Thursday, March 16, 2006

It's Not Me, It's You

I feel sorry for Barry Bonds. The baseball fan in me is repulsed by him, but the human side of me is sad for him. This is the beautiful, bright, extraordinarily gifted man who hit, scrapped, dove and ran through my childhood in a Pittsburgh uniform and is now transformed into a crippled, unrecognizable monster who will, at best, stumble through the final months of his magnificent career. Whatever drove him to do steroids -– jealousy or greed or some kind of incomprehensible inferiority complex – was a combination of weaknesses to which we are all prone, and while I cannot accept his giving into his weaknesses rather than trying to overcome them, I know that he will suffer punishment enough on his own.

Within a matter of years, chances are good that Barry Bonds will not be able to do any number of the things that many of us consider to be the most important in life. He very well may not be able to pick up his grandkids, walk, have sex, or hit a baseball. Perhaps he believes that a few years of glory and riches and a few words in a record book are a worthy price to pay for the way he will spend the rest of his life, shunned and in pain. If that’s the case, it’s just another reason for me to feel sorry for him.

I feel sorry for Major League Baseball. They have a mess on their hands, and they are almost as much to blame for it as all the steroid users themselves. This is an organization that began with as many stars in its eyes as Barry Bonds did. It’s run by a bunch of men in suits who either weren’t good enough to play the game they loved or couldn’t face a career in law or business dealing with things that didn’t interest them. They wanted to believe in the best aspects of their game. And they screwed themselves and the rest of us by turning a blind eye to the controversy for too long. Now they are stuck in a situation with hundreds of questions, thousands of pages of legal documents, millions of confused Americans and exactly zero answers. As a baseball fan, I demand that they find a way to straighten this out; as a human being, I don’t envy their task.

But I do not feel sorry for the rest of you.

My heart is covered in band-aids to stop the bleeding. Good God, how I have wanted this to somehow be okay. I’ve looked for the loopholes in the rulebooks, and I have found them. I have berated people for singling out Bonds as an egoist and an African-American, because these people exist. I’ve listened attentively, if skeptically, to arguments regarding the validity of the very records that Bonds is threatening to break, and they’re smart arguments. And I am now properly exhausted.

I’ve made more cases for defense than Sam Waterston has faced in a decade on NBC; I’ve discovered ways to slip through so many loopholes that I could probably partner with a sewing needle to affix a button. And I’ve had it. Because in the end, it doesn’t matter. Barry Bonds cheated. So did Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Jason Giambi and a great number of other men whom many of us have loved. Whether they broke the records, whether they broke the law, and whether they belong in the Hall of Fame are not concerns of mine. I’m not a professional statistician or an attorney or a member of the Writers' Association. I am a baseball lover, and they did not play baseball by the rules. I am now officially, at long last, kicking them off my team, and I am angry at all of you on my team of baseball lovers who are still making excuses for them to stay.

There are those of you who believe that Barry Bonds has not taken steroids. There aren’t many of you left, but the fact that there are any of you at all baffles me speechless. The evidence that has been presented at this point is staggering. Piece by piece, perhaps, it could be attributed to bad luck or character slander. But altogether, the records, the testimony, and the documenation leave no doubt. Point 1: Barry Bonds took steroids. Point 2: Barry Bonds exploded from an excellent, complete baseball player into a power-hitting aberration at a time when his career should have, by most standards, been slowing down, and in this time he happened to break the single-season home run record. Point 2 is directly dependent on Point 1. He has had the smarts or the good fortune never to be caught with the drugs in his system at the moments when he’s been handed a paper cup. If that’s your beef, you’ve got a good one. Walk it over to the courthouse and throw it into that debate, though you probably won’t be needed, because his lawyers are going to do a bang-up job there if it comes to that anyway. I live out here in the real world, where I have the luxury of trying Barry Bonds based on unencumbered logic. I’ve looked at the pictures on the baseball cards and I’ve read the Sports Illustrated article. My job is done. He took steroids, and if you want to keep claiming he didn’t, then I’m through with you.

There are those of you who want talk about the greater issue of steroids’ hazy place in the game of baseball. I’ve had a lot of beers with you, and I’ve enjoyed it. You tend to put forth unique and well-researched arguments, and while we’ve come to fisticuffs at times, I appreciate the thought that you’ve put into them. We’ve talked about some of the legal things that athletes do to improve their performance and the advances that have been made in the game.

We’ve talked about the reality of a skinny 17-year-old prospect from Puerto Rico who’s willing to do anything, anything, to make the big leagues over his privileged, cut competitors. I am a supporter of athletes pushing to find ways to improve themselves and the game; I have tried to reconcile this with the issue of steroids in baseball, and at times I have briefly succeeded. But I can’t do it anymore. So much crap has gathered in front of me that I have been forced to step back and look at the situation with the most simplistic logic that I possess, and this logic tells me that steroids are bad for the game in every way. Sport exists as a way for human beings to take their bodies to the highest and healthiest limits possible and as a way to merge individual talents into a common goal of winning a fair and honest competition. Steroids work in direct opposition to both of these goals. I’m glad that you smart people are out there and I wish you luck in your work as scientists or historians. But I’m not watching baseball games with you anymore.

And then there are those of you who want to talk about memories. Until recently, you have been the toughest for me. You know how to hit me where it hurts, because you know that I am a sap and that my most treasured images of baseball are so drenched in sentimentality that I can’t even see them clearly through my tears.

You tell me about how you met your wife on Waveland Avenue on one of the late summer days of 1998, your eyes breaking contact only when the smiling Dominican’s 55th – or was it 56th? – sailed over your heads into a throng of screaming people with battered gloves over their hands. You tell me about how you kept a logbook of what happened to all the nondescript baseballs that took on new life as record-breaking home runs over the last eight years, and how that marbled notebook replants your faith in humanity at times when the world tries to shake it loose, because all of those baseballs are worth millions of dollars and nearly all of them were given back to the sport. You tell me about how you took your son out of school for two weeks to drive him from Indiana to San Francisco in the fall of 2001, because you thought that he would never be able to learn this much about history in a classroom. Maybe there’s no heart-wrenching story surrounding your memory: maybe you simply happened to be in the ballpark that day, having coughed up a couple hundred bucks just to sit there and watch it. Don’t take that away from me, you plead, with the anger and the hurt and the desperation breaking your voice apart.

I’m through with you.

You think that your memories are somehow devalued because the circumstances that brought them about are fraudulent. You are wrong. Your memories are priceless because of the meaning they have taken on in your life, because of the meaning you have given them. You in the ballpark that day, you may have seen a bogus hit, but the joy you took in seeing it was real. You still met your wife. You still know that those baseballs were returned. You still took an impetuous roadtrip with your son. He may have fallen in love with Barry Bonds at that game in San Francisco, the day the slugger hit two home runs out of the park. Your kid will never forget it.

But I’ve got some good news for you. Barry Bonds didn’t give that moment to your son. You did. And when you got home, bless you, the two of you headed out to the backyard to share one of the greatest experiences that an American dad can share with his son: a game of catch. You hope that your son will love baseball as much as you do, that the steroid mess hasn’t scared him away forever. You hope that he will perform the same ritual with his son 30 years from now. First day out, four years old, it’s the most basic throwing and swinging. A year or two later, maybe he’ll draw a diagram of the strike zone for your grandson, just the way you did for him. A couple of years past this and the kid’s ready to grasp the infield fly rule. He will probably love the game by this point, and he’s growing, with all the physical and mental tools he needs to be an athlete falling into place just fine. A few years after that, then, it’s time to bring him his tray of needles and pills and creams and give him the lessons about which ones will help him hit harder, which ones will help him run faster, which ones will make his face break out and turn the girls away, which ones may give him cancer in 40 years, but it won’t matter because they’ll probably have a cure by then, and in the meantime he’s going to be a great ballplayer.

Was this part of your dream? Was this what you had hoped your memories would become? If you tell me no, but still cling to the two home runs you saw with your son as the tie that binds two baseball fans together, then your logic is faulty. To accept Barry Bonds’s accomplishments as they stand is to accept the steroids that made them happen. To argue that he should stay in the game because of the things he gave you in the past is to permit them to continue happening in the future. If that’s what you want, I don’t feel sorry for you. And don’t you dare try to tell me that I’m one of you just because I’m still a baseball fan. People go to games to see the long ball, you tell me.

And you ask me why I keep going to the ballpark if I feel so strongly that steroids are wrong when it’s clear that they’re running rampant through the sport. My friend, all I can say is that you’re so turned around that you’re seeing the issue backwards. If there are people who are there only to see the homers, then they’re not there for the same reasons that I am. I’m there to watch the game of baseball. You can fuss over attendance records all you want. You don’t have to. Baseball is too great a sport, and its fans love it too deeply, for it not to survive if it’s given the chance to be played based on the original premises on which it was so perfectly designed.

So stop worrying about your memories and stop worrying about the fans. They are both hearty enough to survive. Don’t even worry about the record books or the Hall of Fame; they’re not as important as you think they are. Baseball as a game is bigger than a record and it’s bigger than even its most bulked-up superstar. Start worrying about the fact that the 2025 reunion of great baseball stars from the late 20th century is going to look like an aging freakshow. Start fretting over the fact that the words “fair competition” in your kids’ minds will encompass hard work, leadership, the clear and the cream. And most of all, start laying into all of your fellow morons who are taking the battle against steroids as a personal slight on their family scrapbooks. They’re my memories, they scream, and you’re not going to take them away from me. If that’s the way you want it, fine. Baseball is my game and I’m not going to let you take it away from me. I see the sport that matters to all of you, the one in which the players knock thousands of baseballs out of the park but can’t hit a wiffle ball off their six-year-old kids after they retire; the one in which time outs are used to comb through legal documents; the one in which prescriptions are filled at the concession stand during the seventh-inning stretch. Get off the field and go find your own pastime. We have a game to play over here.

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