I hope you are doing well. I am writing to you today, and doing so in a public forum, to address a subject about which I know you feel strongly. But for a small dig this morning, I have remained silent about this because I know how completely we disagree upon this issue.
Although I am now confronting this question squarely, I hope it will be made clear below that I do so not out of spite or malice, but in the spirit of friendship and respect. You have been gracious enough to write some genuinely kind things about me over the last couple of years and I approach this topic today with the same high regard for you and the virtues you champion.
Yesterday, I know, was a big day for you. You have been forthright and unapologetic in your admiration for and support of Barry Bonds during his successful pursuit of the major league career home run record. Upon his attainment of that milestone, you wrote to your hero:
Being your biggest supporter and fan is not always easy, but I can swear up and down - without a moment's hesitation - that I wouldn't rather it be anybody else.
For all the memories - and all 756 home runs. For being my hero on the baseball diamond. For helping to make me the sports fan I am today.
The comments that followed that posting, predictably, revealed the level of vitriol many baseball fans still harbor towards Bonds. I apologize for adding my voice to the din, but I feel the need to attempt to set you straight upon this, the most incongruous, and only indefensible, aspect of your sports fandom.
In your periodic defenses of Bonds, you have made the following three points consistently:
- Barry Bonds is the greatest baseball player of his generation and had established himself as such long before any alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs on his part.
- Steroids don't help you hit a baseball.
- A person does not get to choose his childhood sports heroes.
At this juncture, I should offer a disclosure which will, I hope, enable us to dispense with an ugly issue that has arisen in the course of the Bonds debate. I was raised, and yet remain, an Atlanta Braves fan. I was rooting against Bonds's team---hard; I can still take you to the spot in Athens where I was standing when Sid Bream rounded third---that night in 1992 when the Braves took out the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Championship Series. My hometown ballpark is located at 755 Hank Aaron Drive.
I am not neutral where this record is concerned. I want Aaron to be major league baseball's all-time home run king, so much so that I believe that, if Bonds retires at the end of this season, a last-place American League club should offer Aaron a contract to be its designated hitter next season so the rightful owner of the record can reclaim his proper place in the history books . . . and not just those portions of them which are not marred by asterisks.
Although my support for Aaron prevents me from claiming impartiality, I hope it at least relieves me of the burden of insisting that my disdain for Bonds is motivated by reasons other than race. I believe Mark McGwire's (short-lived) claim on the record once held by Roger Maris is as tainted as Barry Bonds's (likely also short-lived) claim on the record once held by Hank Aaron. To the extent that this is a black and white issue, those colors denote not the amount of melanin in particular athletes' skin, but degrees of moral turpitude in particular athletes' actions.
Indeed, I disliked Barry Bonds long before charges of steroid use cast even a shadow on his horizon. He always was surly and unlikable, but that has been true of many athletes, especially baseball players, including the Georgia Peach, Ty Cobb. I do not begrudge him that, even though it makes him an exceedingly unsympathetic hero in any drama.
My revulsion for Bonds may be traced back to the 1994 strike that drove me from the game of my youth until my son brought me back to the national pastime. During that dark period for the game, a legion of pampered athletes, complaining that they were not sufficiently overpaid, refused to show up for work, canceling the balance of what had been a splendid season.
Bonds, a star even then, famously asked a family court judge to reduce his child support payments because his decision to refuse to go to work had reduced his considerable income. I regarded that callous act with disgust then; now, as a father, I understand just how truly, deeply reprehensible that act was. Trust me, Peter, when I tell you that the day will come when you will have a son of your own and you will feel a deep pang of embarrassment that you ever idolized this sorry excuse for a human being.
I turn now to the three points you make in support of Bonds. As we shall see, each is true as far as it goes, but none goes as far as you would like to believe:
1. Barry Bonds is the greatest baseball player of his generation. You have defended this thesis capably and I do not contest your claims on his behalf. Had Bonds never put himself in a position to have to answer these allegations---had his physical transformation not been so grotesquely pronounced---his achievements could not have been gainsaid. Absent the understandable suspicions about steroid use, Bonds's Hall of Fame credentials would have been irrefutable.
We are not, however, discussing his worthiness for inclusion in Cooperstown, where, to put it delicately, no moral criteria ever have been applied to anyone not named Pete Rose. (That, though, is another rant altogether. . . .) We are discussing his worthiness to be idolized as a sports hero. Upon that point, I offer a single question in response: "So what?"
Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams had an understanding. The former referred to the latter as "the best hitter I ever saw" and the latter referred to the former as "the best ballplayer I ever saw." The Yankee Clipper got much the better of the Splendid Splinter in that exchange of compliments.
I have argued often that, in a team sport, individual achievement matters only to the extent that it serves team goals. This is why, for instance, no one mentions Dan Marino in the same conversation with Joe Montana. The former had nicer numbers; the latter contributed to championships.
Ted Williams's .406 season in 1941 was an impressive individual achievement . . . as, for the matter of that, was his .388 season in 1957, when the 39-year-old combat veteran's natural physical decline likely robbed him of the five hits he would have needed to have hit .400 again.
Williams's career, however, is one of singular achievements full of sound and fury that signified nothing for the only cause that mattered: victory. In 19 years with the Boston Red Sox, Williams led his team to one American League pennant and no World Series championships. In the 10 most important games of his career (seven World Series games and three games in which wins would have produced league titles), he hit .232 and made no significant contribution to his team's success.
Contrast that with the accomplishments of Joltin' Joe. In June 1949, DiMaggio, who had been held out of the lineup due to the painful preseason removal of a bone spur, took the field during a three-game series in Boston. His four home runs and nine R.B.I. led to a New York Yankees sweep. This put DiMaggio's team in a position to clinch the pennant with a two-game sweep of the Red Sox in the season's final games. DiMaggio, despite battling viral pneumonia, again led his team to victory.
Most notable, though, is DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak during that epochal year---for baseball, for America, and for the world---of 1941. During those 56 games, DiMaggio hit .408, drove in 55 runs, and scored 56 runs. On the day his hitting streak began, the slumping Yankees were five and a half games out of first place. On the day his hitting streak ended, the surging Yankees were well out in front of the rest of the league and well on their way to clinching the pennant on September 4 and finishing 20 games ahead of the second-place team.
Both Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams can claim extraordinary individual achievements. There is a difference, though: DiMaggio's accomplishments produced Yankee championships, while Williams's mattered, in the end, only to Williams. Joltin' Joe was a complete ballplayer, equally adept in the batter's box, on the basepaths, and in the field, and, in his 13 major league seasons, he contributed mightily to the winning of 10 pennants and nine world championships. What did Ted Williams ever win?
Likewise, what did Barry Bonds ever do for anyone except Barry Bonds? Nothing even vaguely reminiscent of DiMaggio's heroism is to be found in Bonds, about whom no latter-day Hemingway will ever write an Old Man and the Sea and of whom no modern Simon & Garfunkel will ever feel moved to croon, "A nation turns its lonely eyes to you."
Barry Bonds, like Ted Williams, is a tremendous individual athlete. That and a few bucks, as they say, will buy him a cup of coffee. Statistical excellence that does not translate to team victories yields nothing but a number, which sits prettily on the page but ultimately equals zero.
The difference between Joe DiMaggio and Barry Bonds is the difference between Herschel Walker and Eric Zeier; it is the difference between Vince Young and Ricky Williams. DiMaggio, Walker, and Young are fit heroes, but Bonds, Zeier, and Williams, whatever their individual attainments on the field, confirm that statistics are for losers. Bonds may be a marvel of technical precision (to the extremely limited extent that we are able to separate with certainty what was done by Barry from what may have been done by BALCO), but, as heroes go, Bonds is, at best, Tony Gwynn with a bad attitude.
2. Steroids don't help you hit a baseball. In one sense, of course, this is demonstrably true. Steroids don't improve eye-hand coordination. Steroids don't enhance patience at the plate. Steroids don't increase the studiousness of an attentive batter who keeps track of pitchers' tendencies and knows what pitch he is likely to see next. All of these are attributes in Bonds's arsenal and none of them were given to him, or heightened by, steroids.
There is, however, another, more important sense in which this statement is flatly false. If two batters take identical swings at identical pitches and make contact with the ball at identical points, but one of those batters is Barry Bonds in 1991 and the other of those batters is Barry Bonds in 2001, the former is likely to produce a loud out and the latter is likely to produce a home run.
It's like the BASF commercial that ends with the tag line: "We don't make a lot of the things you buy. We make a lot of the things you buy better." Steroids don't help you hit a baseball. They help you hit a baseball farther.
If it is, in fact, the case that steroids don't help you hit a baseball, I am left to wonder two things. First of all, why did so many sluggers take steroids from the late '80s to the early 21st century if they did not think they would enhance their power at the plate? Secondly, why did so many of the players who ingested performance-enhancing chemicals experience noticeable increases in their ability to smash pitches over the outfield wall? If steroids don't help you hit a baseball, was it just coincidental that the rise of steroids occurred simultaneously with the outburst in home run production?
Barry Bonds was a great hitter even before his suspicious power surge late in his career. He was not, however, on a pace to reach 756 before his body began to do things which I, as someone on the far side of 35, can attest are not natural in a man over a certain age. Examine, if you will, the picture you posted this morning:
God, genetics, and honest effort produced the ballplayer on the left. Can anyone claim with a straight face that they were responsible for producing the ballplayer on the right?
3. A person does not get to choose his childhood sports heroes. That may be true during childhood, but this dictum does not age well after the onset of adulthood.
In one of the postings I have linked to previously, you wrote that your "love affair with Bonds" began when you were "watching Pirates games a lot with my best friend (whose family hailed from Pittsburgh)." That is rather a tenuous connection. The family of a friend was from a place where your sports hero then played. You knew a guy who knew a guy who used to be somewhere one time.
Bonds's days in a Pirates uniform are long since ended. If he is elected to the Hall of Fame---which is by no means a certainty---he undoubtedly will be enshrined in Cooperstown as a San Francisco Giant.
Were I to gather together 100 people who have heard of Peter Bean and ask them to name the first city that popped into their heads when I said the name "Peter Bean," most would say "Austin," some would say "Washington, D.C.," and a handful might say "South Bend," but not one in 100 would answer "Pittsburgh."
It is one thing for me, a native Georgian, to continue to idolize Herschel Walker, another native Georgian. Since the Goal Line Stalker burst onto the scene the year I celebrated my 12th birthday, he has gone on to become a great ambassador for the University of Georgia, I have gone on to attain two degrees from the University of Georgia, and each of us has continued to maintain his ties both to the Peach State and to its flagship institution of higher learning.
Your ties to Barry Bonds always were more tenuous than that and the chords that bound you became attenuated and were severed long ago. You are rooting for him now out of sheer mere muscle memory, reflexively rather than reflectively, like an amputee scratching at a phantom itch in a limb removed long ago.
Why, though, am I bothering to write any of this? What does it matter to me whether you choose to admire an athlete whom I, like most sports fans, despise?
It matters because our friendship and our professional relationship are based not just on a shared love of sports, but upon a mutual respect. You are not just a sports fan; you are the right kind of sports fan.
You don't just love Mack Brown because he wins games for your favorite team; you love Mack Brown because he represents your university with class and character. I understand that, because I feel the same way about Mark Richt.
You don't just love Vince Young because he was a great athlete; you love Vince Young because his will to win drove his physical talents to a new level. I understand that, because I feel the same way about Herschel Walker.
Peter, you are an individual of class and character. You are universally respected not because you write passionately and well about the teams and athletes that matter to you (although you certainly do that), but because you hold yourself to a high standard, play within the rules, and strive to be the fine human being that everyone recognizes you are.
Your continued admiration of Barry Bonds, even in the face of his apparent betrayal of your loyalty and of everything for which you stand, is the only piece of the puzzle that does not fit. Your sports loyalties are of a piece with your personal relationships, which tie into your dignity and decency, which are reflected in the heroes you choose . . . in every instance except this one.
A single recent example speaks volumes upon this point. I know you've had a tough summer, so much so that our good friend Kanu felt the need to give you a public pep talk on last night's radio show. A month ago, something happened---I do not know what and would not presume to ask---that led you to write this:
I've always prided myself on the way that I treat the people that I care about. I've developed a huge base of friends in my life by treating people the right way and acting in a way that I would want others to treat me. This weekend, I let somebody down in a big way. I broke their trust. I lied.
That's maybe life's most painful sin - whether you're dishonest with a family member, girlfriend, friend, or yourself.
So let me take this chance to apologize publicly. You deserved better than that from me. I'm deeply sorry.
You didn't have to write that. Only a handful of people---heck, for all I know, only you and one other person on the face of the planet---know what that was about, yet you felt morally compelled to apologize publicly, in front of people you don't even know, to people you have never even met. You felt the need to write "I let somebody down" and "I lied" and "I'm deeply sorry."
Where's Barry's "I let you down"? Where's Barry's "I lied"? Where's Barry's "I'm sorry"?
You're not getting that kind of class and character from your hero, are you? What you're getting are declarations that he never knowingly used steroids. Barry's giving sworn testimony that he thought flaxseed oil and arthritis medication made his hat size grow like the Grinch's heart. If you truly believe this emotionally stunted, physically mutated, abhorrent individual with dangerously mismatched priorities helped to make you the sports fan you are today, you are giving far too little credit to yourself and far too much credit to him.
Peter, when you were a child, you thought as a child, you spoke as a child, you reasoned as a child, and you chose Barry Bonds as your sports hero. That choice represents the lone wrong turn in an otherwise commendable series of selections regarding sports loyalties that, much like everything else you do, was hallmarked by class and character.
The facts are these: Peter Bean is a good person and Barry Bonds is not. That selfish S.O.B. in San Francisco is unworthy of having a fan like you.
Grant was more right than he knew when he wrote that Barry Bonds's 756th home run was the 21st birthday of Giants fandom. Indeed it was . . . and, now that you (unlike Barry Bonds) are a man, it is time---it is well past time---for you to put away this childish thing.
The day will come when you will see that I am right about this. I hope that this is that day.
T. Kyle King