Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Taking Stock of Barry Bonds

Thanks to a late surge in fan balloting, Barry Bonds will be one of the National League's starting outfielders in the July 10 All-Star Game, becoming the oldest starter in MLB All-Star history. Many pundits are upset about this, either because they believe that other NL outfielders have put up better numbers than Bonds has or because they believe that Bonds should be ostracized for his alleged use of performance enhancing drugs. The first argument does not carry much weight; in any year and in any sports league it is always possible to speak of certain players being "snubbed" in All-Star voting but Bonds is hardly going to this year's game as a charity case: he leads the National League in walks and on base percentage--and by a wide margin in both categories--ranks second in slugging percentage, is tied for eighth in home runs and is batting over .300. Bonds leads the major leagues in OPS (on base average+slugging percentage), which baseball statheads consider to be a highly important measure of a hitter's overall effectiveness; he also tops the major leagues in intentional walks, a strong indication that he is still the most feared hitter in all of baseball. You may think that Barry Bonds is the devil but you have to give him his due: he is about to turn 43 years old and is still an amazing hitter. Another thing to consider is that this year's All-Star Game is being held in San Francisco, where Bonds has played for 15 seasons. This may be the last year of his career, so even if he were just a marginal All-Star candidate there is certainly justification for letting him have an All-Star curtain call at his home park. Any other player with Bonds' 2007 numbers and rich history in San Francisco would be a lock to make the All-Star team.

What about the second argument, that Bonds does not deserve to be an All-Star because of his alleged steroids use? After all, leaked grand jury testimony indicates that Bonds used steroids (he supposedly claimed that he did so unknowingly) and he may yet face perjury charges for previously testifying otherwise under oath. There is not yet a smoking gun (Bonds has never failed a drug test) but I believe that he did knowingly take steroids and/or other performance enhancing drugs, that this drug use played a role in his increased power production--and that he should nevertheless be a 2007 All-Star. The reason why is simple: Major League Baseball--and Commissioner Bud Selig in particular--deserve for this to happen, with all of the awkwardness that comes with it. I don't know what Selig knew or when he knew it regarding steroid usage in his sport but he should have known early on and done a lot more than he did to nip it in the bud (no pun intended). Instead, Selig did the old "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" routine as players' heads, bodies and home run totals exploded to cartoonish proportions.

Selig is like the "good" Captain Kirk from the Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within"; for those of you who aren't "Trekkers," in that episode a transporter malfunction splits Captain Kirk into two Kirks, one who is "good" and one who is "evil." What we find out is that the "good" Kirk lacks the backbone to make tough command decisions: he sees all sides of every issue and does not want to risk offending or harming anyone. Meanwhile, "bad" Kirk runs around the ship drinking, chasing women and basically just doing whatever he wants, unfettered by any conscience whatsoever. The message is that a great leader must not only be kind and compassionate but also strong-willed and decisive; Kirk needed his "good" and "bad" sides in order to command the ship effectively. There is no doubt that Commissioner Selig loves baseball and wants to do what is best for the game--but the defining image of his reign will always be the infamous 2002 All-Star Game, which ended in a tie when both teams ran out of pitchers and Selig literally threw his hands in the air as if to say, "What am I supposed to do?" You think NBA Commissioner David Stern might have come up with something better and more decisive than that? You can bet your life on it.

Selig's handling of the "steroids era" has been no different: throwing his hands in the air (or burying his head in the sand, if you prefer that analogy) and doing nothing. Now his worst nightmare (short of another labor stoppage) is coming to life: virtually everyone believes that Barry Bonds has cheated and Bonds is about to break perhaps the most hallowed record in all of sports, the career home run record that has been held for three decades by Hank Aaron, a man of exemplary character and dignity--a man who also happens to be Selig's friend. When "recreational" drug use (mainly cocaine) tarnished the image of the NBA in the 1980s, Stern spearheaded a policy that provided help for players who voluntarily turned themselves in while dealing out lifetime bans to repeat offenders who could not get their acts together. He also enacted rules that have curbed fighting and basically ended bench clearing brawls and he has not hesitated to enforce these rules even when they affected the league's top players; star centers Patrick Ewing and Amare Stoudemire had to sit out playoff games a decade apart for leaving the bench area during an altercation. Maybe you like those rules and maybe you don't but Stern lays down the law and enforces it without regard to a player's status. He would not have sat idly by if players were using illegal substances to transform their bodies and rewrite the NBA's record book.

Commissioner Selig should have a front row seat when Bonds plays in next week's All-Star Game--and once Bonds gets closer to Aaron's all-time home run mark he should drop whatever he is doing, hop on a plane and follow Bonds around the country until Bonds breaks the record. After all, in many ways, Selig is as responsible for this travesty as Bonds is.

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