Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Restitution

Following baseball for the last few years makes shock at any new steroid revelation virtually impossible. Pretty much everyone could plausibly have been juicing, and unless you're someone like 85-m.p.h.-fastball-throwing Greg Maddux, jaws aren't liable to drop if you're implicated. Which renders Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez's admission that he took performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in 2003 — his MVP season — kind of quaintly predictable.

Rodriguez started out as a shortstop. He was only forced to move to third base to accommodate the generous all-for-the-team shortstop Derek Jeter's desire to stay at the position despite Rodriguez's unquestionable superiority. The position is important because shortstops traditionally aren't power hitters. In fact, they're usually the worst power hitters on the team. If you have a lithe and rangy frame capable of covering a lot of territory very quickly, you probably don't have the torso that usually accompanies slamming 50 home runs per season.* To be blunt, A-Rod was already sort of a freak. So, again, that's what makes the PEDs thing predictable. That isn't what makes it fun.

What makes it fun is that this revelation only helps Barry Bonds, and everyone with their head up their ass — read: 99% of sportswriters and sportscasters — hates Barry Bonds.

* — Unless you're Cal Ripken; and who knows, maybe he took steroids too. After all, they help players to heal from injuries more quickly, which would be of vital concern to a guy who came to define himself by his refusal to take time off. It seems like such a serious charge to level at Sainted Cal, but then again, in later years the streak became sort of pointless outside the prism of personal selfishness. Sure, he never took a game off. But down the stretch in a season, after a decade of playing, the team probably would have been bolstered a lot more by his taking three days off to rest and coming back stronger than playing 162 straight games and wearing down his productivity. There's a reason other players take time off: it isn't always that they're lazy or selfish. At some point, Cal Ripken's streak, which was buoyed by saccharine effusion from the press corps as the ultimate team gesture, probably resulted in a net loss for his team that unfortunately isn't really easy to quantify.

Before he went on the juice, Barry Bonds was already probably a first-ballot Hall of Famer. After going on the juice, he put up arguably the greatest four or five seasons of any player in history, and, depending on your metrics, is either the greatest player in the history of the game or comes up just a hair's breadth short of Babe Ruth. Barry also clearly doesn't give a fuck what anyone thinks of him, and this drives sportswriters absolutely insane.

Most writers mean virtually nothing in terms of the history of the game. Sure, they recorded what happened, but all anyone ever remembers is what happened, not the byline of who recorded it. Thus they zealously and obnoxiously covet and protect their few contributions to the history of the game: the spin on a player's legacy and character. Nevermind if the history of baseball teems with examples they got wrong — they want and need a player to need them to create his stamp on the sport. They demand the bowing and scraping of dutifully insipid post-game quotes, of access and favor, because these few ethereal treasures are all that separate them from the idiots in the bleachers. Denying them a knuckle to the forehead, a small bow and a by-your-leave, sir, denies them their essence. (So, too, does readers' denying the importance of access, which fuels the excellent website Deadspin and founder Will Lietch's book God Save the Fan, which I reviewed here.)

Which is why they absolutely, fanatically loathe Barry: because his entire career has been a mostly implicit but sometimes explicit, "Fuck you: I'm too good for you to ignore me, and I'm too great to have to not ignore you." All of which was true, which made it more exquisite agony for sportswriters and unending delight for those of us who view them as basically self-righteous remorae who can't shut up about all the ways the shark's swimming wrong.

Barry watched as these guys fawned over Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire and claimed that they had saved baseball, and he thought (rightly), "Wait, I'm a better player than both those guys, and I'm getting ignored." He watched as sportswriters reduced the game to "dingers" to make for their breathtakingly awful lede paragraph poetry, said, Well, if that's how you want to play it..., bulked up and clobbered the everloving shit out of almost every major offensive record you could think of.

And when the remorae swam to him, he basically said, "Fuck you: I'm not what you make me; the game isn't what you make it. You didn't get the story right before, so obviously nobody needs you to tell it now. What I've done is bigger than what you write about it," and walked off back to the clubhouse to be a big intransigent but essentially correct pain in the ass.*

* — Here I just want to state my theory that Barry Bonds has been real-life trolling the media for about a decade. When sportswriters got in his face for being difficult, he asked why they didn't do the same for white players who were "difficult" and described as "intense." Barry tweaked a basically white establishment by asking it, "Aren't you white?" It was a fair question, because it is. But he also dared them to say he was black: make a point of anything he's done, just mention that he was of a race (black) but also uncooperative with you. Then see how what you said got interpreted.

If you transplanted his comments to a message board, it would be transparent how obviously he's been baiting people. I am almost 100% certain that the reason Barry acted as ill-tempered and contemptuous as he did was because he realized:
a. that there would never be a point at which he wouldn't have to bow and scrape to the media to protect his legacy;
b. that any point at which he lost his temper with a reporter in the future could undo years' worth of putting up with pointless ritual;
c. and, given that, why not just say screw it and make these people act like absolute jackasses?
And it worked. What little credibility Skip Bayless had in the Bay Area or nationally exploded on the rocks of Barry Bonds' personality. Almost every writer or pundit has scores of column inches devoted to the majesty of Barry's game that impeach their credibility and their consistency when they damn him today. And the salacious violence with which they damn him damns themselves more. Barry's been prickly forever. It's the sportscasters and sportswriters who've fluttered moony-eyed around him, struck with adoration, then lashed out like scorned gossipy middle-schoolgirls since. And it's they who will have to account for how they've vilified a black player who didn't want to play the press game while they've given passes to white players who've been equally dismissive and contemptuous of the media.

All of this explains the rapturous disgust the sporting press embraced when it became likely that Barry had used PEDs. Suddenly, they could argue that their spin trumped his numbers, that his snubs could come back to haunt him — that he would need them. To his credit, Barry kept acting like Barry, perhaps trusting in the inertia of numbers, perhaps genuinely not giving a fuck. And once again, the world has changed around him, this time to his advantage. In three ways:

1. In the wake of Barry's breaking Hank Aaron's all-time home run record (one that he would, in all likelihood have broken by far more had he been signed to a team for the 2008 season: let the record show that despite being willing to take an enormous pay cut, not a single team in a sport that has a shameful history of collusion signed arguably the greatest ballplayer in history), most sportswriters dismissed his reign as a distasteful interregnum between the "true" reign of all-natural Hank Aaron and the subsequent "true" reign of all-natural Alex Rodriguez. Barry was vilified in part because there was an alternative to him that marginalized the necessity of thinking about him. There was no need to stop and take anything like subtlety into account. Barry was wholly bad, and Aaron and A-Rod were wholly good. If sportscasters could just plug their ears and shout invective loud enough, Barry would eventually go away. Now, since A-Rod is himself tainted by "cheating," something like fair and reasoned analysis intrudes rudely on the black-and-white atavistic world of sportswriting. Suddenly we might see something like public acknowledgement that:
more muscle does not necessarily transfer into more power at the plate, that there's no such thing as an absolute ratio between mass and mash;
if there was widespread juicing amongst pitchers, it diffuses some of the taint on batters who were leveling the playing field, in their minds;
if players perceived that management knowingly rewarded players who were doubtless on PEDs, it's difficult to fault them for buying into a crooked system just to get what they felt was a fair chance at compensation;
that the history of steroids probably goes back farther than we want to admit;
that baseball for decades tolerated PEDs in the form of greenies, and that we don't condemn those records, let alone hysterically condemn them, as with steroids;
worst of all, many of the records we hold as sacrosanct are tainted far more significantly by institutionalized racism and institutionalized economic feudalism.
There's probably no better performance enhancer than never having to face the greatest players of all but one race of people, yet one barely hears mention of how tainted the entirety of Babe Ruth's career is by playing against a decidedly uneven and monochrome field.

2. It's likely Barry Bonds played 13 seasons of baseball before ever picking up a needle (1986-1999). Alex Rodriguez only went seven seasons, as far as we know (1994-2001). Moreover, Bonds played in far more "deadball" or deadball-esque seasons, in which home runs were lower on average, and he played in larger ballparks with larger foul territory, which meant more foul-ball outs and more outs at the warning track. Given that A-Rod started juicing earlier in his career and played the bulk of his career with more environmental advantages, which record is more tainted? Even if A-Rod ultimately breaks Barry's record, isn't that accomplishment more suspect because of earlier association with PEDs and thus more years in which to capitalize on their use? (And this is even before entertaining charges of collusion keeping Barry out of the game and keeping his record lower, which in even one season of designated hitting he could easily have increased by 20-25 homers.)

3. In order to divulge this information about A-Rod, someone in government violated the seal on the test results. Interestingly, this has provoked some outrage about sealed documents and violating the law for journalistic sensationalism. This attitude can only rehabilitate Barry, whose protracted show trial in the court of public opinion has been prosecuted with a zeal for violating sealed grand jury testimony matched only by its zeal to make deals with just about anybody to get Barry. Despite having a capacity for emotion bordering on the reptilian that somehow is less lifelike than the Geico Gecko, and despite having a glazed appearance that comes off more airbrushed than most surfboards, people seem genuinely aggrieved that Alex Rodriguez is being so ill-treated by a conspiracy of gotcha journalism. This outpouring of sympathy for a guy who seems to engender none in any other capacity seems to speak to an outrage that transcends personality. If the seal on the names of the 103 other major leaguers is broken to report their misconduct, the outrage will only grow.

The perspective that hundreds of ballplayers were also juicing can only help Barry Bonds. The notion that their exposure came in the service of a disingenuous management witch-hunt of "criminals" (the same alleged criminals management turned a blind eye to while pushing at them higher stacks of money) can only help reframe the perspective on the witch-hunt that Bonds himself endured for over half a decade. Finally, the reality that A-Rod is not perfect and never can be again — that he, in fact, might have cheated earlier and to better advantage — might change the perspective on Bonds' accomplishments.

Bonds has always been an asshole, but he's always been honest about it. The owners who profited off home-run chases and the journalists who profited off writing junior-high-poetical garbage about it have always been assholes too, but they refuse to admit that, especially when clad in the pure-white armor of vindicators of the absolute "Truth" of the game. These people have fed and nurtured a legacy of illegitimacy and demanded trust and gravitas for doing complete 180s on their own statements and demonizing individual players they once lauded. Meanwhile, they've ginned up and polished a myopically trite vision of purity in a game better historically defined by its racism, its indentured servitude, its collusion of the powerful against the weak and its manufacture of information. In light of new information and new outrage, Barry Bonds deserves a rehabilitation. It is they who deserve a reckoning.