April Musings

Dock of the Bay's Weekly Jaunt

Ah, 2006 Giants baseball: the dizzying highs, the terrifying lows, the creamy middles—and all in a single, sugary month.

And what are we left with, after the first April of this new era in Major League Baseball, a moment that marks the end of two decades of rampant performance enhancement, that was ushered in by the WBC, the first professionally competitive international tournament in the game’s history?

A 13-11 record, in the Giants case. Which is acceptable enough, considering DL trips by starting pitchers and second basemen, along with a bullpen ERA that has finally, mercifully, sunk under 7.00. Also, there is a feeling of tempered optimism—a sense that, even though last season’s squad finished with a similar 12-11 mark, this is a much better group of players.

But this season, more than any in the recent past, feels like a tipping point. A generation of great baseball players is turning over. Three of the best pitchers of the previous fifteen years—Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine—are enjoying their last consistencies of brilliance. Roger Clemens is deciding if he should come back for an abbreviated season, or if finally, in accordance with the urging of his agent, he should accept the role of Jack Bauer’s homely but brutally efficient sidekick on Fox’s 24 (Sample dialogue: “He’s not talking, Clem, what should we do?” Clemens glances heavenward as if for advice. “I think we should cut his head off and bury him in the desert”).

There’s Julio Franco, a minor star whose Major League career actually predates video games (he was already a veteran by the time he appeared in RBI Baseball). Somehow, he continues to steal bases and line balls to right field.

Randy Johnson is becoming less ugly with time, simply because we are becoming more accustomed to glancing at him out of the horrified corners of our eyes. And anybody could look good in pinstripes. Just ask Felix Rodriguez.

And there are more: Moises Alou, Gary Sheffield, Jeff Bagwell—all of them great ballplayers from the last decade now on the cusps of their careers.

The 1990’s was a troubling time for baseball, one broken by the ’94 strike. The recovery of the Mark McGwire–Sammy Sosa homerun chase was exhilarating at the time, but hindsight, like the judgment of relatives, tends to diminish praise for the those events with too many layers.

And multiple levels meaning—and judgment—is exactly what we are going to be facing in our attempts to understand the past twenty years of performance enhancing.

Which brings us to the emblem of this generation: Barry Bonds.

He was the player of the ’90’s. He was far and away the best hitter in the first five years of this recent decade, overshadowing the remarkable rise of Albert Pujols. And he may or may not be able turn back time, Superman-style, by hitting a ball so hard, the rotation of the earth actually reverses.

His brilliance is not concluded. Just take his at-bat against Billy Wagner last week. The greatest thing Barry Bonds has ever given fans in San Francisco is the ability to deliver greatness when everyone, from the opposing manager to the guy in the stands, expects it. This is the definition of clutch. And last Wednesday became another moment in our history of moments—a history that those who are not Giants fans will never understand.

Of course, most writers who cover him would tell you without hesitation that Barry Bonds has the soul of a hammerhead shark. But the anger of the rest of the country goes beyond an abrasive personality, even beyond alleged steroid use.

This hatred toward Bonds feels like a sense of anger toward the past 20 years itself—anger on account of the betrayal so many feel, now, toward Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and all the other stars who won games for their teams under dubious circumstances.

Take the anger in Colorado. Twice in the last five years, Barry has hit 3 home runs in a game there, the entire stadium standing to ovation. Now, these same fans turned Coors Field into a den of poisonous snakes.

My point is that there is something more complex going on here, more universal.

Baseball fans are a moral lot. Moral like a science-hating mob on its way to burn down an observatory, sure, but there is something to be said about the outrage flaming across the country every time Big Poppa comes to bat. Something resembling a cultural wound, as if Barry Bonds has personally burned a flag on each of our doorsteps.

Which makes sense, even though I completely disagree. We live in a world of heroes and villains—a place where Media, be it SportsCenter or Fox News, determines right and wrong with every single story, the premise of objectivity understood by nearly everyone, now, to be just another tool of narrative, like flashy graphics or an audience told when to laugh.

Throughout the country, Barry is a villain. At home in San Francisco—on the field—he is as heroic as they come. But the real truth—the sentiment that will most likely be mined by baseball historians (yes, they do exist) years from now, is that Barry Bonds is one of the few famous figures of our time to really be both—to be more than a monster with a soft side or a saint with demons—to be the embodiment of a flawed era in the game’s history.

This is the nature of baseball, a sport of two worlds: on the field and off. And in the end, in the long view of history, it is always the events on the diamond that last. Think of Shoeless Joe Jackson, or Ty Cobb, or Cap Anson—all men who arguably committed intolerable crimes of morality off the field. But within the context of their own flawed eras, each has been championed as a great ballplayer, as someone worthy of a rightful, if controversial, place in the game’s history.

Baseball is a bipolar realm, a place where figures can be both good and bad, right and wrong—where our contemporary views are a drop in the proverbial bucket.

So you can demonize Barry all you want. Or you can exalt him, as I rarely hesitate to do. 

But the truth of it all is in the creamy middle—the bewilderingly complex relationship between the on- and off-field Bonds that, if it is ever to be understood, will need a generation of ballplayers older than Julio Franco to first pass on.

Baller of the Week

Kevin Frandsen, Friday-night version. Dock of the Bay is a big fan of Frandsen, and not simply because of his San Jose origins. This kid was off the hook in Spring Training, driving the ball consistently in the gap, hustling at all times, and playing above-average defense.

He didn’t disappoint in his debut, going 3-for-4 against the Diamondbacks. We especially appreciate the way he wears pitches. He’s been hit three times already, and when told that the Giants record for beanballs in a season was 26 by Ron Hunt in 1970, he replied, “I’ll get him.”

Now that’s a baller answer.

Meathead of the Week

Kevin Frandsen, Saturday-afternoon version. This column has been struggling for a favorable definition of meathead. We know what it should be—think of Bull Durham’s Nuke Laloosh as he explains why he shook off his catcher, Crash Davis: “I want to give him the heat and announce my presence with authority.”

But Kevin Fandsen’s double-play pop-up in the eighth inning is all the definition we need.

After failing to get down the bunt, he had a great at-bat, working back from an 0-2 hole, lining a few pitches just foul down the right field line. But when he finally popped up to the catcher, he squinted a bit, disgusted, and then turned back to the dugout.

Problem was that, with the help of bay winds, the ball was dancing crazily, and the catcher missed it.

Frandsen’s attempt to run to first base was subsequently complicated by the fact that he was halfway to the on-deck circle, his head down.

As Mike Krukow said at the time, that was a “horrible play.” And as Dock of the Bay likes to say: “Come on, meat, act like you been there.”

But we know Frandsen is a hustler. On a Spring Training sacrifice bunt this year, he nearly hurdled the first baseman in an attempt to reach the bag.

This kid will have a long career in the Show—a hell of a linchpin, actually, between the coming generation and the one preceding. I wonder what he will think in fifteen years, after Barry Bonds, the accompanying controversy, and the final representatives of the steroid era have long since departed into the realm of memory and monument at our ballpark by the bay.

Tim Denevi is a die-hard Giants fan. Please e-mail him with your opinion on any issue at denevi@hawaii.edu

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