Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Out in Left Field...

By Clark Westfied

"You can observe alot just by watching."
-Yogi Berra


Let me start out by saying that I am not a Barry Bonds fan. It’s as likely for me to call him “Bobby” Bonds, mistaking him for his father who was also a major league ball player. I haven’t paid close attention to his career over the years and have not watched him play on many occasions. I think I saw him hit a towering home run into the upper deck in right field at Yankee Stadium last year when the Giants played New York in an inter league game. Most of what I have seen and heard of Bonds comes from newspaper, T.V., and radio reports dealing with matters outside of his on field performance (though most would say it has enhanced that performance). Reporters and commentators describe Bonds as “surly,” “moody,” and “uncooperative.” Yet I have seen him interviewed when he seems pleasant and quick to flash a big smile.

Bonds has been in the news for the past several years for two reasons. He has been accused of using steroids, an accusation he has denied publicly and presumably before a grand jury. His personal trainer, the man who has been accused of supplying him the drugs, has been in jail for quite some time for refusing to name names to the grand jury. If you press me, I would have to say that Bonds probably used some banned substance to transform his body, once on the lean side, to that of a modern-day Hercules. All of this is news because it relates to the second reason that Bonds has dominated the sports pages: he has pursued and now broken the most hallowed record in all of sports and not just baseball--Hank Aaron’s hitting 755 home runs. Many if not most fans outside of San Francisco want to have an asterisk placed next to Bonds’ record of 756 (or whatever number he finally reaches) because they argue that the slugger achieved this feat illegitimately.

Whatever the legal system and the baseball record keepers may decide, I believe that Bonds should keep his record without the placement of any asterisks, or worse, having the record erased from the books altogether. First, let’s remember that Bonds is entitled to his constitutional rights, the most important of which is that he is innocent until proven guilty. He cannot be convicted without due process of law, which means a trial before a judge and jury and representation by an attorney. Also, Bonds does not have to tell reporters or radio talk show hosts that he used steroids, let alone federal prosecutors and grand juries, even if he did, because of another of his constitutional rights—the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself (though this does not give him the right to commit perjury). In these post-9/11, Patriot Act years, the Bill of Rights often has less meaning than its language specifies, and although the Bonds controversy does not rise to the importance of national security, it is important that the civil liberties of any individual, no matter how poor or rich, be respected.

Bonds deserves official recognition for his accomplishment because of his extraordinary baseball skills on the field where it most counts. Even if he used steroids or some equivalent, it did not guarantee that he would belt a record-full of home runs. We suspect many others of taking prohibited drugs, but they have not come close to achieving what Bonds has done. Hitting home runs requires more than a Paul Bunyanesque physique, or Arnold Schwartzenegger would have played baseball and challenged Aaron and Bonds. It demands phenomenal bat speed, hand-eye coordination, plate discipline, and a bit of luck. Bonds has all these which, much more than any man-made substance, allowed him to surpass Aaron’s record. Besides, if he did use steroids, he did not violate any baseball rule that existed at the time. It is hard to believe that baseball owners and players’ union executives did not suspect the existence of performance enhancing agents that boosted the offense or that they did not want exactly that—to get more scoring in the game, mainly through the long ball. Indeed, over the more than 100 years of major league history, players have used substances like amphetamines to enhance their energy, and when they get an injury trainers give them shots of cortisone to get them back on the field, thereby enhancing their performance. Drugs, illegal and otherwise, have always gone hand in hand with performance on the field of dreams.

Why should we turn Bonds into the national nightmare?

Is it racism that has demonized Bonds? Some say that this African-American player is a victim of those who always see the worst in black men or conversely want to knock them down a peg. I don’t find this explanation compelling in this instance. After all, Bonds threatened the record held by another African American. It was Henry Aaron who was subjected to genuine racism as he challenged the home run record of the legendary Babe Ruth. Aaron, who was playing for the Atlanta Braves in a region only recently liberated from segregation, received death threats and racial slurs as he approached his 714th home run, which stood at the time as the record.

Nevertheless, racism plays a significant role in the public’s understanding of the Bonds affair. As in many important areas of public opinion, African Americans and white Americans view the subject in opposite fashion. A majority of blacks defend Bonds’ record and doubt his use of steroids, while for whites the position is reversed. As long as the legacy of racism and the failure to achieve genuine racial equality exists, then blacks will view white criticism and opposition to members of their race from a conspiratorial point of view.

It’s what America deserves until it can demonstrate that race no longer matters and a colorblind society really exists.
Until then, debate will continue over the record and the character of Barry Bonds. Or, it might end in a few years when Alex Rodriguez nudges Bonds aside and breaks his record.

Clark Westfield is a pseudonym for a Professor at Rutgers University and a non-fiction writer, who in the twilight of his distinguished career, wishes to fan the flame of mystery. Out In Left Field is a column devoted to all things New York, Baseball, Entertainment, Politics, and History.


Anonymous said...

I dont believe in the * ..Every record holder has its own merits--You still have to hit the baseball and you know how difficult that is---I dont believe the race card either


Anonymous said...

Well said Clark...I'm a whitey who thinks he should keep the record and the glory. I also believe he used steroids and they probably shortened his career and possibly his life.