Barry Bonds and the Tarnishing of a Game
Baseball is a numbers game. Rows and tables of statistics form the molecular structure of the game, defining and classifying each pitcher, batter and team. More so than any other sport batting percentages and pitching averages are the gospel on what constitutes excellence or egregiousness within 'America's pastime'. Amidst the ocean of numbers several figures represent and denote those feats which are regarded as the crested peaks of the game. These milestones are treated with reverence by baseball fans, as monumental to them as Mount Rushmore or the Statue of Liberty are to the average American.
Possibly the most famous of these is Hank Aaron's record of 755 career home runs. Second on this hefty list with 714 are the legendary Babe Ruth and, since last Saturday, the controversial San Francisco Giants player Barry Bonds, he of the taint of involvement with the BALCO doping case in recent years.
While Aaron holds the record itself, and, given Bonds' current injury and form difficulties and the fact that it has taken the 41-year old left fielder 20 months to move from the 700 homer mark to his current total, will probably retain it for the foreseeable future, it is with Ruth that the game's soul lies.
The Babe's feats are legion and alone he occupies a huge part of baseball lore. The game's history is coloured by phrases and tales like "The House that Ruth Built" (the common nickname for Yankee Stadium), "the Curse of the Bambino"(a reference to recently broken hoodoo which supposedly denied his former club, the Boston Red Sox, the prize of the World Series for 86 years) and the story of the 'called shot' (when supposedly Ruth pointed to a spot in the stands before receiving a pitch, and then proceeded to hit the ball to that precise point).
This partially explains the less than enthusiastic reaction to Bonds' achievement. In the eyes of baseball fans, the great Ruth has been overtaken by a man who is tarnished by the steroid and EPO controversy which has beset the sport in recent years. The publication of the book "Game of Shadows" by San Francisco journalists Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams in March of this year has only darkened the cloud of suspicion under which Bonds resides.
According to the authors, Bonds began using proscribed substances as far back as 1998, inspired by the attention received by Mark McGwire of the St.Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs as they chased the single-season home run record in that year. Greg Anderson, a local trainer who pleaded guilty to sterood distribution buring the BALCO investigation, is alleged by the authors to have been enlisted by Bonds to procure illegal performance enhancing substances.
While Bonds has never tested positive for the use of substances and his unpopularity is as much to do with his less than charming personality as with the allegations he has faced - a view predictably held among rival fans who have booed him when batting - the loss of the lustre of baseball's most revered numbers is a matter of great sadness for the sport's fans.
It is also a testament to the dangers of sporting authorities not taking the issue of performance-enhancing drugs seriously. American sports have received much criticism for only belatedly taking the problem seriously and their inaction has undoubtedly tarnished the games which they administer. The case of baseball, where it almost seems like the feats of heroes like Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson need to be ringfenced from assault by the tainted likes of Bonds, is illustrative of the damage that can be caused by carelessly tearing out the pages of sports history.