A longtime Giants fan reflects on the coming Barry Bonds train wreck -- and the unflattering mirror his case holds up to our morality.
Sometime next summer, there’s going to be a moral train wreck. Unless neither the Giants nor any other major league team signs him, or he gets injured or sent to the Big House for tax evasion like Al Capone, Barry Bonds is going to break Hank Aaron’s home run record. And all hell is going to break loose.
Thanks to Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada’s “Game of Shadows,” we now know beyond a reasonable doubt that Barry Bonds used steroids over a five-year period. For many, including leading sports journalists like Bob Costas, this has made Bonds a pariah. Bonds is not the only one — Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, among others, have been disgraced by the steroid scandal. But Bonds is in a pariah class by himself. And now that he is just 22 big flies away from setting the most hallowed record in baseball, it is impossible to close our eyes and hope the whole thing just goes away.
Baseball takes its records very seriously. It is a game that reveres its history; its feats are engraved in tablets that are handed down from atop the statistical equivalent of Mt. Sinai. Having Bonds at the top of the record book will be like discovering that Thomas Jefferson plagiarized the Declaration of Independence.
So when No. 25 smashes No. 756, the entire baseball world is going to melt down. There will be hand-wringing over whether Bonds’ record should be marked with an asterisk, whether he should be elected to the Hall of Fame, whether the whole sport is tainted forever, and so on. And it won’t just be the baseball world that will freak out. Congressmen will pontificate about what this says about our morally corrupt society. Ethics professors will appear on Fox News. Sports doctors will duel like expert witnesses in court about how much steroids improve performance in baseball. The race issue will come up. The asshole issue will be debated. There will be more debate over Barry Bonds than there was over going to war in Iraq — not that that’s saying much.
But there is one place where there will be no debate, no doubts, no boos, no catcalls, nothing but love and adulation and awe and a huge celebration. That place will be in AT&T Park, Section 119, Row 26, Seat 8. That’s where I’ll be sitting.
If Barry hits it at home and I’m lucky enough to be there, I’ll be screaming like God had just opened the seventh seal. And I’ll be doing that even though I’m 99 percent sure Barry cheated — and I don’t approve of cheating.
I won’t be alone. There will be 40,000 screaming Giants’ fans around me experiencing the same non-asterisked rapture, and several hundred thousand more fans throughout Northern California. And there will be millions across the country who aren’t Bonds or Giants fans, but will still applaud Bonds’ feat and regard it as legit.
But much of the rest of the country and the media will stare at us with horror, as if we’d just staged a Ku Klux Klan rally or hosted a meeting of the North American Man/Boy Love Association. An AP-AOL poll released last week showed that half of all baseball fans are rooting against Bonds as he chases Aaron’s record. Only a third want him to break it. So I’ve got a lot of explaining to do on behalf of my fellow, outnumbered Bonds defenders. All aboard — let’s get this train wreck started early!
We don’t want our sports stories to end like this. Sports is supposed to be entertaining and uplifting. It’s art with a jock strap. Like art, it manifests human striving and excellence. Like art, it’s bottled reality. It has plot twists, a climax, a denouement and an ending. It makes you feel like life has a shape. At its Aristotelean best, it can even make you feel pity and terror, although these sublime emotions are generally reserved for Oakland Raiders fans.
That’s what it’s supposed to do. What it’s not supposed to do is force you to confront the fact that you are a moral relativist, a hypocrite, a proto-fascist, and, not to put too fine a point on it, a lying, self-serving sack of shit.
But that’s what the Barry Bonds saga has done to us Giants fans. (OK, there may be a few who have rejected Barry, but I don’t know any.) Sports has turned us into a horde of Mark Foleys, but with one big difference: We refuse to resign and remain defiantly in our hot tubs, wallowing in a sea of congressional pages. Me and Mr. Bonds — we got a thang going on. We both know that it’s wrong — well, he doesn’t, but I do — but it’s much too strong to let it go.
Sports, a pastime that is supposed to enliven, stimulate and ennoble our existence, instead has turned it into an eternal cover of a Billy Paul song.
So here’s my defense. In my trial for being a moral scumbag and lying sack of shit, I’m making two arguments. The first questions just how guilty he really is. The second says that even if he is guilty, it’s only sports, and normal moral standards shouldn’t be expected to apply.
The problem is, I don’t fully believe in these arguments. But I keep using them anyway.
Let’s take the issue of his guilt first. There are four points to be made here.
First, Bonds had already amassed a Hall of Fame career before he allegedly started using steroids in 1998, so he would have hit most of his home runs anyway.
Second, steroids boost performance far less in baseball than they do in sports like track and field, cross-country skiing, weight-lifting or cycling, where winning is measured in finite increments of time or weight or distance and where performance-enhancing drugs make a decisive difference. In baseball, hand-eye coordination is critical: As many of Barry’s fellow players have said in his defense, you still have to hit the ball, arguably one of the most difficult things to do in sports.
Third, everyone else was and is doing it, too. Lance Williams told me recently that half the league is juiced. This is hardly surprising, because Major League Baseball itself notoriously winked at steroid use. In 1991 Commissioner Fay Vincent sent out a memo to all major league clubs listing banned substances, including steroids, but MLB made no effort to enforce it. And it still has extremely lax drug-testing policies. Since Bonds was just one of many cheaters — and was hitting against pitchers who may have been just as juiced as he was — it makes no sense to single him out.
Fourth, according to sports physiologists and doctors, many legal substances improve athletic performance almost as much as banned ones. So focusing on Bonds’ steroid use is misleading. All of these multimillionaire jocks are trying to jack up their performances any way they can, society rabidly encourages them to do it, and it’s absurd for us to suddenly draw a nonexistent bright line and say, “You crossed it and you’re evil.”
These arguments are all valid, but they are all trumped by one simple fact. Is it really likely that Barry could have performed the prodigious feats he did late in his career — hitting 73 home runs at age 37, hitting 46 home runs the next year in only 403 at bats while batting a ridiculous .370 and breaking the all-time on-base-percentage record, together the two greatest offensive seasons in baseball history — without “the cream” and “the clear”? Come on — the guy averaged one home run in every 16.1 at bats through 1998. After that, when he started using, he hit at the Ruthian clip of one home run in every 8.5 at bats. Coincidence? Yes, and kiss me — I’m Jean-Paul Belmondo. The fact is, Barry almost certainly cheated, and all the other arguments amount to sophisticated versions of “everybody else was doing it too,” which is something our parents taught us is an invalid ethical principle.
Let’s turn to the second argument, that it’s only a game, so normal morality doesn’t apply. This amounts to saying, “Why should I give up my kicks for something that doesn’t really matter anyway?” Yes, at a deeper level steroid use is bad and should be discouraged, but that’s a red herring. This is really about sports, and sports is just a form of entertainment. It ain’t Darfur. Cheating in sports is bad, but not as bad as in more serious parts of life. And no one even expects every instance of sports cheating to be taken too seriously. After all, Gaylord Perry, an acknowledged cheater, is in the Hall of Fame. No one cares about the fact that he threw spitballs. It has become a charming, roguish footnote to his career. Why is he different from Bonds?
Like the first, this argument has its merits, but it also has one big problem. Namely: Are we simply supposed to forgive all cheating in sports? Let’s go back to those cheating cyclists, sprinters, skiers and weight lifters. It’s pretty universally agreed that anyone who would root for an Olympic weight lifter, knowing he was juiced, would be amoral, a bad sport and generally beyond the pale. But if it’s “only a game,” why do we condemn the weight lifter and his fans, while defending Barry and his? Sure, the weight lifter’s cheating is worse than Bonds’, but only as a matter of degree. The principle is the same.
The truth is that my arguments are emotionally self-serving. They create just enough moral ambiguity to allow me to dismiss my qualms and do what I want — cheer wildly and without reservation.
The sad truth is that all of us sports fans are schizophrenics. The split is between our brains and our guts, or maybe it’s better to say between being mentally dressed and being naked. When we consciously think about a case like Barry’s, we get all dressed up; we put on our nice moral-rational clothes and condemn him. But when we cheer for him, we’re buck naked. And what we really want to do is surrender. We have to deal with ambiguity every second in the rest of our lives — we need the ballpark to be pure, like an epic. We want to worship and obey. (And we also want to hate and condemn. Bonds hatred probably derives from the same proto-fascist impulses that lie behind Bonds idolatry.) I don’t know if this goes back to the days of Beowulf and obeying the leader of the tribe, but it’s the way it is. Walking into the stadium is like entering a primeval never-never land. This is where you go to kick it. You take off your fancy clothes and do tribal dances. You have fun! It’s Dionysus with bad hot dogs. And anything that gets in the way of your fun is simply thrown out.
Fun is fun. And fun is so hard to come by these millennia, you don’t let anything stop you from having it. But fun at all costs also means embracing a cheater because he’s our cheater. Fun means the law of the jungle. Fun means British soccer hooligans. Fun means “many sticks bound together produce strength.” That isn’t a baseball bat, it’s a fasces. Barry Bonds has made all us Giant fans mini-Himmlers.
And not just Giants fans. Right now much of the rest of the country is pointing censorious fingers at Bonds and yelling, “Steroids.” But it simply has not yet discovered its inner Himmler.
Because this isn’t ultimately about Giants fans. It’s much bigger than that. This is universal. All fans are like this. When I was covering the Athens Olympic Games, I listened in disgust as 80,000 Greek fans roared and cheered for their two disgraced sprinters, who were kicked off the team for avoiding drug tests, and showered venomous boos on the American sprinters. I was outraged. And I’ve tried to tell myself that if I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t cheer for those sprinters. It’s true that Bonds’ offense isn’t as extreme. But I now realize that those Greek fans, too, just wanted to have fun and let out their tribal scream. They had their rationalizations, too, just like we Giants fans do. The fact is, we’re all chowing down on that same amoral souvlaki.
The Bonds case proves that our morality — at least our sports morality — is totally situational. His is a morally ambiguous case, and when the imperative to stand in judgment collides with a fan’s instincts, instincts win every time. If Major League Baseball really wants us to reject Barry, there’s only one answer: They’d have to ban him — and all the other players who used banned substances. Putting Bonds on the field in front of thousands of fans is like dumping J.Lo in bed with a 17-year-old boy. Self-restraint is not a realistic option.
So when we’re naked we cheer for Bonds. But when we get dressed, we have second thoughts. As my Salon colleague King Kaufman has noted, this is a colossal drag. The Bonds case has made our moral incoherence obvious, and that’s not supposed to happen. He’s like Hickey, the character in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” who shatters all the drunks’ illusions.
Most of the time, when we make these unsavory compromises, we perform some little act of mental penance to assuage our guilty consciences. The problem with being a fan is that you can’t do this, because it’s all or nothing. Even if you’re a Zen Buddhist, you can’t clap with one hand. Either you cheer for Bonds, heart and soul, or you don’t. There’s nowhere to hide.
I don’t know what it means, for society or for me, that we, and I, can’t make this moral equation come out right. Maybe it’s just one of those asymmetries that seem to be built into existence. If we can’t even make sense of the physical world, can’t reconcile quantum mechanics with Newtonian physics, why should we expect our moral books to balance? Anyway, I’ve made my peace with it. I’m not giving up my illusions. Or my memories.
I’ve been watching Bonds play for 14 years. It has been an amazing gift, watching one of the greatest athletes of all time — steroids or no steroids. Just as Jerry Rice‘s hydraulic, upright stride is imprinted in my brain, so is Bonds’ short, lethal, cobra-like swing, the bat exploding through the zone with such violent precision that it seemed to suck all the air out of the area around home plate. I can measure my life by his home runs. It’s the bottom of the ninth, Giants trailing 2-1, it’s the windup and the pitch and BARRY SWINGS and it’s HIT DEEP, way back, way back, OUTTA HERE, and in Washington Square, on a towel at Stinson Beach, walking down Jones Street, a solitary middle-aged man holding a transistor radio is pumping his fist joyously in the air. The camera pulls back, moving farther and farther away, and I watch him until he vanishes, his tiny arm still waving.
I went to one of the Giants’ last games a few weeks ago with my 17-year-old son. And when Barry came up we roared, just like we’ve been doing since Zach was tiny. We let the good old times roll. And I thought, we’re going to do this until we can’t do it anymore. We’re going to scream and chant and feel the power of the crowd and the love of our team and the chain lightning and the surrender to a common purpose and the joy of watching and cheering on this big, powerful, aging, enigmatic, flawed man whom we’ve been cheering on and marveling at for so many years.
And we won’t think about anything that takes that away from us. My son is, like all 17-year-olds, a much bigger and more passionate fan than I could ever be. He’s still capable of being personally wounded by a loss, the way I once was. He’s also, like all 17-year-olds, far more moral than his beaten-down stepdad. And that’s what he told me about Barry: I don’t want to think about it.
I don’t want to think about it either, and I don’t. I just spent more time thinking about it here than I ever have or ever will again. But from time to time the thought occurs to me: Are we only amoral about sports? Or is this the way we are in the rest of our lives, too? That’s too big a question to go into here. But I have a bad feeling about it.
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer. More Gary Kamiya.
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