wanted--unbelievable performances.
But, of course, not everyone did this. Not everyone signed up with BALCO. And I believe the game is better if rules about performance enhancing supplements/drugs (I am no expert in what constitutes this distinction) are applied equally across the board and enforced impartially. I confess, however, that I can't muster the kind of hatred, or disappointment, or disillusionment at Bonds that many people feel. He made a mistake, I believe, but even if he didn't make this "mistake," he might still be near Aaron's record. Let's recognize that...