Because life is a series of edits

On Barry Bonds and Baseball History

In Places & Spaces, Sports on July 9, 2007 at 7:09 am

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.

  1. First, let me quote Lloyd Christmas regarding your Cardinals’ playoff potential, “So, you’re saying there’s a chance!”

    Next, you’re right about the the overratedness of the St. Louis fans’ classiness. They’ve not only been booing Bonds for years (before the steroid suspicions became a big deal), but they’ve also been booing the other team’s best player for as long as I’ve been going to games. Now, I actually don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think it’s a sign of respect to boo the other team’s best player. It’s like the audience hissing when an actor comes on stage in a black cape and a handle-bar mustache. It’s not that you don’t like the actor, but you recognize he’s the “bad guy” who’s opposed to the resolution that you want to see. I’m just saying St. Louisans are no different than any other fans in this regard.

    I admit that I haven’t read the book you referred to, but even though I suppose the author was waxing poetic to make a point, I think it’s pretty certain that Maris was a better player then represented in that quote. Sure, he didn’t rise to the level of an historically great player. But he was a 2-time MVP, a 4-time All-Star, and however he started out in ’62, he finished with a very nice season (source: Most of the rest of his career was marred by injuries, so I don’t think you can really blame his late-career struggles on his “focus on a single, iconoclastic facet of his experience.” In the end, I think Maris turned out to be exactly the kind of player you would have expected him to be based on the first few years of his career, except that he happened to have one once-in-a-generation year at the peak of his career.

    On Barry Bonds–let me give full disclosure: the Giants are my favorite team and Barry Bonds was my favorite player while I was growing up. To compare Bonds and McGwire is like comparing Apples and Orange Flav-Or-Ices. Not only are they different, but they’re in completely different sections of the grocery store. Anyone who considers the evidence objectively, has to admit that Bonds was the greatest player in baseball between 1990 and 2004. Griffey Jr. gave him a run for his money for a while in the 90’s, but then he started getting injured all the time, and he really didn’t do more than Bonds overall anyway, he was just flashier. Bonds was consistently outstanding in the areas of home runs, stolen bases, on base percentage, slugging, and defense (and usually batting average) for 15 years. Yes, it’s brutal to watch the guy on defense these days, but for the first two-thirds of his career he was indisputably the best defensive left-fielder in the game. With or without steroids, Bonds is far more than just a guy with a home run record.

    Yet, I defend Bonds not with joy, as I used to, but with a feeling of resentful duty. I feel a duty because I respect and cherish baseball enough to think that it’s important that people know the truth about it and not just persist in a misperception of it based on personal feelings. But I have resentment because the man I’m defending, my former favorite player, didn’t respect baseball or himself enough to play the game with integrity. I lost my childlike love of the game when the BALCO investigation became public.

    Final point, I have no interest in deflating Stan Musial’s fame or denigrating his accomplishments. But in reality, most St. Louis fans love him not because he was an all around great player, but because he was the best player in their team’s history. The majority of Cardinal fans today have never seen Musial play. But, I never saw Willie Mays play and he’s one of my favorites. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I actually wish that more Cardinal fans appreciated Musial for what he actually did on the field, because that would mean they were educating themselves about the history of the game. Perhaps that would help them put the peccadilloes of today’s players into perspective while still allowing them to retain a passion for seeing the game played with integrity.

  2. Nick, I’ll grant that baseball fans are the same everywhere in terms of booing, etc. (it’s just that the Cardinal fans are always saying they’re in a league all their own in terms of being “smart fans” and it’s just not so). And I totally agree that Bonds and McGwire are not even in the same ballpark when it comes to careers (the numbers prove that out without question).

    However, I’m not sure one can make the argument that, by the numbers, Bonds was the greatest from 1990-2004 because the numbers themselves are tainted. That’s the frustration with the whole thing, I think – we just don’t know to what degree the taint goes, and that really screws with the sacrosanct nature both you and I ascribe to our beloved baseball statistics. Their objectivity is now flawed, so where does that leave us?

    I spent some time thinking about what I would do if I were at the game and happened to catch the homerun ball that Bonds hit to break Aaron’s record. I wouldn’t throw it back, as that would be rude; nor would I keep it or sell it as a relic, as that would be false to what I think it represents. I think I would request a meeting with Bonds and just give him the ball, as he’s really the only one who knows what he himself has accomplished (or hasn’t). How’s that for an invasion of postmodernity into baseball?

    You’re probably right as to the literary drama of the Maris quote. As to Musial, I never saw him play, but his legacy makes me feel like I have. I think his popularity goes beyond just St. Louis fans thinking he was their best (which he was) because they recognize him as a guy who was a class act on (and off) the field. That’s the kind of good stuff that the stats miss…and what contributes to making baseball legends (which is why Bonds and many others will never achieve that same kind of status 50 years from now).

  3. giving the ball back to Bonds, very classy, i’d sell it and put a down payment on a house

  4. One point that I only hinted near the end is that the statistics of baseball have never been objectively comparable. Both the rules and the gameplay of baseball have evolved for the entire history of the game.

    *The maximum numbers of balls and strikes have changed.
    *Balls that bounced over the fence used to count as home runs.
    *Balls that went over the fence inside the foul pole but landed outside the extended foul line were counted as foul balls.
    *Whole groups of the population were excluded from play.
    *Pitchers were allowed to “doctor” the ball.
    *Even after “doctoring” was made illegal, it was still allowed.
    *Even after it was no longer allowed, pitchers still did it.
    *The mound has been at different heights, and even at different distances from home plate.
    *A significant portion of an earlier generation played the game on cocaine and/or speed.
    *Players of today have aspirin, ibuprofen, and other painkillers that are legal but that earlier players did not have access to.
    *Players of earlier generations had to work second jobs or winter jobs, while players of today can focus their entire life on preparing for baseball.
    *The number of games per season have changed over time.
    *Players’ bats are made of different kinds of wood with different degrees of hardness and density–sometimes including cork, which is illegal (now, though not always).
    *The baseballs have been wound tighter or looser in different eras, and sometimes kept in a humidor.

    There are lots of other things I could mention, but you get the point. Every achievement in every era of baseball was accomplished according to the rules (or, as the case may be, circumventing the rules) that were idiosyncratic to that era. This may be a totally postmodern perspective, but: I think it is precisely because the numbers in baseball have never been objectively comparable that it is perfectly reasonable to subjectively compare them, no matter what faults we find with the numbers produced in our own or other eras. (Speaking of finding fault, isn’t it a far more morally suspect set of numbers that have had potential contributors eliminated based on racism than those produced by probable medical enhancement?)

    With regard to Bonds, I have not problem with his place in history being negatively affected by things other than his statistics, the same has happened with Ty Cobb and Pete Rose among others. I don’t even have a problem with people making a reasoned case against his numbers on the basis of his probable cheating. What is not acceptable, however, is for people to mix up their categories and dismiss his numbers just because he’s a jerk. (BTW, I’m not saying you were doing that, but it is done all the time.)

    One other thing. I would try to sell the baseball, but not to an individual. I would try to sell it to the Baseball Hall of Fame. If they have a policy against buying memorabilia, then I would give it to them.

    p.s. I realize that I used a phrase about considering evidence “objectively” in my first comment. I should have used a different term, such as “fairly” or “reasonably” or “impartially.”

  5. I’m not arguing that there haven’t been lots of changes to the game of baseball (your list is impressive), but many (though not all) of those changes were made “officially” and league-wide, and we know when they were made and why. For instance, why was the mound lowered after 1968? Two words: Bob Gibson.

    What I’m trying to say is that illegal, unofficial, and unknown changes (i.e. drug use and the like) make any attempt at making “fair” sense of a player’s performance that much more futile. I don’t dismiss Bonds and his numbers because he’s a jerk; I just wonder how much to celebrate them because nobody knows how much or when he cheated to achieve them.

    When are we going to a game, Nick? These discussions are much more interesting over nine innings (not that they’re not interesting here).

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