Out of Left Field: Juicing The Book

There's an old saying that records were made to be broken. Such is the way things go in sports. Sports fans welcome spirited competition and while we hate to see our heroes records broken, we must offer a tip of the cap to the new record holders. Of course, we also want a level playing field for those records to be challenged on; at least as level as the changing times allow.

Barry Bonds wants us to turn the page. He would like us to stop asking and writing about "old news". The problem with turning the page is that the page, in this case, is the page in the all-time record book. Baseball has a problem that is not going to go away this year, next year, or any year. Our most cherished record, in a game that is all about records, is about to be shattered. Once Bonds hits 756, baseball's Pandora's box will be open. Baseball already has its all-time hit king on the outside looking in; are we ready for this one too?

I've heard the arguments on both sides. Bonds feigns disbelief in commenting that he doesn't "understand how steroids will help you hit a ball?" Others have commented that cheating has always gone on in baseball, and quickly point out the folly in electing serial spitballer Gaylord Perry to the Hall of Fame while vilifying Sammy Sosa for using a corked bat once. Still others point out that even some of our most hallowed records from yesteryear should all be suspect because many of them were set in a time when baseball was segregated.

There is no effective way, in baseball form, to completely undue the wrongs of segregated baseball. Baseball is a part of this nation's fabric because its history is, by and large, the history of the country as well. Segregation was not simply a baseball issue but an institutionalized American issue. Major League Baseball needs to do more to honor the great African-American ballplayers of that era, but that is not the point of this column.

The difference between Sammy Sosa's alleged cheating and Gaylord Perry's acknowledged cheating is a different issue also. The reason Sammy Sosa was vilified and Gaylord Perry was raised to folk-hero status is because Gaylord Perry never threatened a hallowed record. Perry came at you with a wink-and-a-nod. Much of his act was just that, an act—a psych job—designed to throw the opponent off balance. It worked too, even though his act was little more than Al "The Mad Hungarian" Hrabosky, albeit with a better arm and an idea of how to pitch. Perry never won more than 24 games in a single season, en route to 314 lifetime victories that took him 25 seasons to amass. Gaylord Perry entertained us; he didn't dupe us (well, perhaps a few umpires).

Sosa, on the other hand, is still the only man in history to have three 60-plus home run seasons. His historic race with Mark McGuire to break Roger Maris' single-season home run record was the stuff of legends. The fact that he is now twice suspect; once for corking and now for steroids, tarnishes a brilliant moment in baseball history. Gaylord Perry never rose to that level, but I believe there would have been appropriate outrage if Perry came close to Jack Chesbro's 41 wins, or Nolan Ryan's 383 strikeouts.

Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, and Henry Aaron are in a completely different stratosphere. We are talking about The Record here. This is no footnote; this record is baseball. Seven hundred fifty-five means something to even the most casual of baseball fans. Heck, seven hundred fourteen still means something to most baseball fans. This needs to be set straight, but by turning a blind-eye for so long, baseball has left no time to act on an impossible issue.

Barry Bonds is an immensely talented athlete and hitter. His hand-eye coordination may be the greatest I've ever seen, and I agree with him that his use of performance-enhancing substances has nothing to do with that. However, I think the jury is still way, way out on whether his use of these substances gave him an unfair advantage and thus were tantamount to "cheating". The fact that steroids are unlawful in this country seems to be missed by those that defend Bonds (as he defends himself) by saying they weren't "illegal" at the time. Bonds means they weren't expressly forbidden by Major League Baseball rules at the time, but you only have to look at one issue to determine whether Bonds thought he was "cheating". Did he tell the truth?

I'm not talking about the truth to the Grand Jury (although I don't think he told the complete truth to them either). I'm talking about the truth to the fans, the media, and the world who watched him break the single-season record and will now watch as he chases Ruth and Aaron. He hid in the shadows, used designer drugs, and then insisted that he didn't know what he was putting in his body. If Bonds thought he was cheating, which seems obvious to me that he did, then why should his records stand?

The problem, of course, is that there is no easy solution to this problem. Bonds is not going to take the high road, admit to wrong-doing, and retire "for the good of the game" before breaking the record. There is also no way of proving just how much of an effect these substances had on Bonds' abilities. Perhaps he would have caught Aaron anyway. Probably not, but we'll never know for sure.

Roger Maris endured constant criticism in his pursuit of Ruth's single season record, but much of that criticism was about the lengthened baseball season; something Maris did not control. Aaron too, endured incredible criticism as he chased Ruth. That ugliness was about the stupid and hateful issue of racism and the color of Aaron's skin, things Aaron couldn't control. In this case, Bonds took the actions that have led to the criticism. He was the one in control and that makes all the difference in the world. Baseball is hurt by this, the fans are hurt by this, Aaron is hurt by this, and even Bonds is hurt by this. There are no winners. That page never turns.

Columnist's note: I welcome any feedback; please send your comments to dncurry@comcast.net.


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