Don’t Bury Bonds….by John Brattain
May 05, 2006
First off, I’d like to state that I unequivocally want anabolic substances out of baseball. Just because I don’t think it will happen or that I think this “steroid era” will go down in history as simply another quirk of circumstances that have been part of baseball since the beginning shouldn’t be taken as support of players who abuse performance enhancing substances.
To quickly reiterate: I think as long as there’s much more money to be made by breaking the rules than by abiding by them, and there are young athletes with the typically “I’m indestructible” mindset looking to get any edge on the competition, and it’s profitable to come up with substances that aid said athletes in getting that edge, human nature tells me, sadly, that these things will continue to plague competitive sports.
I view steroids in baseball like smoking in the workplace: just because you feel that you need to poison your body by smoking to help do your job shouldn’t mean that I should have to poison my body with second hand smoke to do mine. If a player uses potentially noxious substances to do his job and it puts somebody else in a position where they have to take those same substances to do theirs …
Well you get the idea.
Further, I think records tell us as much about the circumstances surrounding the game as it does about a player’s greatness historically. Granted, career milestones are generally achieved by great players, but it tells us little about how they stack up against other great players of other eras.
For example, does the fact that Wahoo Sam Crawford’s career record 309 triples, or Cy Young's 511 wins/749 complete games, or Walter Johnson’s 110 shutouts, or Rogers Hornsby’s .402 batting average from 1921-25 will never be duplicated mean that “they don‘t make ‘em like they used to”?
Or for that matter, are today’s players simply not good enough to top Matt Kilroy’s 513 strikeout season of 1886, or Charley Radbourn’s 59 win campaign of 1884, or Will White’s 75 complete games of 1879, or Chief Wilson’s 36 triples of 1912?
Of course not.
We all understand that the game as it was played back then is far different than how it is played today. Those records reflect more the era than how those players stack up against today’s greats.
So it is today.
The last decade-plus (perhaps longer) has been an era of steroid use; it has also been marked by livelier baseballs, harder, lighter bats, sophisticated weight training and [legal] supplements, smaller ballparks, body armor, a strike zone where the high strike has disappeared and pitching inside is discouraged. That’s why we’ve seen ridiculous home run totals.
In other words, the game as it is played in the 1980’s-2000’s (the Barry Bonds era) is far different from the one of the 1950’s-1970’s (the Hank Aaron era); another difference not cited in the previous paragraph between these two periods is the height of the pitcher’s mound.
Right now MLB has decided not to celebrate Barry Bonds passing Babe Ruth on the home run list and would really not like to have to come to a conclusion as what to do should he pass Aaron.
I think MLB has blown it—again.
To begin with, we’re not just celebrating Barry Bonds; we’re also celebrating Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron’s careers. We’re taking time to reflect on the greats that came before Bonds. By commemorating Bonds achievement we’re not stating that he was superior to Ruth/Aaron—we’re simply acknowledging that another player has matched/exceeded a statistical total accomplished by a previous great.
Bill Veeck commented on Roger Maris’ 1961 season saying that then commissioner Ford Frick was making a mistake by wishing to make a distinction between Ruth’s and Maris’ record seasons. His reasoning was that 61 is a higher number than 60 and in time Maris would be recognized as the [single-season] home run champ despite the differing circumstances in which they were attained (154/162 game seasons).
And Veeck was right.
Furthermore, Frick had turned what could’ve been a resounding celebration of Ruth and Maris into a resounding anticlimax.
That’s what is happening here—715 is a higher number than 714 just as 756 is than 755. If Bonds gets those numbers than he’ll be second and first respectively on the home run list, despite the circumstances in which he attained the record.
Now before you send me the e-mail flame telling me that I suffer from a lobotomy, unmarried parents and an Oedipus complex for thinking that a steroid cheat should be allowed to hold such a sacred record, hear me out:
Records tell us what happened not how they happened—how they happened is what legacies and history do for us. If we try to alter the historical record we run the threat of creating the opposite of what we hope to achieve.
Let’s assume Barry Bonds finishes his career with 770 home runs. Now we’ll give him that nice, fat juicy asterisk that makes so many in the media all perky. Bud Selig stands up and proclaims that Hank Aaron remains MLB’s official all-time home run champ.
We’ll fast forward a couple of decades. Here’s what will most likely happen: whenever Hank Aaron’s name is mentioned along with the title “MLB’s all-time home run king” people will think “But Barry Bonds hit 770.” In time, Aaron’s crown will begin to sound a little hollow—Bonds 770 home runs has become Aaron’s 800 pound gorilla in the room; something he can never escape. Whenever Aaron’s record is mentioned it is mentally asterisked with “But Barry Bonds hit 770.”
Aaron’s legacy now looks a little diminished due to Bonds’ higher total. It almost becomes a joke.
If you list the numbers, the record of what actually happened and Barry Bonds wears the mantle of “MLB’s all-time home run king” what happens is this—when Bonds is proclaimed as such, people will be thinking “But he needed steroids to top Aaron.” Think about that for a moment. People are thinking that [one of] the greatest players of his time, perhaps all time needed anabolic steroids to accomplish what Hank Aaron did naturally. Now 'he Hammer is Barry Bonds' 800 pound gorilla that he can't get away from.
Now Aaron’s legacy shines. It’s enhanced and Bonds is the one that looks diminished; the mental asterisk is now his to bear.
We need to treat all milestones equally and remember that Barry Bonds is playing in the major leagues; if MLB feels so strongly about Bonds then they should take action—even if it’s overturned by an arbitrator; at least they’ve gone on record as to where they stand on the issue. To do something after the fact is self-defeating. It’s shutting the barn door after the horse has left.
If major league baseball takes no official stand on Barry Bonds and is allowing him on the field of play then they must treat him as they would any other player and take responsibility for what happens between the white lines. A player that is allowed to play in a sanctioned major league game that sets a notable record should be treated as such; to do otherwise is to take the coward’s way out. Selig is letting Bonds play while at the same time pretending that what he’s doing isn’t noteworthy. MLB should have the courage of its convictions—if they believe Bonds is doing something illegitimately, they should take a stand and let the chips fall where they may. If they’re letting him play without objection (even if such objection is overturned in arbitration—it still counts as an official objection/statement of opinion) then they should treat the situation accordingly and celebrate Bonds’ achievement.
As to us, even if some of us strongly object to Barry Bonds we can always pay tribute to Aaron and Ruth at home runs number 715 and 756. Those numbers will stand forever in the guide—as will the indelible legends of Henry Aaron and Babe Ruth.
Our good friend, and THT stalwart, John Brattain passed away on March 24, 2009. John was a prolific writer, whose work can also be read at Sympatico/MSN Sports and Baseball Digest Daily. John's work was also featured at USA Today, MLBtalk, ESPN Insider, Baseball Prospectus, The Baseball Analysts and The Baseball Journals. Never afraid to express himself in any medium, he was also a frequent radio speaker.