Wednesday, August 15, 2007

On Evil

In yesterday's post about Jeff Pearlman's mea culpa, I wondered whether he also planned to apologize for calling Barry Bonds "evil" in an interview with Deadspin's Will Leitch back in July. In response, Pearlman posted a comment asking why, exactly, he should offer Bonds an apology. I responded to him in an email. I feel it was a coherent enough email that it was worth rerunning here. What follows has been modified slightly to fit your TV set, but it's essentially what I wrote Pearlman.

I suppose an apology itself is not truly in order. Pearlman's comment about Bonds merely represents his opinion. While I noted that Pearlman's recantation of his May 18th piece about Torre was admirable, columnists, as a rule, probably shouldn't be in the business of issuing apologies left and right lest their opinions ultimately be dismissed out of hand.

And at least as far as writers who have called out Barry Bonds on his character go, Pearlman is probably the last one who needs to actually apologize inasmuch as he has done exhaustive research into the matter for his recent book, talking with no less than 500 folks about what it is that makes Bonds tick. If anyone is qualified to have an opinion on whether Bonds is truly evil, it's Pearlman.

Not that I agree with his assessment, however. When I read Pearlman's comments about Bonds' alleged malevolence, I asked myself two questions: (1) is Barry Bonds truly "evil" in a way that makes sense given the definition of that term?; and (2) even if we suspect that he is, does calling Bonds evil add anything to the discussion? I say no to both questions. Further, I believe that even if you think he's the worst thing to happen to baseball since the Black Sox scandal, calling Barry Bonds evil actually works against the interests of those who purport to care about steroids in baseball.

While I'll grant it's a subjective definition of the term, I am one of those people who is inclined to reserve concepts like "evil" for those who are truly evil in the Hitler/Pol Pot/Al Qaeda/child molester sense of the term, as opposed to unleashing it on simple assholes. In my mind, those who are evil -- and they are thankfully rare -- not only do truly heinous things, but do so knowing just how heinous their acts are. Moreover, they simply don't care, either because they are psychotic or because they place their own particular values and goals above the lives and well-being of others.

I am hard-pressed to describe others -- your garden variety criminals, your drug users, your particularly odious politicians, and that neighbor who won't mow his lawn -- as evil. They may be stupid or ignorant. They may be misguided. They may even be sociopaths, but at some point they are making a judgment, however wrongheaded, that they are doing the right thing for either narrow self-interest or for the wider good. There's an absence of true cold blood inherent in their acts or, at the very least, an element of desperate calculation that compels them to exploit incentives and opportunities that suit their own needs in ways in which harm to others is a byproduct rather than the motivation.

Which brings us back to Bonds. Having read Pearlman's book and countless thousands of other words written about Barry Lamar, I can say there hasn't been a more off-putting man in baseball since the open-and-obvious racists went underground. I think he's generally full of shit. I believe that anyone who has examined the matter in any amount of detail is living in a profound state of denial if they continue to maintain that Bonds didn't use steroids or if, at the very least, they spend all of their time reciting the "there's no proof" mantra. I'm a trial lawyer by trade, and I know first hand that there is rarely 100% proof of anything. But there does come a time, however, when doubts about something cease to be truly reasonable. As the record currently stands, it is almost certain that Bonds broke rules and Bonds broke laws. And, as I said before, Bonds is also a jerk. But none of that makes him evil, even under a more lenient definition of the term than that to which I subscribe.

But if he is a rule breaker and a general nogoodnik, why do I still defend the guy from the attacks of others on occasion? Certainly not for his sake. He is what he is, and doesn't need little old Shyster to protect him (he has others to do that for him). No, I defend him -- or more to the point, criticize his critics -- in an effort to defend intelligent discourse about performance enhancing drugs in baseball.

While I think most of what has been written on the matter constitutes baseless hysteria, I still think that steroids in baseball are an enormously troubling thing, far more so with respect to their negative impact on players' health and the example that their use sets for up-and-coming players as well as kids. These are things that need greater discussion, not less, as almost all of the discussion to this point has been about things like records and the "integrity of the game," which I believe to be nothing more than red herrings. When we spend the vast majority of our effort discussing steroids only as they relate to Barry Bonds and, even worse, attributing them to his "evil" nature, however, we effectively cut off all intelligent discussion about it. The presence of a scapegoat -- even if he is guilty of his own offenses -- tends to prevent us from looking for further wrongdoers. The attribution of conduct to "evil" tends to prevent us from looking for real causes, motivations, and consequences of steroids in baseball. Saying that something or someone is "evil" forecloses further investigation because evil is and always will be inexplicable. What's more to say?

Bonds' actions, on the other hand, as well as the actions of others who have taken performance enhancing drugs, are totally explainable, even if inexcusable, without reference to evil. There were incentives in place that were not unique to Barry Bonds, and there were hordes of people looking the other way -- myself included -- who tacitly or explicitly allowed him and countless others to use PEDs. What's more, there remain consequences of Bonds' steroids use and the use of others that have yet to be addressed and that will persist even after Barry Bonds retires. When we simply chalk it all up to one man's evil, however, we risk forever putting off that discussion.

Ironically, then, the end result of the demonization of Barry Bonds is the trivialization of the very thing -- steroids -- that so many believe make him such a demon in the first place.

7 comments:

Osmodious said...

First off, let me just say that I applaud your efforts to 'increase the level of discourse' about steroids. I fear that attempting productive debate is a lost cause in this nation of talking heads yelling at each other these days, but am always encouraged by those like you who endeavor to do so anyway.

My main point, though, is to play devil's advocate on your discussion of what constitutes true 'evil'. I'm not going to argue that Bonds is evil, I don't really think he is (though he HAS had an evil IMPACT on the game, in my view)...as you say, he's just an a-hole (and the fact that everyone keeps giving this guy what he craves, attention, just galls me).

Anyway, you state "I am one of those people who is inclined to reserve concepts like "evil" for those who are truly evil in the Hitler/Pol Pot/Al Qaeda/child molester sense of the term" but then proceed, in the next paragraph, to say "They may be stupid or ignorant. They may be misguided. They may even be sociopaths, but at some point they are making a judgment, however wrongheaded, that they are doing the right thing for either narrow self-interest or for the wider good. There's an absence of true cold blood inherent in their acts or, at the very least, an element of desperate calculation that compels them to exploit incentives and opportunities that suit their own needs in ways in which harm to others is a byproduct rather than the motivation."

What you are saying is that it is not evil to do 'evil things' as a means to an end, whereas it IS evil to have those means as your goal. Doing wrong just to do wrong, in other words. I think that if you look at your second statement with a critical eye, you can apply it to two of your four examples...by giving them the 'out' of 'belief that they are doing right', you allow the excuse to cover Hitler and Al Qaeda and countless others who have done very, very bad things.

OK, I'll stop. I could go on, of course, as the debate over what constitutes evil is a fascinating one, especially when you attempt to take subjective notions of morality/ethics/etc. out of it. Suffice to say, one *could* make the argument that the negative IMPACT a person has in their life can be a measurement of evil...and, as such, you could make the argument about Bonds.
CD

Diesel said...

Shyster,

I really, really used to like Jeff Pearlman. I actually still do, though now that he doesn't write that many features, there's not much to like. I think it's fair to say that his talent doesn't rest in the opinion-offering realm, if for no other reason than he's set his own bar too high, so his columns always come off as a little undercooked. Or maybe overcooked; not sure here.

Joe Torre is, probably, a bad manager who routinely shows his inability to manage a bullpen or a bench. Barry Bonds is perhaps the most perfect villain in baseball history. Pearlman wasn't wrong so much as he wasn't willing to stop while he was still on solid ground (yes, I realize the Bonds flap was from the Deadspin interview, not a proper column).

He's a solid dude, though, for asking for your input. Very cool. Do the poor guy a favor, though, and take down his e-mail address before some bot comes along and hammers his inbox with dick cream ads.

Take care,

Diesel

Shyster said...

Diesel,

I think I agree with you regarding Pearlman's comfort level with opinion writing. His piece on ESPN.com the other day admitted as much. He didn't say it there or in our email piece, but I think that ESPN probably pushes their contributors to be extra-provocative, and some people are more comfortable than others about that.

Good call about taking his email down, but he appends it to his columns at ESPN and comments he makes in other people's blogs too. So Jeff: if you get V!@gr4 solicitations, it ain't me dude.

Osmodious: good point about the interplay between motivation and evil. I don't think I have the space (or expertise, frankly) to give it total justice, but I'm still comfortable in saying that even if you measure Bonds' impact on others, I still don't think he rises to evil. Obviously this is a discussion better suited to a more relaxed forum, however . . .

Osmodious said...

"better suited to a more relaxed forum"...What could be more relaxing than a nice little chat about baseball? I mean, it's not like people take sports too seriously and start to rant and rave about...oh, right...sorry.

OK, I recognize that the various debates about Bonds could go on ad infinitum, and you indicate you don't want to pursue this particular conversation further, but, well, I DO want to say one thing about Bonds' impact: I really do think he's had an evil impact, and I think most of the writers who have decried his actions do as well, even if they haven't quite labeled it as 'evil', per se.

Baseball is a truly wonderful game. I know I don't need to convince anyone reading your blog of this, nor you. I was away from the game for years, and am almost glad I was because I got the rare chance to re-discover it and explore it in a way I never would have as a youngster. The depth, breadth, games-within-the-game, strategy, tactics, watching players like Jeter (who measures EVERYthing going on on that field every second of every game), history, statistics, arguments...all of it...is just not even approached in any other sport or game.

Yes, Bonds alleged abuse of PED's is a cheat, and he has disillusioned many people. But even more than that, he's had an incalculable impact on those who have yet to discover the depth of this game. Casual fans come and go, whether due to success (or lack thereof) of their team or their attraction to a particular player. But many who start off as casual fans become deep fans, fans of the GAME itself.

How many of those will abandon the game because of this fiasco? How many will never even get to that depth of enthusiasm because of this? How many kids will never discover the joys (and oh such sweet sorrows) it's the privelege of every deep fan of the game to enjoy, whether because their families no longer partake (i.e. no more "my dad took me to see the xxxx when I was 8"), or because they only know of it as a 'tainted' game?

As has been discussed (endlessly) elsewhere, Bonds has nearly destroyed a once great team, abused and neglected the fans who ultimately pay his exorbitant salary, befouled the traditions of the game, screwed his union 'brothers', cast a bad light on all other power-hitters, etc. Some of these things (and others mentioned elsewhere) might be termed 'crimes'. One could make the argument, though, that what he has done to the legacy of the game for those that love and follow it deeply, is more than a crime...it's evil.

64cardinals said...

Uhh, the only true evil in baseball was Chris Chambliss hitting a homerun in the bottom of the ninth to keep the Royals out of the series in '76.

Shyster said...

osodious: I didn't mean to imply that I didn't want to discuss it. I was simply referring to the isolated philosophical point about what, in the abstract, constitutes evil. As for your comments:

"But even more than that, he's had an incalculable impact on those who have yet to discover the depth of this game . . .How many of those will abandon the game because of this fiasco? "

My response to this is to ask why we lay "this fiasco" at Bonds' feet? The extent to which the story of Bonds and steroids is negatively impacting fans' love of the game is a function of the excessive amount of hysteria over Bonds' use. According to Game of Shadows, Bonds use was a reaction to the use of McGwire and (allegedly) Sosa, and was motivated by jealousy over them getting the spotlight. Their use was predated by Canseco and others. If anything, most evidence in the record shows Barry to be a late, albeit prolific, adopter. Does that make him wrong? Sure. Does that make him evil? I don't think so. That makes him a man who is subject to the same motivations and competitive pressures as anyone else, however misguided he was in perceiving them (i.e. no one suggested that Bonds wasn't among the best in the game pre-1998).

"As has been discussed (endlessly) elsewhere, Bonds has nearly destroyed a once great team"

I beg to differ. For several years he has been the only reason why Pete Magowan has been able to make his mortgage payments on AT&T Park. While the Giants have gone out of their way to sign over the hill players and put off rebuilding for far too long, the blame for that lies at Brian Sabean's feet, not Bonds'. And that's true even if Bonds is the one exerting pressure to sign aging vets because ultimately, that's Sabean's call.

"abused and neglected the fans who ultimately pay his exorbitant salary,"

Yes, he's a jerk, but if recent crowds and response are any indication, Barry remains well-loved in San Francisco, even if that love is, in my opinion, misguided.

"befouled the traditions of the game,"

What traditions has he befouled? If it's the tradition of players being nice, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Maury Wills, Denny McClain, Dave Kingman, and Jeff Kent, among hundreds of others, need to be included in that indictment. If it's the traditions of following the rules, add Gaylord Perry and any player who has ever corked a bat, blocked the plate without the ball, stole a sign or erased the back line of the batters' box. If it's a tradition about taking drugs, include Mantle and his booze and greenies and Tim Raines and his cocaine.

"screwed his union 'brothers',"

Again, in what way? If you're referring to the onset of the testing regime against the union's will, note that was approved over a year before BALCO broke and had way more to do with Jose Canseco's book and Ken Caminiti's comments than anything Barry was known to have done at the time. Anything else he's done to screw his union brothers is a mystery to me.

"cast a bad light on all other power-hitters, etc."

Again, is that his fault, and if it is, is it his alone? Why does Barry get all of the blame for this stuff instead of being seen as one of many involved in it. It's not enough to say that it's because he's the highest profile player or because he's gotten all of the press. Barry can't control that, and thus it shouldn’t' count in his "evil" tally.

You use the word "crimes." Barry is alleged to have committed two that I know of. First, using illegal substances, and second, perjuring himself. I suspect that he's guilty of both of those things, but that doesn't make him guilty of destroying or illlegitimizing the game. If anything, TV ratings and attendance figures show that the game is more popular than ever. Despite the rantings and ravings of so many, I don't think the "steroids era" as a whole, for lack of a better term, has destroyed the game either any more than other shifts in playing conditions have. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but no one has yet to provide any evidence proving that it has.

But no matter what you think about those things, I don't think it adds up to Barry being evil.

Osmodious said...

OK, well, I appear to have made the cardinal mistake in debate...I let myself get (a little) emotional. That always clouds one's argument. In my defense, I will say that it has been a long time since I've actually HAD a debate, so I'm rusty!

"My response to this is to ask why we lay "this fiasco" at Bonds' feet?"
Well, I agree with your points that he is hardly to blame for the entire steroid mess...I was talking about the fans that he PERSONALLY has driven from the game. Yes, there have been those who abandoned due to the others, but he is such an odious figure that many people are turning away. Can I quantify this? Not really, not without a lot of effort I can't expend and skills I don't have. It's not just the steroid use that drives people away, it's...it's...it's because he is abusive, dismissive, superior, ignorant and just a bad person (good people don't threaten to kill their mistresses...and most probably don't HAVE mistresses).

"the blame for that lies at Brian Sabean's feet, not Bonds'."
Agreed. However, I think he has more influence than you give him credit for...he has influence over the fans, who can be manipulated through the press. And his obnoxious nature and petulance probably makes it tough to not give in to whatever he wants, but just like with a baby, it's up to the 'grown ups' to say, "No!"

"Yes, he's a jerk, but if recent crowds and response are any indication, Barry remains well-loved in San Francisco, even if that love is, in my opinion, misguided."
What else do they have to cheer for? Seriously. He has molded this team so that he is the focus of attention and so that the fans have NOTHING BUT HIM for which to cheer. And even if that were not the case, you cheer for your guy when he does something big. But you still feel cheated when he makes ridiculous statements in the press, and when he is instrumental in making your team perennial losers.

"What traditions has he befouled?"
Ah, well, here is where we enter the realm of the mystical. Yes, your points are all valid, but has there ever been a player who combined ALL of the 'bad' traits you mention? Lack of respect for the game and its history, PED or just plain substance abuse, being a big jerk, cheating...all of it rolled up into one guy. We can forgive the ONE big failing of the greats (wasn't Ted Williams a jerk, too?), but not the whole schmear. As you've probably guessed, his profound lack of respect (for the game and for anyone, anywhere) is the thing that bugs me most.

"Anything else he's done to screw his union brothers is a mystery to me."
I'm not entirely clear on all of the facts on this, but it is my understanding that he removed himself from the collective agreement, especially regarding merchandising. He does not contribute to the pool, and pretty much only deals with MacFarlane toys. And it's not the other big contract guys who get screwed when a big contract guy does this kind of thing...it's the little guy who is a journeyman making league minimum.

"It's not enough to say that it's because he's the highest profile player or because he's gotten all of the press. Barry can't control that, and thus it shouldn’t' count in his "evil" tally."
Gotta disagree with you there, he has ALWAYS had control over how the media treats him. How often do you read negative stories about Derek Jeter? ARod used to get his share, but don't you think it has improved this year with his own change in attitude toward the media? Yes, there are 'bad seeds' in the media, who will print stories for the sake of stories. But most writers respect the players, and treat the ones who respect them back fairly. Bonds has been a nogoodnik for his entire career, so why should they sugarcoat anything? Why SHOULDN'T they 'attack' him? They didn't CREATE the stories about him, they only wrote them...HE did the things, he was the jerk, he created his own bad press.

Now, your point about him not being the only power hitter to create the questions in fans' minds is absolutely right...but, and this might be a failing in US, we didn't really apply the McGwire/Sosa/Giambi label to ALL power hitters. It wasn't until Big Head Bonds and the Monster (that would be #73) when people really said, "Hey, wait a minute!" Again, our failing for not noticing earlier, but the other abusers weren't so egregious so we have an eensy excuse.

"You use the word "crimes." Barry is alleged to have committed two that I know of."
Well, I put the single quote around it because I didn't mean it in the literal, *legal* sense. I guess I think of his actions as crimes against baseball, or against us the fans. But, yes, his only true crimes are yet to be proved, though it appears pretty obvious what the 'consensus verdict' is.

"but that doesn't make him guilty of destroying or illlegitimizing the game. If anything, TV ratings and attendance figures show that the game is more popular than ever."
Perhaps, but the game is changing. Yes, it's ALWAYS been 'commercialized' and such, but it is just...different. Doesn't it feel different to you? The WAY it is covered, the types of questions asked (good article on espn about that today), the emphasis on money rather than any other aspect, etc.

"Despite the rantings and ravings of so many, I don't think the "steroids era" as a whole, for lack of a better term, has destroyed the game either any more than other shifts in playing conditions have. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but no one has yet to provide any evidence proving that it has."
Well, that's very similar to the argument my dad has made about the Bush administration not destroying America...it will always 'bounce back'. Baseball is a strong game, it WILL generally bounce back. But we lose a little something each time. There's always going to be bad, and the more 'good' a thing is, the more the bad will stand out. I agree, this era won't kill baseball...heck, I don't even think it's as terrible as most people seem to...it's just another era. But the glorification of those that are SO wrong can cause harm, give people the wrong ideas about how to do things, drive people away, etc.

"But no matter what you think about those things, I don't think it adds up to Barry being evil."
Well, no, it really doesn't. Then again, evil is in the eye of the person who has had evil done to him. The argument can be made on semantics for, well, forever. The bottom line is that Barry Bonds' impact to the planet and the well-being of the inhabitants of said planet is probably minimal. So he's probably not evil, really.

But, damn, does he provide some great fodder for discourse and debate!