Monday, February 28, 2005

Bonds Should Be Ashamed

Once the steroid issue fully reared its head, complete with leaked grand jury testimony and name-dropping from has-been players, it was only a matter of time before someone dropped the other shoe. The shoe that always gets dropped when a controversial issue arises in sports.

I’m talking about the race card, of course. And we now have it woven into the steroid issue courtesy of the one guy involved who has no business playing it – Barry Bonds.

To be fair in letting you judge my comments on this issue, let me state my position up front as clearly as possible. I believe steroids are the worst thing to come along in baseball since gambling. It robs the game of its integrity and obliterates the one thing about the sport that made it unique; its long history of comparing players across eras. How can anyone now measure Rafael Palmeiro against Harmon Killebrew, or Gary Sheffield against Orlando Cepeda? We can’t, because we don’t know how much steroids may have inflated their performance.

And let’s clear up one other aspect of this that some try to hang their hats on. No, using steroids wasn’t against the rules in baseball until relatively recently, but they certainly were illegal to obtain and use without a doctor’s prescription. Any player who did so committed a crime, whether baseball wants to recognize it as such or not. Criminal activity is addressed in standard player contracts, and purchasing illegal steroids would have qualified.

While we’re at it, let’s also dismiss the ridiculous assertion that steroids don’t help with baseball activity. That’s patently false, as anyone who took 11th-grade science can attest. Even if no one can prove the assertions that human growth hormone improves eyesight, and therefore hand-eye coordination, leading to improved contact and pitch identification, it’s indisputable that steroids enhance the development of muscle mass and muscle performance. This has been the case for years. Just refer to Ben Johnson in the 1988 Olympics. Well, as Ms. Berry would have told me back in high school:

Force = Mass x Acceleration.

If you have artificially enhanced muscle mass, you can swing a larger bat with more speed than non-juiced players. Both mass and acceleration have been enhanced by the steroids, equating to more force applied to each batted ball. Before Barry Bonds or anyone else decides to argue to the contrary, they should crack open an old textbook first.

So that’s my view – steroids are a blight on the game, their use was illegal in society if not specifically in baseball, and they have an absolute affect upon players’ performance on the field. Players who used them have disgraced both themselves and the game.

And I don’t give a fiddler’s fart what color they are.

I am certain that black players still generally face more difficult circumstances in baseball than their white counterparts, even today. I know that the majority of black players in the game’s history faced even worse circumstances, ranging from open racial slurs to death threats. As Bonds suggests, the legacies of many black players really have been unfairly tarnished, in some cases, by media members who judged them by their skin color rather than by their accomplishments or talents. I have written about that very subject in regard to Jim Rice’s treatment by the media and fans in Boston. It was, in a word, shameful. It is entirely proper that people make this point when discussing the perceptions of black ballplayers throughout history.

But not when it comes to steroids. This isn’t an issue of the players involved being unfairly targeted by bigoted fans or reporters. Those facing the primary criticisms are those who have admitted using steroids, have been directly implicated in using steroids, or have provided us with ample anecdotal evidence in terms of altered appearance and sudden jumps in performance to speculate about their use. The three players in the absolute spotlight of this attention – Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, and Jason Giambi – fit all three criteria. These are not innocent bystanders, unfairly questioned without evidence. These are men who have either openly admitted to using steroids, or reportedly admitted doing so to a grand jury. In short, they cheated, all of them.

Each of the three is of a different ethnicity – one black, one latino, one white. Others who have been mentioned also span the races that make up the vast majority of ballplayers. Gary Sheffield is black. Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro, and Ivan Rodriquez are latino. Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire are white. All we are missing is Asian players.

It seems pretty clear that there is no racial component to steroid use at all. And I don’t see any extra focus being placed upon Bonds that isn’t warranted. After all, he has widely been labeled the greatest player ever, or at least is up for consideration for that honor. He’s on the brink of breaking baseball’s most prestigious record. Sorry, Barry, but that’s going to garner a lot of attention. Throw in the possibility that he’s going to break that record because he used banned substances for several years, and of course the attention is going to be overwhelming.

None of that should have been unexpected to Bonds, and he had a reasonable example of how to handle the media crush if he had watched Giambi’s forthright (if somewhat aborted) apology and ongoing concentration on getting ready for the season. Would a simple, “Sorry, I can’t discuss anything to do with the trial”, have been so demanding? It’s not the answer the media or public wants, and many certainly would have used such a response to crucify Bonds for failing to be forthcoming. No one ever said this situation wasn’t going to be difficult to handle. But it’s a situation of Bonds’ own making, and he could have chosen to handle it in the least controversial manner possible.

Instead, he went down the opposite path, choosing to inflame the situation even further by implying he’s being treated unfairly because of his color. And that the media are all liars, and that he’s had it harder than Babe Ruth, and that steroids don’t help you hit a baseball anyway, and that he doesn’t even know what cheating is, and on and on. It was a rant, one that was obviously contrived to deflect the conversation toward anything but the real topic – that Bonds knowingly cheated the game.

To hear Bonds tell it, the media is supposed to just let the matter drop because Bonds is black. Or perhaps they are supposed to ask him only as many questions as Giambi has had to face, despite his more renowned status in the game’s history. That’s ludicrous, of course. To do so would be to flaunt all journalistic ethics.

And yet, that’s exactly what some are doing. Jason Whitlock used his most recent column in the Kansas City Star to call the media’s treatment of Bonds a “witch hunt”, as if the man has done nothing wrong. Howard Bryany, a columnist for the Boston Herald, appeared on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” on Sunday and also agreed with Bonds that his race is a factor in how this story is being reported.

They, and others like them, have allowed Bonds to succeed. The issue is no longer whether he cheated the game, it’s whether or not the media is racist. Bonds’ apologists have allowed him to manipulate them for his own purposes. They have allowed this discussion to become O.J. all over again. Black people are lining up to support the insupportable, Bonds, while any whites who hold the opposite view have to live with being labeled racists for doing their jobs. Dusty Baker went so far as to draw a direct comparison between Bonds’ situation and O.J. Simpson’s. He was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying:

"I mean, O.J. was found [not guilty] but in the minds of a lot of people he was still guilty. Why do we have this system in place here if you're going to be exonerated for something and still be guilty?"

Baker has allowed himself to conveniently forget that O.J. Simpson was found responsible for the death of his wife and her friend by a court of law. Simpson lives under the ongoing financial cloud of a multi-million dollar judgment against him, yet Baker acts as if Simpson is somehow blameless. All he remembers is the criminal trial, and the rejoicing of most blacks in this country at the not guilty verdict. And Baker certainly isn’t alone. It’s Baker, and others who share his views, who are guilty of viewing this issue solely through the prism of race, not the reporters who question Bonds. It’s they who conveniently forget the facts about O.J. and the facts about Bonds simply because they are black.

And why? While there are certainly multitudes of black athletes who have been wronged in various ways because of prejudice, Barry Bonds can hardly claim to be among them. He grew up the child of a famous millionaire major leaguer player. He was endowed with enormous financial and physical blessings for his entire life. This wasn’t the child of a sharecropper from Alabama, who was spit upon in the bus leagues or forced to suffer through the inferior quality of segregated restaurants, schools, bathrooms and hotels. He’s a child of privilege. To play the race card in his favor is patently ridiculous, and it’s a disgrace to all black ballplayers who did suffer the ignominy of racist behavior.

I could use any number of other black players as an example, but I’m going to use Jim Rice because I know his situation better then most. Rice had real disadvantages because of his skin color. He grew up in a working class family in the South, and had to learn real work at an early age. His high school coach threw him off the team his sophomore year for a lack of hustle, and only allowed him back on when apologized and begged for a second chance. By his senior year, once he had made a reputation as the best player to come along in years, the school board re-wrote the high school boundaries to include his street in the area that attended the white high school. Once he graduated, the boundary shifted back again.

Rice always had to work a job, and took his responsibilities to his employer so seriously that he almost never played major league ball at all. With several major league scouts waiting for him to appear at an American Legion game, Rice wouldn’t leave his job on a loading dock because his replacement hadn’t arrived yet. Consequently, many scouts left before seeing him, and most who remained labeled him lazy because they didn’t know he was laying down in the dugout between innings because he had worked a full shift on the dock before the game.

When Rice finally reached the majors, his arrival coincided with the racial conflicts in Boston regarding busing. He had to watch buses full of black children being stoned by Irish Southies on the evening news every night, then face the microphones of acerbic media members named Ryan, Sullivan, Murphy, Callahan or McDonough. He had to endure the loneliness of having no black teammates for four years worth of games during his career, and had to listen to some of the home fans in Boston calling him “Uncle Ben” from the left field seats. When he returned to South Carolina in the off-season to play a little golf, he was told to his face that the only reason he was allowed to play the nicest course in town was because he was a famous ballplayer. Otherwise, his skin color would have confined him to the public course in town.

And how did Rice react to this treatment? Did he play the race card? Did he cheat? Did he inject himself with steroids to help recover from the injuries that forced him to retire at 36? No, because his parents and his coaches taught him personal responsibility early in life, a lesson he never forgot.

Now, years later, Rice can’t get elected to the Hall of Fame, partly because he was portrayed in the media as a jerk and partly because he didn’t cheat to extend his career. He took the abuse with stoicism and suffered the resultant damage to his reputation. He took the responsibility to play the game hard and with honesty, and wouldn’t allow himself to cheat the game with illegal drugs. Bonds has done Rice, and countless others who preceded him, a dual disservice. First he cheated the game and cheapened their accomplishments with artificially bloated statistics, then he cheated their legacy for facing down racism by implying that his cushy upbringing compared to theirs.

What Bonds’ apologists have done is a further disservice. They have lent legitimacy to his ludicrous complaints, and allowed Bonds to escape responsibility for his actions. Both Bonds and his apologists should be ashamed of themselves.

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