September 20, 2005

Bonds Should Protect His Legacy

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I saw a commercial during the Padres-Giants game the night Barry Bonds found his way back into San Fran’s lineup. A black screen flashes the words: “Opening Day 2005: he made you a promise.” Cut to Barry himself, clenched fist in the air, speaking the words Giants fans have been holding onto all year: “I will be back.” Cut to a black screen: “And Now He’s Keeping It.” Cut to a montage of the slugger ripping absolute bombs out of SBC park (probably PacBell back then, but whatever). I’m talking about opening-up-early-on-a-flat-fastball-that-comes-back-over-the-plate 500-foot bombs. Cut to a black screen: “He’s Back.” Fin.

Now. Let me get a few things out of the way before I dig in here: first, I truly dislike Barry Bonds. Quite frankly I think he is a self-indulgent prima donna. (I know it’s a bit early in the column for my stream of consciousness to spill onto the page, but it is appalling that I hesitate to use the term “quite frankly” simply because I want nothing to do with Stephen A. Smith.) I find Bonds hard to listen to or take seriously, as he rejects reporters one day and then gathers a media circus to entertain a press conference the next. He’s not exactly Terrell Owens, but that hardly excuses him. Second, I emphatically denounce the use of steroids. Any player who uses illegal or performance enhancing drugs is a cheater and a liar, and should be banished from the game.

Okay. We may begin.

Straight up: Mr. Bonds would do his name and legacy a service if he steps away from baseball prior to breaking Hank Aaron’s home run record of 755. It is foolish for a man to be championed for a statistic to which people consciously attach an asterisk. Why glorify something sullied when he could be honored for so much more?

When Bonds decides he’s had enough, he will be remembered best for his performance on the field; seven MVP awards, his eight Gold Gloves and his 13 all-star appearances in his 19 years of play; for his career average of .300; for holding the sixth best on-base percentage (OBP) at .443, the fifth best slugging percentage at .611 and 5,556 total bases, which positions him seventh on the all-time list. For his 700-plus career home runs.

Seven hundred plus – whether is be 703, 754, or something in between – that is the key number. Although there is no disputing the value of the home run record in Bonds’ cornucopia of statistics, he would be better served if it remained just another goodie in his bag. If and when Bonds hits that record-breaking 756th home run, that statistic will outshine all the rest. Note to Barry: not a good thing.

The scandalous cloud of suspicion that hangs over Bonds’ ever-expanding head focuses predominantly on his home run numbers. In my mind there is little doubt the man juiced. Who’s kidding whom? But he wasn’t ‘roided up his entire career, was he? That little 190-pounder who, by his fifth season in the league was named NL MVP – hitting .301 with a .406 OBP, 33 homers, 114 RBIs and 52 stolen bases – he wasn’t injecting illegal substances in the locker room, was he? If he was, game over: he loses, I lose, pretty much everybody loses. But I think it is fair to assume that his steroid use was limited to, at most, a couple of years later in his career. Lest you forget, he won two MVPs and three Gold Gloves before he ever put on a Giants uniform. He was diving for balls that could have – nay – should have fallen into the gap between left and center field, accumulating defensive recognition across the league well before he transformed from a skinny-malink base stealer to an all-out American Gladiator.

What does come into question when we combine Bonds with BALCO, however, is his infamous 73. If steroids have had one lasting effect on baseball (aside from ruining Raffy Palmeiro’s chance at getting into Cooperstown) it is that the credibility of all those random, out of character power surges that players have demonstrated in the past however many years becomes suspect. Gone are the days when a player can have a breakout year and be congratulated by his team and fans, no questions asked. Nowadays, anybody who does anything out of the ordinary gets the dreaded “juicer?” stamp imprinted on his chest until he either proves he is for real, or slowly fades away. I’m speaking about the Brady Andersons of the world, Bret Boone’s inexplicable rush of power in 2001 and ultimately Barry Bonds’ unforeseeable and unforgettable season of 73 home runs. These are the types of stats ridiculed by steroid skeptics. Bonds’ Gold Gloves, batting titles and MVPs are protected behind a pane of scandal-free glass, while his unexplainable jump from never hitting 50 homers to cracking 73 in a season is fair game for his critics – as it should be.

Yet, how can we accept Bonds for his batting average and OBP but not his home runs? Who is to say that steroids didn’t have an equally powerful affect on those other numbers? I am, that’s who. I refuse to believe that Barry’s entire buffet of career statistics is inflated based upon the assumption that he was jacked up on ‘roids. A player enters and excels in baseball owing to a certain degree of raw talent: good hand-eye coordination, a masterful eye for the strike zone, quick hands and an even quicker bat and a competitive drive to win. Now, I recognize that not every player, or even every super-star, has this full compliment of skills at his disposal, but steroids alone will not get a guy very far without at least a handful of them.

Bonds’ last week of baseball is empirical evidence that this is true. One hundred and forty-two games into the 2005 MLB season, the league’s best offensive player had his first at-bat – he crushed what seemed to be home run number 704, but settled for a double on account of fan interference (he knocked number 704 nine at-bats later). Look at the man’s first week back: he’s 5-for-16 (good for a .313 average) with two homers and three RBIs over six games. And his outs are more often than not deep fly balls that just miss getting out and should-be base hits that end up being scored a groundout to the softball-like short right fielder. Long story short, Bonds still strikes fear in whoever is staring him down from 60 feet six inches away. He may not admit to past transgressions or apologize for his shortsighted behavior, but he is proving to all the skeptics out there that he is the real deal. Give the guy some dap – how many athletes return from three off-season surgeries and play at the level he has thus far?

(For the record, Bonds isn’t the only guy out there silencing his critics. Jason Giambi’s resurgence is another example of post-steroid success. It is unfair to wait for him to repeat his 2000 season in Oakland before acknowledging his talent. In the span of a single summer the pinstriped meathead has salvaged at least part of his legacy and, for the time being, once again is able to walk around the Bronx with his head held high.)

Bonds has proven – with his play more than with his words – that, with or without the juice, he is a legit super star. The man could have retired before the turn of the century and still found his way to the Hall. So why not leave well enough alone? With Bonds’ resume, the home run title would just be icing on the cake. If the title is tainted, however, it leaves a bad taste. Barry – keep your ego in check. Let the spotlight shine on your wealth of worthy achievements. Don’t highlight the single blemish on your otherwise exemplary record.

Ben Kopelman is a Sun Staff Writer. 2 Legit 2 Quit will appear alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Archived article by Ben Kopelman