Grey Ink


By way of Steve Rubio via Scott Woods, I just caught up with a small piece about the steroid scandal written by Bill James, specifically as it relates to Barry Bonds. In a broadly parodic manner, James confronts something that I started thinking about in the few days after Bonds' grand- jury testimony started to leak: that there’s clearly a racist dimension to the swiftness and vehemence with which the public has passed judgement on Bonds. “Racist” is not a word I use casually, believe me. I think that reflex- ively trotting the accusation out to humiliate or silence someone who says something you don’t like is the work of creeps. I’ve been ragging on one local Toronto music writer who insidiously plays that game (i.e., he rarely uses the actual word, but it’s lurking just under the surface of a lot of what he writes) for years. I’ve been amazed, though, by some of the fallout last week to Bonds' testimony. Most eye-opening to me was a CNN/Sports Illustrated fan survey that was running on their website a few days ago. The questions had to do with attitudes towards Bonds' records, his Hall of Fame status, his legiti- macy as a player, and other related matters. Sample question: 25 years from now, will Bonds be remembered as a) the greatest power hitter ever, b) the greatest power hitter of his generation, or c) a fraud and a cheat? (The survey has since been replaced by another one—-also Bonds-related—-so I’m working from memory.) “A fraud and a cheat” was the opinion of a clear majority, something like 60 or 65%, and right down the line there was run- away condemnation (records revoked, HOF-ineligible, etc.). Huh? Allowing for the fact that emotions run highest in the immediate aftermath of any kind of controversy, and that feelings of betrayal seem to attach themselves to fallen sports heroes especially, I immediately thought back to the public reaction six years ago when it became common knowledge that Mark McGwire was using an anabolic steroid in the midst of chasing Maris’s record. There was a bit of commotion at first—-lasted about four or five hours, I think—-followed by a general feeling of "yeah, well, um, it'll be so amazing if McGwire breaks the record." I don’t exempt myself; I didn’t much care at all how, I wanted to see the record broken. McGwire, of course, was a big, affable, redheaded Paul Bunyan-type, a guy who had returned from a series of injuries and lost seasons to become what Sports Illustrated (a longtime Bonds nemesis) called at the time “The Greatest Roadshow on Earth.” Bonds, on the other hand, is an arrogant black man whose relations with fans and the press have been marked by friction for most of his career. Or at least that’s the polite way to say it; in the minds of some percentage of the baseball fans who are out for blood at the moment--what percentage exactly, I don’t know--Bonds is an u_______ n_______ who’s about to be put in his place. How else can you account for such a strikingly divergent public reaction to two men, separated by six short years, who are guilty of essentially the same transgression? Forget about whether the transgression in question hadn’t yet officially been banned during McGwire’s record season, a ban that has been in place the past two years (but wasn’t, it’s worth noting in passing, during the season Bonds eclipsed McGwire). That’s hardly what’s driving the current hysteria. Forget also that McGwire readily admitted to using androste- nedione at the time, while Bonds exacerbates his troubles by claiming he was completely unaware of what it was that his trainer was supplying him. I’ve read at least one Bonds defender who argues that such a claim is plausible; from one Bonds defender to another, I say there’s no chance, he knew exactly what was what. An undercurrent of racism was a part of the story when Bonds’ 73 home runs were greeted with much less national obsession and adoration three years ago than were McGwire’s 70 home runs in 1998. I think Bonds himself said as much flat-out at one point. I resisted the idea then, and still do, pointing in- stead to a number of mitigating factors that diminished enthusiasm for Bonds’ run at McGwire (in ascending order of importance): • Bonds played on the west coast, McGwire in the central time zone; news made after 11:30 p.m. just isn’t going to get as much media attention as news made earlier in the evening. • The final month of the 2001 season was played in the wake of 9/11. Many people would count that as the biggest reason there was less fanfare about Bonds' record chase than McGwire's--indeed, the only explanation needed. You could also argue that 9/11 actually presented an opportunity for Bonds to capture the public imagination (bringing the country together and all of that; cf. the Beatles in the wake of the Kennedy assassination), but, in any case, anything and everything sports-related wasn’t getting a whole lot of attention in general during September of 2001. So I think 9/11 was a factor—-not the biggest, but obviously one of them. • Bonds chased the record alone, McGwire had Sammy Sosa. Sosa’s compli- cated role in all of this--both the steroid scandal and the racial issue--is a story unto itself. One thing people forget: affable McGwire wasn’t always so affable during the middle months of the ’98 season—-I remember one postgame press conference where he was especially petulant—-and only after Sosa pulled even, seemingly having the time of his life while doing so, was McGwire inspired (or maybe forced) to lighten up. • The biggest factor of all to me: simple record fatigue. McGwire broke a fabled 37-year-old record; Bonds was chasing a number that had stood for approximately 37 months. “61” had deep resonance; “70” hadn’t had time to acquire any. I bring all of this up because...well, I guess I want to stress once more that I’m not quick to ascribe racism to a situation that can be reasonably explained otherwise. Bonds’ 2001 season taking a backseat to McGwire’s 1998 season isn’t necessarily fair—-especially considering that Bonds’ season was substantially better overall, and that Bonds is the much greater player—-but, for the reasons cited above, it makes sense. That Bonds’ steroid use should be viewed by the public (and a large part of the sporting press; there were three anti-Bonds editorials running on CNN/SI yesterday) as a much more grievous offense than McGwire’s—-so much so that the general consensus seems to be “Let’s fix this so that Barry Bonds and all of his tainted numbers never existed”—-does not. Yes, it speaks to Bonds the person, his aloofness or arro- gance or whatever you want to call it. But most of all, I think, it springs from those things in combination with something else: his skin colour. Two final points. What Bonds has accomplished the past four seasons isn’t just a little bit better than his contemporaries, that 5 or 10% edge that might reasonably be ascribed to steroid use. (I’m picking numbers out of the air—-truthfully I have no idea, but it can’t be more than 10%, and I bet it’s under 5.) If you go to either Jeff Sagarin’s USA Today ratings, where perfor- mance is measured by something called “Markov Runs Per Game,” or The Hardball Times, which uses James’ Win Shares formula, Bonds last year was somewhere between 35-50% more productive than the *second-most* productive player behind him (Helton and Pujols, respectively). If Bonds’ post-2000 transformation is largely the byproduct of steroid use, then he must be a) the only guy using them, which obviously isn’t the case, or b) lucky enough to be getting the best steroids on the planet, the ones that improve performance by 50%, not 5, while everyone else makes do with the no-name generic kind. Also worth remembering is that Bonds was probably already the best player in the game when he won his first MVP in 1990. He was definitely the best player in the game when he won his third in 1993, and, especially in hindsight now that we know what we know about the flawed careers of Ken Griffey and Frank Thomas, he remained the best player in the game for the next five or six years. Maybe you might have pointed to Alex Rodriguez as the best somewhere along the way after that, and maybe for a year or two he was—-Bonds’ other skills, his defense and his baserunning, are a much smaller part of the package than they used to be. But Bonds is not Ken Caminiti, he’s not Bret Boone, and he’s not Luis Gonzalez. He was the best player in the game before steroids, and he remains the best hitter in the game after steroids. In the light of cold hard statistics, he presently ranks alongside Ruth and Williams as the greatest hitter ever. If you want to say that Bonds' past four seasons are tainted, fine, I agree. So knock him down a few pegs—-instead of Ruth and Williams, rank him alongside Mays and Mantle and Aaron, which is about where he stood going into the 2000 season. But don’t start calling for his expulsion from the record book and exemption from future Hall of Fame balloting. Not based on something that was politely swept under the carpet in Mark McGwire’s case.

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