Friday, February 8, 2008

Defending the Indefensible

November 16, 2007- (Sigh) goes....I’m going to do the unthinkable, the impossible. I’m going to try to defend Barry Bonds. (Staring at a blank screen) Well...(the blinking curser is mocking me) this might be it. I have defended Barry for 10 years since the knock on him was that he wasn’t a nice guy, through steroids, BALCO and 756, but I don’t know anymore. After all this time, I may not be able to defend the home run king.

As a ballplayer it is easy. Steroids or not, Barry was the greatest talent, in any sport, that I have seen play in my lifetime. Bonds tops a list that includes greats like Gretzky, Jordan and Farve, the best of the best. On the field it is easy to defend him. I can use the same argument I always have. Even if he took steroids, Barry Lamar Bonds was able to hit more balls squarely than anyone I have ever seen. The man was simply a freak (and a force) of nature when it came to hitting a baseball. He could have hit a fraction of the homeruns that he did, and still have been a hall of famer.

It was more than that though; Barry could do whatever he wanted on a baseball field. Early in his career, Barry was criticized as a poor defensive player, all he did was improve his game and win eight gold gloves. People said he couldn’t come through when it matters, then he put the 2002 Giants on his back and carried them within a few outs of a championship. Barry Bonds should have gone down as the greatest player in any sport never to win a championship. But he won’t.

The end is not near for Barry. It is here. This is the last straw for number 25, and it isn’t right. It just is. I don’t know enough about the indictment (or the law in general) to tell you what it means. To myself (and I believe to most people), Barry is no more or less likely to have cheated or lied today as he was before this indictment. All I know is that the man I grew up watching swat baseballs into McCovey Cove faces thirty years in prison, and because of that, he has played his last baseball game. If there is a small upside it is that Barry’s last game was as a Giant. It wouldn’t have felt right watching Barry make a couple of last trips around the league as a DH for the A’s, Angles or, god forbid, Yankees. But this is a small consolation. Deep down, I think that any true baseball fan has to be disappointed by this. Nothing will change the fact that Barry Bonds is the all-time homerun leader, Barry has never been suspended, and never will be, for taking steroids. In the eyes of Major League Baseball, Barry will remain innocent, and yet even if he gets off, proven innocent, he will never be remembered that way.

On Thursday, November 15th, 2007, Barry Bonds’ legacy lost a long fight and died. At this point, the best that Barry can hope for is to be remembered not as innocent, but as having “gotten off.” Speculation and mistrust have shrouded Bonds for too long for an innocent verdict to clear this anti-hero’s name. Then there is the other possibility. Conviction. As a Bonds fan, it is unimaginable, the home run king spending thirty years behind bars. This is not Ali evading Vietnam, or even Tyson being convicted in his prime, this is much bigger. While Ali and Tyson (or more recently Vick) found trouble away from the field, what Barry stands trial for is, in the eyes of the public at the very least, linked directly to baseball. While the official charges stem from obstructing justice by lying under oath, the significance of this accusation lies in steroids.

To the federal court system, Barry Bonds stands accused of lying to a grand jury, but to the American public, particularly baseball fans, he has been accused of something much worse, cheating. Few would openly admit it, but as far as his legacy is concerned, this is the worst crime an athlete can commit. Morally we would like to believe that this bothers us less than OJ’s murder case of Tyson’s rape case, or even Vick’s dogfighting case, and if you aren’t a fan, it probably does. But not if you have followed baseball for the last decade. While dog fighting rape and murder are horrible things that no one wishes to happen, knowing that these people participated in them doesn’t change what they have done on the field. That is not the case with steroids. Fans feel as though they are the victim. Our memories of what we have seen on the field are attacked. It is personal. I am not saying that shooting anabolic steroids is worse than rape or murder, or even that they are in the same ballpark, but no one can pretend that rape and murder don’t happen. Sports fans are often naive enough to think that the games we love are innocent. The surprise is what hurts. With few exceptions, we don’t know the athletes we root for off of the playing field, so knocks against their character are much less personal for us than something that tarnishes what we have seen. Again, none of this is right, it just is.

As a fan, I want to see Barry ruled innocent, I want to believe in 73 and 762. I want to remember standing for every Bonds at bat this summer, hoping to see 755, not caring about anything that the man at the plate had done outside of the walls of AT&T Park. The romantic in me feels differently though. Bonds is, if nothing else, a tragic figure. The man with all the talent in the world, but that rarely even seemed happy. The man that went through what may have been the most impressive baseball career ever, essentially alone. Barry will never ride off into the sunset, innocent. Maybe it is the most fitting end for such a sad story, Barry, alone, in a cell, unable to enjoy his accomplishments. I don’t want to see this. Deep down I am still a Barry Bonds fan and I will keep rooting for him. But I can’t defend him.

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