A couple of years back, a funny commercial ran all throughout baseball season. It featured Barry Bonds taking batting practice by himself, in a virtually empty San Francisco ballfield. Between every crack of the bat, you could hear a ghostly voice whisper over the PA system:
Barry…it’s time for you to go…it’s time for you to retire….
The joke at the end of the spot was that the voice was coming from none other than Hank Aaron, sending not-so-subliminal messages to Bonds from the press box.
Funny joke then.
Not too funny now.
Hank was right: Barry it’s time for you to go.
Like everything else I feel passionately about, I am not unbiased in this. And my feeling about Bonds are clearly connected to my feeling about two of the other great players of the modern era: the aforementioned Aaron; and Pete Rose.
I remember vividly the night that Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. In fact, it’s one of the most clear memories of my childhood. I remember watching the game on TV. My parents were out on a date, and we were home with a babysitter. I remember the immediate chill up my spine when Aaron hit it out. I went outside with my bat and ball, and fungoed up and down the front yard, envisioning that it was decades later, and I was surpassing Aaron. I remember every moment of that night. It meant so much to me that a few months later, I put up a full color poster of the scene on my bedroom wall…a poster that stayed up for the rest of my childhood.
I also remember the incredible public debate that had gone on during the entire off-season before. The debate was racially tinged. There were those who didn’t want a black man beating the record of the Great Bambino. There can be no denying that ugly side of the debate, as we look back through the lens of twenty-years. But then, there were those who simply didn’t want anyone to break Babe Ruth’s record…the sentimentalists among us I suppose. The point is, Aaron endured a lot, and sports historians are still writing about it. In fact, it really wasn’t until he wrote he autobiography a few years back that we all came to understand the pressure this man was under…the racism he had to endure. (Click the last link, and check out samples of the “hate mail” Aaron got in the boxes on the right side of the page…)
The tension was high during every game in late ’73 and early ’74. And when Aaron finally broke the record on April 8, 1974 (I know the date without having to look it up…) the one thing you could say about was that it was an historic moment. (Trivia: former Rangers pitching coach, Tom House, caught the ball on the fly, in the Braves’ dugout…just beyond the outfield wall…) That moment meant enough to me that when I visited Atlanta a few years back, I made a pilgrimage to the stadium. The Braves have built a new stadium, but the spot where homer 715 landed is still memorialized in the middle of the parking lot.
The truth is Aaron earned it. Aaron had journeyed from being one of the first African-Americans to break the color barrier, to becoming the greatest slugger of all time. He earned it by putting up with death threats and racial slurs. He earned each and every home run. And over the years, it seems to me, he’s earned the respect of every fan who ever loved the Babe. He continues to help the game (and the country) by advocating for African-Americans to be hired into baseball’s front offices. In short, folks see him as a living hero.
Will anybody ever feel that way about Barry Bonds?
No way. Frankly, the guy’s a genuine ass. He always has been. Like the television commercial, Barry Bonds is a lone guy, on a field by himself. Now, he’s more lonely than ever. He’s not a team player. He’s an individual performer. (The great ones are always both, IMHO) Dallas sportswriter, Skip Bayless, writes this column about just how big an ass he is. And now, we find that he’s probably been juiced beyond belief for much of these last eight years. And so, when I think of Bonds, I am reminded of another of my favorite players from my childhood: Pete Rose.
Lot’s of folks thought Rose was an ass too. But you could always say something about Pete Rose: he loved the game, he played hard, and he earned every single hit.
Rose played for my Dad’s hometown team. And every time we found ourselves visiting my grandparent’s house during the season, my Dad and I would take in a game. Got to see all the glory years of the “Big Red Machine,” arguably the best team of all time. (I will take that argument with anyone who’d care to get into it…) And of all those amazing players, Rose was, and still is, my all time favorite player. Rose, like Aaron, earned each and every hit. Many didn’t like him. Many who thought he was too brash…too cocky. Like Bonds, some thought him too full of himself. But Rose was passionate about baseball. He would talk to the media. No one could ever say he didn’t love the game. My grandmother stood in the freezing cold one time to get his autograph for me….it’s still on a shirt that’s still in my clothes drawer right now. Rose loved the game, loved the fans, loved Cincinnatti…loved baseball.
But Rose is banned now. Can’t say I disagreed with the ban when it came down. He out and out lied about his gambling addiction. And his rambling book of a few years back was both revealing in how much he confessed, and how much he’s still unwilling to fess up to. Personally? I think it’s time for him to be reinstated. He made some very heartfelt confessions in that book.
Look, I understand the concern about gambling, I really do. And I’m not trying to minimize its importance, I’m really not. But, like I said, the man played hard every inning. He earned every hit. I think it’s time for him to come back…but then, as I said, I’m not unbiased in this.
But the point is, whether I like it or not, he’s banned. Pete Rose is banned.
And if Rose –whose crimes never can be said to have affected his play– can be banned, then why shouldn’t Bonds be too? Bonds’ crimes clearly affected his performance. At a time of life when most men succumb to the forces of nature –losing testosterone, muscle, and strength– suddenly, almost overnight, Barry Bonds looked like a behemoth.
I mean, check out these pictures from early in his career and last year, and tell me that he’s not on the juice:
I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt before it was discovered that Raffi Palmiero was also lying about steroid use. (Say it ain’t so, Raff…say it ain’t so….You break my heart…) And so, to my way of thinking, if Raffi’s guilty this guy is DEFINITELY guilty. And if he’d never been on the juice, how many home runs would he really have? We’ll never know, but we can know this: unlike gambling, steroids are things that definitely enhance performance.
So, the Commissioner should suspend him immediately, before he plays another inning. He should suspend him for as long as it takes to do a full investigation. My hunch is that any full investigation will result in him being banned for life. So, if we know that’s probably coming, for the love of the game, why not suspend him now? With all the signs pointing toward rampant steriod abuse, by an unrepentant ass, why allow him to continue toward a goal he clearly hasn’t earned? Why even risk him passing Ruth?
Bottom line for me: If Pete can be banned for less, and if Aaron’s legacy of hard work and overcoming adversity means anything to anyone, then it’s time for Bonds to go.