Thursday, August 09, 2007

Conversations with a strawman -- Barry Bonds

First of an occasional series in which I'll engage in a "dialogue" with someone taking the opposite position. Since I'm writing this, I will ultimately win the debate.

The title is a bit of a joke, since I will try to have my strawman present arguments that are being advanced in the debate, rather than things nobody believes.

So I notice you didn't make a big deal about Barry Bonds breaking sports' best known record.
That's right.

Is it because of the steroids thing?
Yeah, partly.

But there's no proof that Barry Bonds ever used steroids! And even if they were, MLB didn't have a policy in place! This is so unfair!

I'm not looking to throw Bonds in jail; I'm just choosing not to go nuts celebrating this accomplishment. Evidence and my own common sense leads me to believe that Bonds's late career surge was chemically assisted. Conviction may require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but my own approval does not. Nor is my approval coniditioned on what Major League rules or enforcement policies. I am less impressed with Bonds's accomplishments than I would be if he were not assisted.

What do you care what Barry Bonds does to his own body?

I don't. But I care about the players at the margins, those who are, to paraphrase Crash Davis, an extra hit a week away from Yankee Stadium.

If we say that chemically assisted performance is just as valid as non-assisted performance, that will remove a reason for players at every level to resist the temptation to juice themselves to the next level. And those players won't have access to the resources someone like Bonds does, and could end up hurting himself.

But they're adults who make their own decisions. Are you going to nanny everybody?

Youth sports are increasingly competitive. It does not seem unreasonable that high school or even little league athletes would reach for an edge, even if it comes from a bottle.

More ominously, coaches eager to make a name for themselves could explicitly or implicitly encourage young athletes to improve themselves this way.

Well, that's their problem. Why should Bonds suffer because some other people might do stupid or unethical things? It's not like he's forcing anybody to take drugs.

Bonds is not bigger than the game. The only reason enyone cares about Barry Bonds is that people care about baseball. If Bonds's actions damage the sport and cause people to care less about baseball, he should take a hit for that. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

And I challenge the notion that my withholding my adulation from Bonds is making him "suffer."

But didn't you celebrate Mark McGwire's home run exploits? Doesn't that make you a racist hypocrite?

  • I did enjoy McGwire's 1998 season, thought I wasn't falling all over myself. Despite living in St. Louis, I missed both home run #61 and #62.
  • We probably should have looked at their accomplishments more critically, but the evidence against McGwire and Sosa at the time was not nearly as overwhelming as the evidence against Bonds is now. For one, McGwire's improvement was incremental, rather than a quantum leap. McGwire always was a power hitter; he became a better power hitter. Bonds was a great all around player with good power; he became the greatest power hitter of all time.
  • McGwire is paying for his suspicions now, as wintnessed by being passed over for the Hall of Fame.
  • The way McGwire carried himself during his home run drive made him easier to cheer for than Bonds. Sorry, but it's simply true.

    So are you going to wipe Bonds's name out of the record book? What about all the spitballers? What about the sign stealers? What about guys who used corked bats or too much pine tar? Do they get asterisks, too?

    I'm not looking to wipe anyone's name out of the record book. I'm just not going to jump up and down celebrating this accomplishment.

    Nevertheless, I think it's worth pointing out that these methods of cheating have no consequences outside of the field of play, whereas steroids use does. Pushing the boundaries of the rules is a part of every game, and nobody's gone to an early grave from using a corked bat.

    If a football offensive line cheats by jumping the snap count, that's one thing. If they "cheat" by doing blocking schemes that have been banned because they are dangerous, that's quite different. I can chuckle about how the first group was clever in working around the rules. But I would have a hard time cheering for the second group.

    Sin steroids use only directly hurts the user, it probably falls somewhere between the two.

    But Barry Bonds isn't the first baseball star who was a jerk. Ty Cobb was a vicous racist. Babe Ruth was a womanizing glutton. Ted Williams...

    Yes, but their flaws were not directly connected to the on field performance that makes them great.

    But steroids don't let Barry Bonds hit a baseball.

    I will acknowledge that Barry Bonds is the greatest player of his generation. He was before his late career power surge, and his home run power requires skills that can't be found in any bottle. He'd be on every Hall Of Fame ballot of mine for which he's eligible.

    But that wasn't enough for him. He wanted to be the greatest ever, and cheated to do it. I'm not doing him a great injustice by refusing to consider him that.

    Say what you want, but Bonds does have the highest home run total, and you owe it to him to respect that.

    Here's the bottom line -- I don't owe Barry Bonds shit. And I'm quite sure he'd be the first to say that he doesn't owe me shit.

    I follow sports for my own enjoyment, not in order to dispense athletes respect and adulation that they or the experts think they're due.

    I don't really enjoy watching Barry Bonds rewrite the home run record book with apparent chamical assistance. Telling me to eat my spinach and give him his due isn't going to change that.