It’s been a while since I’ve talked a little baseball, so with the All-Star Break upon us and the season being half over, I thought now might be a good time. My Cardinals have been playing better, but I was hoping they’d have made it back to .500 by now. According to the PECOTA version of the postseason odds at Baseball Prospectus, the Cards have less then a 2% shot at making the playoffs while the Milwaukee Brewers have an 85% chance (hat tip: Viva El Birdos). In short, it doesn’t look good, but there’s still half a season left.
It was interesting reading the buzz generated by Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants coming to town this past weekend. Bonds is only five away from breaking Hank Aaron’s all-time homerun record of 755 and, up until last week, Cardinal fans were deathly afraid he was going to do it in St. Louis. The overratedly “classy” Cardinal Nation booed Bonds every time he came to bat because of the whole steroids thing, which seems incredibly hypocritical considering their once-beloved Mark McGwire all but confessing in a congressional hearing a couple years ago to his own steroid use in breaking the one-year homerun record in 1998.
But I digress.
I don’t particularly love or hate Bonds as a player, but I do wonder how baseball history will judge him. This passage from David James Duncan‘s The Brothers K, in which one character writes of the rise and demise of Roger Maris, would seem to apply:
“Insofar as the word ‘radical’ implies a drastic departure from accepted thinking and practices, it is only accurate to say that this crewcutted all-American Midwest farm boy (Roger Maris) was in fact the first famous radical of the Sixties. Who but a radical would sacrifice all-around excellence to focus on a single, iconoclastic facet of his experience? Who but a radical could earn so much antipathy from the meat-and-potatoes populace for so little reason, but still go on choosing public misery for the sake of his cause?
As this increasingly two-dimensional, nerve-powered, lifetime .260 hitter mounted his anxiety-ridden assault on the most famous feat of the three-dimensional, muscle-powered .342-hitting bon vivant whose bat built Yankee Stadium, even the most rabid New York fans began to feel that something odd was going on. Mickey Mantle also hit a lot of home runs in 1961 – fifty-four of them, in fact. But the contrast between his and Maris’s homers was vast.
The Mick was just a canonical hero on a roll – a contemporary legend in chivalrous competition with legends of the past. Maris was a new kind of creature altogether. If Ruth was the Sultan of Swat, Maris was the Technician of Boink. For the sake of these boinks he had virtually given up the game of baseball, or at least given up the all-around game he’d played better than anyone just a year before. And the trouble that resulted was, in a sense, the same trouble into which the entire industrial world has fallen: obession works. Not beautifully, and not without tremendous costs. But for Roger E. Maris it worked sixty-one times.
Numbers, for all their vaunted accuracy, can be amaingly inaccurate little doodads. When Ruth’s record finally teetered and fell, Maris found that in the opinion of many he hadn’t scaled a height or conquered a legend at all: he’d become an object of dislike. Many people felt and even behaved, as if he were more the assassin of a legend than a conquering hero. When the Holy Relic Manufacturers trotted out their ’61 in ’61 trinkets, the stuff wouldn’t sell; when the kids took to the sandlots the following spring, they went right on pretending they were Mantle and Berra and Mays; when Maris himself began his ’62 season in a slump, the fans booed his game and emotions into a complete collapse; and when the Yankees traded him away to St. Louis, instead of retiring his number, they casually handed it to Graig Nettles a few years later.”
This is why St. Louisians love Stan “the Man” Musial – he did it all (offense and defense), year in and year out. Bonds and McGwire may hold homerun records (albeit with asterisks because of steroids), but guys like Mantle and Musial (or for a more local and contemporary example – Albert Pujols) tend to garner more honor over the long haul for their overall quality of play.