The Meaning of Barry Bonds

How does the steroid scandal rank in a history of baseball scandals, and what does it mean for the future?

And so, with the coming publication of the book Game of Shadows, a precipitous scandal widens, swelling beyond the left fielder involved to include an entire generation of players and fans.

Baseball is well accustomed to controversy. Any cultural institution with over a century and a half of professional competition is bound to suffer such vagaries, because that’s what a scandal is: a moment of misconduct and dishonor that elicits outrage on account of its comparison to all those other, more felicitous moments preceding.

And baseball, more than any other American sport, has had its share of the good and the bad.

I find myself wondering about past scandals, about what it must have been like to witness them unfold: John McGraw’s refusal to pit his New York Giants against the American League in the 1904 World Series; the Black Sox banishment in 1920 Chicago, the media playing a major role, especially the newspapers, their soot-colored headlines stark and bare; Curt Flood’s challenge to the Reserve Clause, a scandal that became a moment of triumph; and poor Pete Rose, the great Dissembler, his disgrace occurring at the crest of my baseball consciousness.

My first baseball memory is from 1986 when, as a six year old, I watched a resurgent Giants team at Candlestick Park. After the game, the third base coach at the time, my father’s former manager from Double-A Jacksonville, rolled me a bone-white ball along the roof of the dugout, one that I clutched to my chest and subsequently lied about, claiming over and over to anybody who would listen that I’d plucked a Will Clark home run from the air with my tiny hands—repeating this so much I actually began to believe it, myself.

This is the same year Barry Bonds ascended into the show. And Jose Canseco. And Mark McGwire. This was the beginning of the Steroid Era—the only era of baseball my generation has known. And after listening to the media’s extraordinary response to the new allegations against the Giants superstar, I want to say a single thing in return:

To invalidate Barry Bonds is to invalidate an entire generation of baseball.

I’m not making excuses for the left fielder. But understand: the two cannot be separated. From 1986-2006, the competitive nature of the game should be seen as a distinct bubble, one in which a large number of pitchers, catchers, speedy outfielders, closers, and Ken Caminiti-shaped hitters all played together within a milieu distinct from the eras that came before it and will come after.

And I don’t say this lightly. I am not lucky enough to have watched Willie Mays track flys. I have only imagined the Big Train Walter Johnson sling his fastballs along the corners of plates. Babe Ruth is a ghostly myth.

We should all understand that this steroid scandal is most closely felt by baseball fans aged 15-30 who have no other eras to retreat to.

Especially those of us who grew up in the Bay Area. But also fans in places like Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. Don’t think for a moment that the success of such teams hasn’t been affected by performance enhancement—that, just because people might hate Barry Bonds, their regional memories and experiences should somehow be spared reevaluation.

I understand the Media’s response: those who report on baseball are the most contemporary of arbiters. They are not historians—their job is not to place a scandal within the context of the past. Many of them are, at best, science fiction writers forced to extrapolate a future in an attempt to comment more severely upon the present. Tom Verducci says that he will not vote for Barry when the Hall of Fame comes calling. Buster Olney, in his latest article, creates a faux 2010 acceptance speech, depicting a Bonds never suspected of steroids entering Cooperstown.

I respect these claims, but they are rash. Baseball is far too old for one of its moments to be understood within that actual moment, a fact that needs to be reiterated to the talking heads on crossfire shows like Cold Pizza and Outside the Lines.

The writers I have no patience for, however, are the ones who fail to feel empathy for real baseball fans. Often they are experts in other sports—newer ones like basketball or football—and their lack of calculation is reminiscent of politics, of people bound by reactionary tactics.

An example of these writers is Dan Wetzel, the columnist who, besides depicting San Francisco supporters as “village idiot Giants fans,” besides claiming in loose rhetoric that current lovers of the game will infect future generations with false “lore,” besides aping the age-old austerity of baseball fans—besides all this, he has the gall to state that the recent book “should convince Hall of Fame voters to turn a cold, callous shoulder on the entire era, keeping all of these puffed-out sluggers out of Cooperstown forever.”

What kind of person thinks he has the right demand that the history of our game be edited?

This man is a dilettante—not a baseball fan, not someone who places his love for the National Pastime above all other sports and forms of entertainment. I would wager my own cultural heritage with the game on this statement. It is too clear in Wetzel’s platitudes; he does not respect baseball’s history in regards to regional spirituality, since to do so is to empathize with the spirituality of others, no matter how displaced you might find their beliefs to be. As a result, I find Wetzel as offensive and painfully scurrilous as he must find Bonds.

But that is the perverse beauty we often discover during moments of scandal. The world divides—not along right and wrong, but along fanatic and tourist.

And the fanatics understand clearly what must be given up if conclusions as drastic as Wetzel’s are to be made.

Ask a Dodgers or Indians fan if his memories of the last twenty years should be denuded and erased because Adrian Beltre or Albert Belle have been rumored to juice? If these are serious fans and they still say yes, then I respect them for their sacrifice, understanding the cost.

Make no mistake, this is about the parabolic history of the game: one that will stretch into the future long after all of us have passed, be we writerly weasels or church-of-baseball attendees.

And just as we see the Black Sox scandal differently from our detached vantage point—just as the Pete Rose imbroglio has slanted and turned in the subsequent decade after—so too will the outrage caused by the Steroid Era and its superstar left fielder be wrapped in a context we can’t yet know. That is the beauty of an institution spanning centuries.

Which brings us to the meaning of Barry Bonds. The claims in the new book on him are not concrete (the latest McCovey Chronicles entry, a Giants blog, points this out nicely), but such allegations are nothing new, especially to people who have heard stories from players and staff about the clubhouse over the last handful of years.

The truth is that Bonds represents this era, for better or worse. If you are from the Bay Area and a Giants fan—and especially if you qualify for that 15-to-30-year-old demographic—this scandal has presented you with a choice: will you invalidate your support for this star, knowing full well that to do so is to relinquish your more-recent ties you team and your memories themselves?

Personally, I could never turn my back on an era, despite its flaws. It will be judged accordingly by baseball itself and the compendium of past and future, not by dudes like me posting on this here 2006 Internet.

What is true fandom anyway except the kind of faith only zealots and the criminally insane are usually allowed? The opposite of such fandom isn’t anger or disillusionment. It is apathy and detachment—exactly what writers like Wetzel call for when they hope to erase an era.

The future history of baseball will judge Barry Bonds accordingly, too. But I refuse to pretend that my memories of him are as false as the one I made up all those years ago about a Will Clark home run, after receiving that ball on the roof of the dugout.

In the end, this is my era, my left fielder, and my city by the bay, and I’m happy to claim them all, even as a new era approaches, brought on perhaps by the other baseball story in the news: this strange, exhilarating thing called the World Baseball Classic and all its international implications.

So I will stand and cheer when Barry Bonds passes Babe Ruth in the home-run record book because I will be standing and cheering for my memories, for my experience with baseball, knowing that flaws, in the end, do not invalidate the past—they make it even more personal to us, more wrenching, and considering that game is a generational journey, they help us understand what it means to love something in the context of all the harm it has caused.

And if that makes me a village idiot, then stick me in a ditch, pass the Jagermeister, and turn on the Giants game.

Because the rest of the villagers must be off somewhere watching basketball.



Tim Denevi is a raving Giants fan who can't decide if he would rather have Mike Aldrete or Marvin Biz-nard pinch-hitting with the game on the line. E-mail him with your opinion on any issue at denevi@hawaii.edu

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