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Wednesday, 19 April 2006 00:00

Baseball’s scapegoat

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San Francisco Giant outfielder Barry Bonds is the greatest baseball player of this era, and one can make a good argument that he is the greatest player in history. Bonds will almost certainly pass the legendary Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list this season, and it is conceivable that he might also break Henry Aaron’s home run record.

In baseball, probably more than any other sport, records are part of the lore, and the people that love baseball, that grew up loving it, are very protective of them. A kid who loves baseball may or may not be able to name the two senators who represent North Carolina, but he can tell you instantly and with great certainty that Joltin Joe Dimaggio holds the record for consecutive games with at least one base hit (56), or that Pete Rose holds the record for the number of career hits (4,256), or that Nolan Ryan holds the record for most career strike-outs (5,714).

Records may indeed be made to be broken, but in baseball, breaking a record means more than accomplishing a great individual feat. It means carving out a place in baseball mythology, adding your name to the litany of baseball gods that will be talked about and remembered 50, or a 100, years from now.

The Babe had already been dead for years before I was born, and yet every kid I knew talked about Ruth and his amazing record of 714 home runs, and when Hank Aaron finally eclipsed that number in 1974, there was a great deal of excitement and celebration. Something wonderful had happened, something historical. The mighty Ruth had been toppled.

But these are different times, far different, and the excitement of the chase is simply not there this time. Instead, there is a certain sense of trepidation, even dread. You see, baseball is finally waking up from its delirious steroid party of the 1990s and early 2000s, and the hangover is nearly unbearable. If Bonds was not the biggest partier there, he was certainly among the biggest, both literally and metaphorically.

Of course, there have been allegations that Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and Sammy Sosa, three of the biggest home run hitters of the era, were all on the juice, and there is simply no telling how many others used and benefited from steroids.

In 1996, Brady Anderson, who had hit a total of 72 home runs in seven seasons, suddenly hit 50 in one season. Roger Maris season record of 61 home runs stood for nearly forty years, when, in 1998, both McGwire and Sosa topped that number, with McGwire finishing with 70, a mind-blowing new record that lasted all of three years, until Bonds topped that with 73 homers in 2001.

Home runs were everywhere, prodigious numbers of them, and everyone it seemed — the players, the fans, the press, and certainly Major League Baseball — was loving it. There were whispers of steroids, sure, but everyone was so drunk on the excitement, that the rumors, no matter how well they aligned with the bigger, more muscular bodies and the amazing, unprecedented increase in the number of home runs, never really gained any traction. Almost everyone, it seemed, was willing to look the other way.

Now, the league has called for an investigation into steroid abuse, and there is talk that any new records set during “the steroid era,” as it will be remembered, are tainted and should be marked with an asterisk, if not thrown out altogether.

Where it goes from here is anybody’s guess, and it is clear that Major League Baseball is engaging in some of the worst, face-saving, most self-serving hypocrisy in memory — where was this investigation in 1998, when McGwire and Sosa were smashing home runs every other game? It is only now, when the unpopular Bonds is on the verge of passing Ruth and breaking Aaron’s record, that baseball has suddenly taken an interest in cleaning up its act.

Like most everyone else who follows the game, I do not care much for Barry Bonds. He seems to epitomize and give credence to the stereotype of the spoiled, whining, multi-million dollar athlete. And the evidence continues to mount that he lied under oath and did, in fact, use steroids, as alleged.

Even so, Bonds remains the greatest player of his generation, and he should not be made a scapegoat for baseball’s steroid party. Indeed, he is a product of this culture — win at all costs, cut corners if you have to, take no prisoners, live for the moment, results are all that matters, any means to an end. I’ll take Bonds, and you can have Tom DeLay.

In 50 years, people will talk about Bonds. But they will still love Ruth and Aaron. Regardless of what penalty Major League Baseball metes out, that is his real punishment.

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