Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Tyranny of Time

At an All-Star Game press conference three years ago [2003], Bonds said that he wasn't interested in catching Aaron as much as in passing Ruth. "I wiped him out. In the baseball world, everything is Babe Ruth right?" he said. "I got his slugging percentage and I'll take his home runs and that's it, don't talk about him no more."
I'm going to give Barry Bonds what he wants -- I'm going to equate him with Babe Ruth.  But Barry is not going to like it.

The argument that Babe Ruth is the greatest baseball player who ever lived is undeniable.  He won 23 games with a 1.75 ERA in 1916, a year where he began his streak of 29 2/3 scoreless innings in the World Series with a 13 inning effort in game 2 against the Brooklyn Robins, propelling the Boston Red Sox to a 2-1 victory and a 2-0 lead in a World Series that Boston won a few days later.  And you thought that 10 innings from Jack Morris was an accomplishment, pshaw. Whitey Ford eventually broke Babe Ruth's scoreless innings record in 1961, in the same season where Babe Ruth's regular season home runs record of 60 was broken by Roger Maris.  No other player in history will ever be able to say that they carried notable records as a pitcher and batter for decades.

Had he remained on the mound, Babe Ruth probably would have been enshrined in Cooperstown as a pitcher.  Instead, he merely changed baseball and molded it into the offensive-laden game that we witness now.  To this day, we're still playing Babe Ruth's brand of baseball.

To understand Babe Ruth, though, you have to understand the time period when Ruth played.  In 1920, after the Yankees bought Ruth from the Red Sox, they converted him to an outfielder and he hit 54 home runs.  That was unheard of.  In 1921, he hit 59 homers.  Ruth had over 40 homers in 1923, 24 and 26 before hammering 60 home runs in 1927.  During a decade of Ruth's rampage against American League pitching, the post-war American economy recovered through the spread of electricity in cities, increased industrial production, and the introduction of automobiles, radio and motion pictures.

It was the Roaring Twenties and anything seemed possible.  Society and the notion of "modernity" changed rapidly, and Babe Ruth, amazingly, kept pace with the changing world.  Because of The Babe, the changes in baseball kept pace with the changes in society.

In this context, what we need to understand most about Babe Ruth is that he ceased being a person -- he became a metaphor.  A legend.  "The Roaring Twenties" and "Babe Ruth" are both synonymous with explosive progress, intractably intertwined into the American psyche.  Babe Ruth isn't the greatest baseball player ever simply because of his accomplishments on the field, but because of when achieved them.

To give you a sense of Babe Ruth's accomplishments, tell me how many home runs he hit.  Now recall from memory, immediately, how many home runs Barry Bonds hit.  Go ahead, I'm waiting.

Barry Bonds hit more home runs, but nobody gives a shit.  We know this is a fact, but we should ask why this is a fact.  That question would bring us to observe the current state of society.  We're not living in the Roaring Twenties anymore, and I don't think Barry Bonds wants to become the equivalent of Babe Ruth in the times that we live in now.  Not if Barry is smart.

It's really a shame that Barry Bonds had to become a steroids addict.  Before 1999, which is commonly agreed upon as the first year where steroids effected his stats, Bonds had a .273 batting average with 411 home runs and 437 stolen bases.  His batting average and home runs alone wouldn't have gotten him into the Hall of Fame, but those stolen bases really seal the deal.  Bonds was the complete player: Power, speed and defense.  This was a run creating machine.  In 12 seasons, beyond those 411 home runs and 437 steals, Bonds won 3 MVP awards and 8 Gold Gloves.  He was 33 in 1998, all he needed to do was play another 5 seasons averaging 20 homers and 20 stolen bases a season and he would have been a first ballot lock for Cooperstown.  He would have been remembered as one of the best players who ever played baseball.

Instead, Bonds took steroids and hit an unbelievable 292 home runs over the next 6 seasons, 1999 - 2004.  An average of 48.67 homers per season, and before 1999 his previous career high was 46 home runs in 1993.

The irony is that Bonds inflated his baseball statistics at the same time the American economy was being also being inflated to unrealistic proportions.  For the sake of brevity, the avoidance of politics, and the assumption that we're all well versed regarding the current state of our society, I won't expound too much on the American economy right now.  Just a couple of paragraphs.

Sticking to the facts, between Bonds' steroid years of 1999 - 2007, the American economy suffered the Dot Com Bust in 2001, then it rose on the Real Estate Bubble which was created and fed by large investment banks creating bonds out of bad mortgages (collateralized debt objects), which were "insured" by worthless credit default swaps sold by AIG.  Shortly after Bonds retired, all of this mortgage debt blew up in our faces and, without massive government bailouts, it almost knocked not just the American economy, but the whole global economy, into a depression.  We don't state such right now, but decades from now, history will likely view this as a complete failure of the capitalist system, because, well... It was.

Observing the state of the world outside of America since 2008 and the bailouts, the news gets worse.  The economy of Greece fell apart.  The European Union, and euro currency, teeter on the edge of a cliff.  Massive unemployment and lack of opportunity among young adults in the Arab world prompted the Arab Spring, causing the governments of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia to fall.  The protests in Egypt in Tunisia were benign compared to the civil war that Libya experienced; and the bloody civil war in Syria trudges into its second year unabated.  Meanwhile, back in America, the Real Estate bust has given way to the realization that our economic growth is stalling because we've saddled the latest generation with massive amounts of debt -- credit cards and student loans -- that they needed to amass just to get by.  During this time, China has turned to the Western world and said, "Hey? See our explosive economic growth?  Yeah, that's right, go FUCK yourselves."

It's difficult to condense the world we're living in right now into a temporal era without the benefit of retrospect that we won't experience until, at least, three to four decades from now.  But exactly how do you think future historians will classify the times we live in now, as happy fun time?  Hell no.  This, most definitely, isn't the Roaring Twenties.  Far from it.

So, the question that Barry Bonds wants to ask himself -- if he had two brain cells to rub together -- is if he really wants to become the face of baseball for this period of our country's history.  Babe Ruth became a metaphor because he represented a time period of unprecedented growth.  Does Bonds really want to risk becoming a metaphor for this time period?  This as of yet unnamed era of history that, surely, will not be remembered in the most grandiose of terms?  Does Bonds really want this to be his legacy?  Because if Bonds wants to be a Ruthian figure, he needs to understand that he'll be married to the era in which he lived.

Or does Barry want to apologize for his actions?

The choice is his alone to make.  For his talent and accomplishments as a player before 1999, Barry Bonds should be a lock for the Hall of Fame despite his nasty steroid habit.  But that's just not good enough anymore.  Bonds is not a normal player, and he should not be judged by normal standards.  Bonds wanted to be equated with Babe Ruth and -- congratulations! -- he accomplished his goal in the most grotesque manner possible.

If Bonds becomes a metaphor for America's hang over from the glory days, then I don't see how he deserves the honor of being in the Hall of Fame when he represents the antonym of fame: Infamy.  It was his choice to represent this ethos, and he'll need to suffer the consequences of his actions unless he repents and gives the fans he swindled an apology.  Only then could we consider bestowing the honor of fame upon him.

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