October 5, 2001

What It All Really Means

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Sometimes when you’re really struggling to find an idea for a column, God strikes you with inspiration. Last night, God’s name was Barry Bonds.

For the second time in the history of baseball, a man has hit 70 home runs in a season. I am fortunate enough to have lived in a time when I saw both men reach this seemingly insurmountable plateau amongst unparalleled media frenzy.

But Barry Bonds’s ascension to this new baseball Nirvana — the land of 70 home runs — is not something to be taken for granted. Simply having seen the feat before, when Mark McGwire did it in 1998, makes it no less breathtaking in its reprise. Baseball’s past is not easily erased. New marks made in the record books hold a significance unparalleled in any other sport.

Still, some of you may feel, as I did earlier this summer, slightly jaded by the whole Bonds home run race. We’ve seen more players hit 60 home runs in the last four years than we’ve seen do it in the previous 100+ years of organized baseball. Has it gotten too easy to hit home runs? Have juiced balls, smaller stadiums and bad pitchers led to the creation of a baseball that only scarcely resembles the baseball of old?

When Babe Ruth hit 60, he out-homered several baseball teams by himself. Today, Bonds or McGwire’s greatest years combined would still fall well short of even the poorest home run hitting teams.

In the end though, I feel the argument is moot. Different times breed different types of players and hence, different stats. Simply because we will see four or even five players hit 50 home runs this season does not make the statement of the home run any less dominating a message. It remains the ultimate expression of utter victory for the batter. Pitchers have the poetry of the strikeout, hitters the manifesto of the home run.

The baseball of today is not the baseball of yesteryear. We see rule changes, park changes, player changes on a continual basis now. Still, this makes hitting 70 no less significant. When a player hits 70 home runs, he’s still scoring at least 70 runs for his team and that breeds winning. And despite unmatched offense in this new era, we still haven’t seen a .400 hitter in decades and no one has threatened DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak. Hitting a little white ball with a thin stick is no easier than it ever has been. You still have to get the bat in its way.

The only thing that has detracted in the slightest from Bonds’s feat is the media, of which I am a card-carrying member. Those of us that create the newspapers, take the photos and write the stories are responsible for amplifying the importance of the home run. We have changed it from a simple run scoring device to the only significant part of a game. Today’s home run means no less than “the home runs of old,” as we like to believe. However, we tend to overglorify the process by making the home run the entire focus of the game, especially in the minute-long quips the media spoonfeeds the impatient sports fan. It is one swing of one at bat in one inning of a three hour long game. The home run is important, but it does not define victory.

And yet, because the bomb is often the only highlight the viewer sees on SportsCenter or MSG Sportsdesk, it gains significance in the individual game, but loses importance in the scope of baseball as a whole. We, the media, tell you this or that is important, and we influence what you believe, what you look for, what you deem worthy. Is the home run less important than a win? We would sometimes like for you to believe so.

Last night, when Rickey Henderson set the all-time runs record, he received little fanfare. Yes, much of that has to do with Bonds. Honestly though, is breaking the all-time career runs record any less important than hitting a 70th home run in a season? No, and if anything, it’s more important and impressive. Yet Henderson will receive little (comparative) coverage. We have made breaking a 70+ year old record less important than breaking a three year old one.

Home runs have garnered inordinate importance to the game because we choose for it to be so. Is a home run that makes the game 10-2 any less important than a pitcher getting out of a bases loaded, no outs jam with the score 2-1? Of course not, but you can package a home run into an eight-second video clip; getting out of a jam takes longer. The jam never gets seen — the home run, Joe Schmoe’s 27th of the year, makes the highlight reel on a two play highlight. Why? Because it fits.

Like I said at the top, what Barry has done this year is amazing, and I’m not trying to play down the man’s accomplishments. What he has done is remarkable. But remember, if his team doesn’t make the playoffs in the end, what he did this season really matters very little.

But no one has to tell Barry that. He already knows it.

Archived article by Charles Persons