Stop and Smell the Rosesby Larry Mahnken
April 22, 2004
Whether or not you think Barry Bonds is the greatest player who ever lived is wholly subjective. I, for one, am still partial to Babe Ruth, because he did it in an era when home runs were rare, was more valuable over the course of his career than Bonds (or anyone else for that matter), was an elite pitcher at the beginning of his career, and, of course, was a Yankee.
But you can counter with the facts that black players were barred from the game, that home runs were rare in that era largely because no other players were trying to hit them like Ruth was, that he was a good pitcher, but a poor defensive player (while Bonds was excellent in his prime), and that the Yankees suck. All fair points, but I'll still go with Ruth. As I said, it's wholly subjective.
Whether or not he's the best player in the game today is not. People say that Alex Rodriguez (in spite of his dreadful start) is the best all-around player in baseball, because Barry doesn't run anymore, isn't a Gold-Glove fielder anymore, and plays a far less valuable position than A-Rod does.
No matter -- Bonds' value at the plate is so incredible that Rodriguez would have to win the Gold Glove at both third base and shortstop this year to match it. Nobody even comes close to Barry, and unless he gets hurt, another MVP is a foregone conclusion -- or it should be, but we know how the writers like to complicate things.
What Bonds has been doing so far this season makes one wonder not whether he'll break Hank Aaron's record, but whether he'll do it this season. Seriously, of course he'll slow down, but a slump for Barry is what most players would consider a hot streak.
Aaron Gleeman previously talked about Barry hitting .400, and he may well. Despite what many analysts have said before, Barry Bonds is exactly the type of player who has the best chance to hit .400 -- he walks a lot (minimizing the number of at-bats), hits a lot of home runs (hits with no chance of becoming outs), and doesn't strike out much (minimizing the number of outs without a chance for a hit). More likely than Bonds hitting .400 is another run at the single-season home run record, which, if he approaches it, would make the breaking of Hank Aaron's record next season a virtual lock.
What Bonds has done the past few seasons is simply awe-inspiring, and 50 years ago, sportswriters would be falling all over each other to come up with new metaphors to describe him. But these days, the media seems more interested in tearing down heroes than building them up, and Bonds' media-unfriendly attitude doesn't do much to dissuade them.
Is Barry Bonds on steroids? There's plenty of reasons to be suspicious: he's freakishly huge, and gained much of that weight in a relatively short time. He's experienced an astounding late-career surge, and his past three seasons may have been the three single greatest offensive seasons in history. He's associated with a supplements lab that's been indicted for distributing performance enhancing drugs to athletes, and his personal trainer has been indicted as well. Reports have come out that federal agents were told he received steroids.
Bonds may well have used steroids, but it's unlikely that he's taking any known steroids right now, with baseball having begun mandatory testing this season. Perhaps he's using HGH, which there is no test for, but that's something we'll never know, unless proof -- not accusations -- surface that he received and used it. Unless the test samples that were seized this month include samples from Bonds, and they come back positive, we'll probably never know if Barry Bonds used performance enhancers.
But we know for certain that we'll never know that he didn't use steroids. If the standard becomes guilty until proven innocent, then all ballplayers are forever guilty. What good does that do us?
By all means, federal investigations should continue, and agents should seek out all relevant information, including evidence that Bonds and others have used steroids. Investigative journalists should follow leads, and inform the public when something important arises. But until there's something more than hearsay and speculation, shut up.
By focusing on what Bonds may have done, we're failing to appreciate what he is in fact doing right now, and how great a player he is. Forget how big he is for a moment, and watch his swing. If you were to build a robot that swung a baseball bat perfectly, that's what it would look like. Performance enhancing drugs can make a ballplayer swing a bat faster, see a ball better and react to it quicker -- but no drug can make you swing a bat like that. It's a thing of absolute beauty, especially in profile. Being able to rewind and watch it again is reason enough to get a digital video recorder, being able to see it almost every night is reason enough to buy the Extra Innings package.
Someday, after Bonds is long retired, all the talk of steroids might be forgotten, as it's unlikely to turn up anything on Bonds. Many people will see old footage of Bonds, think back to these years, and realize that while they could have enjoyed the show, they were too busy trying to prove that it wasn't real. Don't be one of those people. If it turns out to be an illusion, then maybe you'll feel dirty for having suspended disbelief. But if, as is more likely, we never really find out, then you'll regret not having watched.
And after all, it's just a game, you shouldn't feel dirty about enjoying it anyway.
Larry Mahnken is a staff writer for The Hardball Times, and co-editor of the Replacement Level Yankees Weblog. You can contact him with your comments, questions, romantic propositions and incoherent rantings at DLMahnken@hardballtimes.com.