Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Silent End of a Tainted Era in San Francisco

It did not have to end this way. Barry Bonds' 15 year career in San Francisco concluded without fanfare on Wednesday as he went 0-3 in the Giants' 11-3 loss to the San Diego Padres. There was no pre-game ceremony honoring Bonds, nor was he able to deliver one final, dramatic blast into McCovey Cove. This game, like most of what Bonds has done since he broke Hank Aaron's career home run record, proved to be simply an afterthought, just another loss for a last place team. It is as if the rest of the world is saying that we may have been compelled to watch Bonds as he marched inexorably past Aaron but now that this distasteful trek is over we will try to pretend that Bonds--and his tainted numbers--do not exist. The 43 year old Bonds is hobbled by a toe injury, so this was not only his last home game in San Francisco but likely his last game of this season. It may very well have been the final game of his career.

When Bonds arrived in San Francisco in 1993 he was already a two-time NL MVP and had shown the prized combination of skills that earn the designation "five tool player": he could hit for average, hit for power, run, throw and field his position. He was truly a native son returning home; his father, Bobby, had starred for the Giants, as had his godfather, the legendary Willie Mays. At that moment, the future seemed limitless for Bonds. In his first seven years in San Francisco, Bonds continued to be a very productive player, earning his third MVP (1993) and becoming the second player to have 40 home runs and 40 stolen bases in the same season (1996). By 1999, he had already blasted 445 home runs and stolen 460 bases in his career.

Those who say that prior to the so-called "Steroids Era" Bonds had clearly established himself as a Hall of Famer player are quite correct. So what? There is a mountain of evidence indicating that since that time Bonds has broken the law and thereby cheated his way past perhaps the most hallowed record in sports. What he could have or would have accomplished without using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) is a moot point. If you still believe that Bonds did not knowingly use PEDs and that such substances do not in fact enhance performance then you are either completely out of touch with reality or you are an economist (pardon me if that is redundant). Although an economist cannot fathom how increased muscle power could result in more home runs, a recent study by Tufts University physicist Roger Tobin not only explains why this is the case but also why PEDs would not provide nearly as a big a boost to pitchers, thereby invalidating the lame argument that Bonds' illegal drug use is somehow justified and his home run records legitimate because pitchers may also have been cheating. Tobin says, "A change of only a few percent in the average speed of the batted ball, which can reasonably be expected from steroid use, is enough to increase home run production by at least 50 percent." Tobin's research showed that a similar increase in a pitcher's strength would not have as dramatic of an impact on his effectiveness: "The unusual sensitivity of home run production to bat speed results in much more dramatic effects, and focuses attention disproportionately on the hitters."

Perhaps Bonds could have passed Aaron without cheating; perhaps Bonds had enough talent to honestly become the greatest baseball player of all-time--but just like Michael Vick's poor choices will preclude us from finding out if he could have truly revolutionized the quarterback position, Bonds' poor choices robbed him--and us--from knowing what he could have achieved by naturally honing his abundant talents. All we are left with are doubts, tainted numbers, a baseball with an asterisk on it and a silent swan song to a career that otherwise would have been honored as one of the most remarkable ones in sports history.

It did not have to end this way--and Barry Bonds has no one but himself to blame that it did.

No comments: