Friday, July 27, 2007

Barry's Genes

Bonds reminds everyone of his bloodlines. Spin? Sure. But unlike a lot of what comes out of Barry's mouth, it isn't b.s. He's a thoroughbred, and as many have noted, would have been a Hall of Fame ballplayer even if he had limited himself to extra strength Tylenol and cod liver oil.

Which, I often think, contributes to the furor more than the idea that he's cheating, more than his awful personality, and more than his race. There is a limit, I think, to how much outrage one can feel about a Rafael Palmiero or even Mark McGwire. While we don't know the specifics or extent of their use of performance enhancing drugs, we can more easily construct for ourselves a plausible motivation behind their use. Palmiero was a good-average, low-power first baseman that may have felt the need to ratchet his game up in order to become a true star. McGwire had the tools to become a star but a body that had come to betray him, and maybe he took steroids to remedy that. There are similar stories that can be constructed for almost every other steroid suspect out there. We have no idea if these scenarios are even true, but they are plausible, and the mind tends to be satisfied to rest on plausibility. We let them have it and then write them off.

Even after the home run race and his career is over, we will still be talking about Barry Bonds because he is much harder to comprehend. He was always healthy. He had already won three MVP awards and was likely jobbed out of a couple others. There was no dispute that he was among the best if not the best in the game, and there was no serious dispute that he was heading for the Hall of Fame. While history has shown that, yes, there was a higher level to which he could raise his performance -- a Ruthian one -- it wasn't a level anyone at the time really considered reachable in the modern game. Simply put, no one in the mid 90s was making an argument that Barry was somehow a second tier star.

A decade later and we find ourselves unable to talk about baseball for more than a few moments without talking about Barry Bonds. Yes, his pursuit of the home run record is the primary catalyst for this extended conversation, but I also believe that the record aside, we'd still be chewing the Barry Bonds fat. While we've read that Bonds felt he was being overshadowed by McGwire and Sosa, that motivation just isn't comprehensible to most people and thus a dissonance remains. Even in sports, where we laud one's motivation to excel more than we do in any other arena of human endeavor, there comes a point where even that motive ceases to be plausible or at least understandable. We can accept intellectually the idea that Bonds was so competitive or egocentric that he had to be even better than he was before, but we can't get comfortable with it emotionally.

So we subconsciously ascribe more malevolent motivations. He's evil. He's a cheater. He wants to destroy the game. He wants to defile its records and history. He wants to show up whitey. You name it, and someone has written it. Bonds -- who doesn't strike me as a mental giant -- has even seemed to buy into many of these tropes himself on occasion, and no doubt his famously off-putting personality has enabled this line of reasoning to run rampant.

While no one has ever accused Barry Bonds of being deep, he is complicated, and that complication, more than the steroids themselves, more than the records he's breaking, and more than the polarizing nature of who he is and what he represents, is why we simply can't stop talking about him.

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