Thursday, August 09, 2007

A Defense of Barry Bonds: My One and Only Defense

First, A Little History

Growing up, I collected baseball cards. I still have them. A few of my little league baseball coaches would give us a dime if we won our game, and ten cents would buy a pack of Topps baseball cards with a flat piece of dry bubble gum attached to one of the cards. If you put your nose right against a card and take a big sniff, sometimes you can still smell the gum. I collected cards because I liked them. I would have never thought of them as an investment, although some of my cards are now worth over $1000.

I saw Hank Aaron play. When I lived in Wisconsin in the 1970s, he played for the Milwaukee Brewers. I can say that I saw the homerun record broken, because every time Aaron hit a homerun, he was breaking his own record.

I played competitive baseball from t-ball until the end of high school. By the time my baseball career (if you want to call it that) was over, I had played every position on the field in one season or another. I played on an undefeated team, 16-0, when I was an 11 year old. I still have five or six baseball trophies in some box somewhere.

I have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1987. In other words, I have been here for Barry Bonds entire Giants stay at San Francisco. I've seen him play several times, almost all over at Candlestick Park before the new ballpark was built. I have seen him hit homeruns, a few in crucial situations. I often listen to Giant games while I'm busy doing something else. This was normal for me while growing up, to have a baseball game on the radio in the background. We certainly have one of the best radio announcers of all time in Jon Miller. I have kept up with the box scores of Giants games via newspaper and internet.

My Disclaimer Concerning Baseball Players

I don't think baseball players are role models. I don't. I think they are like any other people who have had professions. Some of the greatest players, like Ty Cobb, were some of the most onerous human beings. I don't think that they have any unique obligation to behave in a better way than anyone else on earth. I don't expect Barry Bonds to have a charming personality. I might like him better as a person if he did, but that doesn't change what I think of him as a baseball player. When I am watching or listening to a baseball game, it doesn't matter to me whether I think the player has a nice personality. A lot of what we think of players relates directly to how they treat the media. If the player does not treat the media favorably, the media will make him look like a worse human being, as if behavior is mainly measured by how one relates to newspaper writers and television reporters.

I start with all baseball players by evaluating their faithfulness to church. They play on Sundays. They can't have any kind of consistent church attendance with games on Sunday. I don't think it even matters for most professional baseball players. Because of that, I don't set any of them up as an example to follow. They are playing a game. A game. And they get paid because baseball is entertainment, so they are entertainers. Any true Christian would not play baseball on Sunday. He couldn't because church and the Lord's day is too important to him.

That being said, I personally don't think that Barry Bonds has a winsome personality. He's probably never been a fun teammate for most. He's likely been difficult to manage by many coaches. If I had him as a teammate, I wouldn't care as long as he produced on the field. I think I too should leave my ego at the door and judge a baseball player by how he plays baseball. He is getting paid to play baseball and should be judged by how he does that.

Did He Take Steroids?

I haven't read Game of Shadows, and won't. I'm not interested in this enough to take the time to read a book about it. I don't trust reporters any more than I trust anyone else, and maybe less. They don't like Barry Bonds. He is a polarizing figure, who can make people money if they write about him. People usually either love or hate Barry Bonds, just like the Oakland Raiders, the Dallas Cowboys, or the LA Lakers. Because people are interested in him, he gets written about. Everyone is looking for a new take, and all of this combined results in Barry Bonds disliking the media even more. He doesn't treat them well and partly because he doesn't think he's been treated well.

Here is what we know for sure. Barry Bonds has never tested positive for steroids. He has been the most scrutinized player in baseball for the last ten years and still no one has conclusively found steroids in his body. Others have failed tests. Others have said they have come out publically to say that they have taken them. I have always said innocent until proven guilty. I like our system of justice. Accusations are not enough to convict in the United States of America. You say, "What about the court of public opinion?" People have their opinions, but I believe we should give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

Alright, so the questions come, what about the change in his body as he has aged? I look at how his body has changed and I see the exact changes in my body. If he's on steroids, then I must be too. At the age of 25 I was 6'3", 185 pounds. Now I fluctuate between 210-220 lbs or so. You say, "You got fat." Well, no. I work full time as a pastor, so I don't lift weights like a professional athlete, but I have consistently lifted three days a week at least now for 20 years. I lift weights most of those days less than 30 minutes. From that 20 years of consistency, I have big, muscular shoulders, arms, and chest, which anyone who knows me can attest too. I dwarf what I was 20 years ago, like I'm a totally different person. Part of it is also physical maturity. So I look at Barry Bonds, and I think that he had a better diet and lifted and worked out far more than I have. If I was a professional athlete, I know for sure that I would have bulked up at least as much as he has. His physical growth does no surprise me at all.

I don't know about all the speculation about his hat and foot size. I do know that many people's feet swell up as they get older. Mine have. I still have my college football helmet. I wore a 7 1/4. I can't get it on now. I wear at least a 1/2 inch larger size than then. What happened? I've never sniffed steroids or even used a protein powder or health drink. I've just had a basic, regular American diet. I'm thinking that a lot of the people who have had comments about his size haven't had much of a work-out regime in their life, and are mainly a bunch of armchair players. Maybe he did take steroids, but I don't have definitive proof, so in the absence of that, I ignore it. I also know that many consider it the steroid era, so that the playing field was fairly even because many were taking these kinds of supplements to gain whatever edge or confidence they thought they could get.

Some say, "But what about his huge numbers after he was 37 years of age? No one else has done that." Many athletes are doing far more at later years if you haven't noticed, due to work-out and diet changes especially in the last 25 years. When I went through high school, we were told not to lift weights. Now, almost everyone lifts a lot. When you build up that muscle, you will be protected from other injuries if you keep a degree of flexibility. Did you just read that at the national swimming competition a woman 40 years of age won the 50 freestyle championship? Hitting a baseball is different than other sports. If you can keep yourself in good shape, you will get better at hitting because of experience. Bonds had perfected his home-run stroke, something that takes perfecting, almost like a golf swing. He had become more selective than ever, and he swings more than anyone in history at the best pitches to hit. That takes an amazing eye, which has nothing to do with size and strength. Have you noticed that Bonds fielding was deteriorating as his hitting was still maximized? Why weren't Bonds' steroids helping in the field? I didn't think that steroids could work so selectively, giving him superhuman hitting while he was eroding big time in the field. He went from a gold glove fielder, considered by some to be one of the best of all time, to a middle-of-the-pack fielder.

Look at Bonds now, at 43. He isn't taking steroids. He is being watched more closely than anyone. His OPS, combination of on-base percentage and slugging percentage, is 50 points higher than the next man in the entire major leagues. He hardly has cartlidge in his knees. What can we attribute that to? He surely isn't on steroids now, so why do his homeruns travel to prolific places that almost no other human being can hit? You can't have it both ways. And yet in the field, he still has great instincts and skills, but his physical condition makes him one of the poorest left-fielders in the National League. I see him as having worked so hard on his hitting stroke, that he took it to a whole new level, along with some of the most rigorous work-outs of anyone in baseball. He is a master technician at the plate.

Why Does He Deserve to be Considered the Home Run King?

Barry Bonds has been walked by far more than any other player in baseball. It isn't even close. He has been intentionally walked almost three times more than the next man on the list. So to start, he doesn't get as many at bats per season because pitchers (who might have been on steroids) are so careful with him. He has had at least 2000 less at bats than Hank Aaron. In each of his at bats, he gets far less good pitches to hit. In a game a few years ago, he was intentionally walked with the bases loaded. In every at bat, he may get one good pitch to hit. In a whole game, he might get one or two pitches to hit. When he gets that pitch to hit, he has more consistently hit it. He gets treated in a unique fashion that would work against hitting home-runs, that is within the letter of the rules, but not the spirit of baseball.

Barry Bonds has played most of his games in parks very difficult to hit homeruns. Pac Bell is one of the most difficult parks to hit homeruns in, and it is worst in right field, where Barry Bonds power alley is. You could see case in point in the all-star game this year. I didn't see the game, but I know that the left handed hitters were at a severe disadvantage in that homerun derby. Right handers won and finished in the top tier because of that. Candlestick was notoriously difficult to hit homeruns because of the horrendous wind.

Barry Bonds has played the outfield with no designated hitter. He wouldn't have the fresh legs of a Henry Aaron, who hit many of his later homeruns as a DH in the American League.

Bonds, by the admission of many big leaguers, has had the best hand eye coordination of anyone they have ever seen. He picks up the ball out of the pitchers hand faster than anyone. He has an amazing eye. He has perfected his swing. He knows when to choke up on the bat to give him more quickness on the inside pitches. Bonds has figured out the swing more than any modern player, just like Wayne Gretzky figured out hockey at a whole different level than other players.

If the Lord tarries, he lives, and baseball continues, he's going to hit more. He hit another one last night into McCovey Cove, bringing the number to 757. It was a towering, majestic shot to a place few others have hit a baseball. Bonds has been a player like no other in my lifetime. When he gets up to bat, people still expect him to hit a homerun. He still is a disruptive force for other pitchers, basing their approach to the whole Giants' line-up to where he comes in the order. He has made the players around him much better players. Jeff Kent became the player he is today when he was able to be around Bonds and bat after him. Everything about his hitting increased with the influence of Bonds.

What Effect Do Steroids Have on Hitting?

I assert that we don't even know what steroids have done to home-run hitting. Many have said that size of parks and hardness of baseball have had a greater impact. Tony Oliva, former American League batting champ, has recently said:

I hope baseball can soon stop talking about steroids. What I do know is the ballparks (today) are smaller and the ball is harder. I know those are two reasons for more home runs. Maybe steroids were the third reason. I don't know.
After that, we also have the new work-outs and diet regimes of the new players. Ted Williams hit 521 homeruns in his career and he was an absolute bean pole. In an essay about what Ted Williams said about hitting, Robert Nishihara writes:

A good hitter must identify a pitch to hit, know enough about the pitcher and the game situation to give himself the best chance to succeed, and put hands and hips into motion to drive the pitch. Nowhere does Williams mention that muscle mass aides in any of those critical elements. Williams, himself, of course, was rail-thin, and yet, he managed to crank out 521 career homers.

Sure, added muscle mass may increase the distance a player is able to hit a baseball, but what negative effect does that added mass have in altering the fluidity of the player's swing and, thus, his ability to hit the ball in the first place? A popular baseball refrain cautions fast players who have deficiencies in the batter's box that one cannot steal first base. Similarly, a power hitter cannot hit a home run if he cannot hit the ball. And hitting a baseball is a unique skill in the world of sports. It is a powerful act that does not require extraordinary muscle strength. Instead, it is primarily dependent on technique, reflexes, and hand-eye coordination, not brute strength. It is a correlation that so many people are failing to make these days.
Some have said that steroids aid in focus and agression, strengthened confidence. Except for no cartlidge in his knees and advanced age, I don't see anything different in what Barry Bonds is doing regarding focus and agression. Those are rather ambiguous traits to use as a basis for calling someone a cheater.

So What's My Conclusion

I know there is an east coast bias in baseball writing. East Coasters, which include most baseball television personalites, disrespect the baseball efforts of West Coast teams. They miss a lot of their games because of time. Then people hate Barry Bonds because of his personality. A lot of that he has earned himself, but he is also covered and scrutinized more, and has become more and more prickly through the years. Because Bonds treats the media poorly, that's how they treat him. Barry Bonds has also put a dagger in the collective hearts of many baseball fans with homeruns he has hit against other teams. He's the man people love to hate. He comes across as totally arrogant and self-absorbed, cocky. They want to see him brought down because of those things.

It is my opinion that Bonds gets disrespected as a player because people don't like his personality. I believe there are sour grapes because the other teams don't have him, but San Francisco does. He doesn't get credit for how hard he worked. If he was on their team, they would love him as a player. He hasn't always run hard to first and sometimes he performs certain antics on the field, but in so many different ways, including intangibles, he has displayed greatness as a baseball player.

Bonds should be considered one of the top two or three hitters of all time. He is by far the best player in the last two decades in baseball. He has the statistics to show it. He has endured much opposition in order to set the record as the number one homerun hitter of all time. He has also had many factors working against him, and yet he has succeeded anyway.

He is one of three 40-40 men in baseball history. He will be in very exclusive club when he reaches his 3,000 hit sometime early next year. Only three or four others are in the fraternity of over 500 homeruns and 3,000 hits. He has 7 MVP awards. He has 8 gold gloves. He doesn't run out ground balls because he thought it was important for his team to be in the line-up instead of pulling a muscle running out an out at first base. He had an amazing jump on the ball in the outfield, kept as many balls as any from getting through the outfield, and he hits his cut-off. He perfected the pivot on balls down the line to throw out runners trying to stretch a single into a double at second base. He rarely was thrown out at home plate on a single in the outfield. I believe he deserves consideration as the home run king in a very legitimate way.

7 comments:

Bobby Mitchell said...

I saw Barry play several times at the old Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh when I was in my teens. The greatest ending to a baseball game I've ever seen came off of his bat. Bottom of the ninth. Down by one. Bonilla on first. 2 strikes. A bunch of fouls to stay alive. And then---BOOM. HOMERUN!!!!

All the fans stayed around for quite some time stomping, cheering, and carrying on. He even came out and took his hat off--the whole deal. He was young then and everybody loved him. That homerun ran on the various sports videos for years. Maybe it still does.

I still have two of his Topps rookie cards that I got in packs with the cheap, hard piece of gum.

It seems like it is hip, cool, and popular to hate Barry. That would be part of the reason I still like him.

Just don't forget that he was a Pittsburgh Pirate before he played for SF.

Congratulations, Barry. Thanks for the memories.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Bobby,

Another thing we have in common, but that people can hate us for. Maybe that's the whole thing, we represent Barry Bonds whole career between us. Now all he needs to do is become a Yankee, and he'll have more people to hate him, especially in Boston.

KB

Kent Brandenburg said...

Is Bonds still on steroids? He hit 756, the next night 757, then he had a day off, and tonight, he's walked, and then 758 with a man on. Explain that.

Jeff Voegtlin said...

I heard he was taking MEGAman VitaMANs, MEGAmemory pills, and he enrolled in a patented speed reading program.

Mike Hess said...

Kent,

Like I have said before to other Bonds loyalists - It must be something that they put in the water in San Francisco! I know this living close to St. Louis...Bonds would NEVER have been popular here. I also know that his popularity would not have lasted long in Chicago. Barry Bonds is about Barry Bonds...pure and simple.

Question for Bonds and his defenders - HAS BONDS EVER PUBLICLY SAID THAT HE DID NOT DO STEROIDS...EVER??? To this day, I have heard nothing about him denying it. Bottom line is this, he is not alone regarding the issue of performance enhancing drugs. Many in this era will have to answer some serious questions regarding this issue. There is still to this day no test for Human Growth Hormone which also helps a bit concerning a player's strength and size.

Sorry Kent, I just don't buy it. This guy in my book has zero legitimacy. On another note, I would hesitate to say that a baseball player could not be a true Christian. I have heard some rather compelling testimonies from some players. But I would concur that playing on Sundays is a less than desirable situation for a Christian. But many Christians in other lines of work have to do the same thing (i.e. the police, fire fighters, nurses, doctors etc.)

Go Cubs!

Mike

Kent Brandenburg said...

Mike,

If anyone needs to check the water, it's Cub fans. Bonds has denied using steroids knowingly. In a leak of grand jury testimony he claimed to unknowingly use "the cream," a kind of ointment rub. What would be persuasive is if you could answer a couple of things:
1) Why is his hitting production still better than anyone else's (OPS---combined OBP and SP at 1088 as of today? Second place is 40-50 points behind.
2) Why haven't the steroids impacted his fielding? The steroids supposedly gave Ben Johnson incredible running ability in his 100 meter Olynpic gold medal. Bonds fielding has gone exponentially down, because he can't run. His stolen base totals are almost non-existent.

You can dislike his personality, but if that colors your decisions about him, then you're the one who is biased. :-)

I grew up a Cub fan---Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Joe Pepitone, Fergie Jenkins. I saw Tom Seaver pitch at Wrigley field.

KB

Anonymous said...

No the greatest play involving Bonds was in 92 when Sid Bream scored on him to win the NLCS. Guess he hadn't started taking steroids yet. He sat in left field in old Atlanta Fulton County Stadim with his head in his hands after losing to Braves twice in 7 games.

Bonds is a great player but he will always be stigmatized as a steroid user and also he never won the world series.