The public has spoken, and will likely go on speaking until all the aluminum bats that they don’t use in the major leagues have returned to molecular form. Opinions on the question of whether Barry Bonds cheated, and how much or how little it devalues the new MLB career home run record, are zinging this way and that like cosmic rays. If you’re out there wandering around in the media storm, it would be a good idea to lather yourself up with plenty of either total indifference or inside information, the yin and yang of hype protection.
I confess that I possess limited quantities of both. I don’t know Barry Bonds. Our degree of separation is two and holding, indefinitely. I have no cause for personal animosity. That would presume a familiarity, an intimacy, that I don’t have now and never will, no matter how many hours of bombastic sports talk radio I absorb. The finished product of celebrity gossip, the unquenchable need to know, is an undeserved opinion full of shaky facts and hot air, and my own world of concerns needs none of that. Neither do I have the time and the energy to mount my own thorough investigation of just what the devil’s been going on during baseball’s juiced era. (Though I will if someone cares to pay me what a typical sports talk radio host gets).
There is no doubt that resetting Hammerin’ Hank Aaron’s record is a marvelous achievement, even for a fellow accused of cheating to do it. To be anywhere within hailing distance of it at this point in a long career had already put Barry Bonds in a very small and select group of athletes with well-above-average skill. You can’t dump on that and say that the whiff of scandal obviates any recognition—the guy can flat out hit, and better than a very high percentage of major league baseball players, active or retired, living or dead, glowing in the dark or meditating like monks.
Bonds showed that even he was capable of an appreciative human response to the attainment of the record, but that won’t change anybody’s mind. Those who think he’s the greatest god baseball has yet seen have no fresh evidence to the contrary to have to consider. Those who are unable to merge their notions of the man’s essential character with the profile of a deserving hero—myself included—are inclined to point out that his public display after circling the bases was the minimum performance required for the occasion, and see it as just that—a performance. And so the asterisk that some observers are crying for just floats in the ether between the two camps, until such time that there is a legal imperative to attach it for good or erase it completely. In the meantime, for all of us stadium stuffers, a strong opinion and a buck sixty will buy us a tall cup of drip at the local Starbucks.
When Bonds was hovering near the record-setting knock, there was much speculation about what constituted an appropriate response. What would it mean if you did this, or didn’t say that? The connotations of every possible gesture were hyper-analyzed by a legion of hyper-analysts. Bud Selig’s behavior hadn’t been watched so closely since the first time he picked up a dinner check. Hank was hounded by the psychological elite, who parsed every ear scratch and cleared throat for weeks on end (he chose a generous and graceful set of remarks to both begin and end his commentary on the history being made). I wasn’t there and didn’t watch it on TV, which is a major statement in itself, I suppose. But as the replays tumbled over me later I remembered a swing Bonds took in game seven of the ‘02 series, where I was in attendance with my family, that sent a ball so quickly into the right field seats that I looked for a telltale puff of smoke at home plate. On that day I went with the quiet rise and the telling nod, my impromptu salute to a premium hitter at the apparent top of his game, though for a losing cause. That will be a large part of his legacy, that despite the stats, the towering individual performance, he never led a team to a championship, or left particularly large chunks of his heart behind in the cities where he played.
I wish I didn’t care, but I do. And in my sweat-stained, summery ruminations on the game I keep returning to a pair of questions. The first wonders what right I have to sit in judgment of anybody, never mind a Baseball Hall of Famer. And I’m confident in my answer: I played the game, well enough at times, and participated in a number of the very small dramas—performed on lesser fields and lots around the country and the world—that fuel the pastime from the roots up. Once I was gone from those dramas, I introduced my sons to them, and thus became a sustainer of the tradition of little kids plowing through their mistakes to get to the good stuff the game has to offer all of us. Whatever else you do in baseball, you keep coming back for more; empty bases or an oh-and-oh count demand the attempt to shake that blank state into something that can be retold. And there is honor in that dogged repetition. Every kid who has ever played with a ghost man on second observes it. It has something to do with leaving the game better than you found it.
The second question is this: when Bonds rises from his private warren in the Giants clubhouse and leaves the game for good, will there be the sweet ache of farewell to one who not only played to satisfy himself, but who also selflessly carried much more than his share of the load of our collective dreams and aspirations? Like Aaron, Cal Ripken, or even Bonds’s own godfather Willie Mays? The short answer for me is, disappointingly, no. I will only then begin to dissolve the image of the home run king sitting on a toilet and shooting up like a junkie. And for now, what I find most revealing about Barry Bonds’ 756th home run is that it landed in the stands in the middle of a case rather than at the end of a quest.