An Unfriendly Game

Seeing Alex Rodriguez hit his 25th grand slam of his career that other night made me ponder the question of how many home runs he was behind the immortal Barry Bonds.  Immortal in my eyes because I’ve always respected the great Giants and Pirates outfielder for the years he was able to contribute to the team and to the game.  I know all the stories about BALCO and Victor Conte.  But I also know that nothing was ever proven.  Barry was never convicted of anything.  Barry is also the one that has to live with any of the repercussions if he had taken anything.  By the way, after hitting the slam, Alex was 83 HRs behind Bonds.

What is interesting also for me about Barry, that I just found out, is that he is a cousin to Reggie Jackson.  I didn’t grow up watching Reggie play and what I know of Reggie I’ve learned from reading and watching The Bronx Is Burning.  I know Reggie could be aloof and I know he could be someone who “stirs the drink” so to speak.  Sometimes he made the headlines for the wrong reasons and sometimes it was for the right reasons but Reggie was well, Reggie and that was something that I think at that time people were having a hard time adjusting to.  The Boss didn’t like his outlandish ways and maybe even some players on the team questioned it.  In Pittsburgh, players celebrated guys like Doc Ellis, while he stood up and fought for the right to wear his hair a certain way.  In New York, The Boss tried to tell you how to do it when to do it and what you were going to say.  He walked all over poor Billy Martin, the poor guy was so worn out by the time he retired, he was a like a pair of shoes a puppy just got through with.  But Reggie did his best to keep a hold of himself during the changing time of New York where social and economic challenges were taking effect.  He tried to become a glue for everyone at the team and in the New York area.  Sometimes I think The Boss was the one who wanted to be that glue.

But when Barry moved to San Fran to a park built almost specifically with him in mind, right field foul pole is 309 feet from home, in 2000 it seemed like the perfect time for the assault on Aaron to begin.  He crushed 158 of them in AT&T park in 7 years there.  He hit 139 in Candlestick Park and 89 in the now destroyed Three Rivers Stadium that was the home of the Pirates.  So more than half of them he hit at home, but what’s also interesting about Barry is that he also holds the record for most Intentional Walks with 688.  So if you think about it pretty much every time you are getting up to bat with runners on or even in one of his best seasons, 2004, he had 373 AB 45 HR 120 IBB but yet he still hit .362.  Even if some random guy took steroids as he’s been claimed to do, they can’t hit like that.  He has a phenomenal eye at the plate.

Unfortunately Barry was a lot like his cousin in the sense that he was aloof and he valued his privacy.  He wanted time away from the park.  He didn’t want you to follow him.  He didn’t always seem to want the attention but sometimes he did.  It was a love hate relationship with the attention and like Reggie at times it could be ugly with the media.  When BALCO came out the national media jumped on it and ran.  Other players were doping and Bonds was doing super human things so he must be too.  Hell Babe Ruth did superhuman things  he must have been doing something too.  There was no drug testing then.  I mean who really knows what was being done, what wasn’t being done.

What I do know is that some years back Charles Barkley said he wasn’t a role model.  Well hell he was right.  Barry isn’t a role model.  Athletes aren’t role models.  But for some reason we keep treating them like role models.  I don’t know if it’s this mentality that “we give them our money so they have to do what we say,” or “they are paid so much money they must act this way?”

Let’s turn it around.  Let’s say you won the lottery and suddenly someone dumped oh I don’t know, 100 million dollars all at once on your lawn.  What would you do?  Would you go out and buy a car?  Would you buy a new house?  A big house?  Go on vacation?  New clothes?  New this…new that?  Would you keep your job?  Maybe you’d have to?  Maybe you’d run out of money?  Think about that.  What if you still had some of that money and that big house and you were working.  Let’s say you screwed up at work, and you came home and there were 10,000 people at your big house as soon as you got out of your fancy car screaming at you.

“Hey asshole, why’d you send that email?  Didn’t you see it was addressed wrong?”

And it just went on and on around the 10,000 people.  So to escape you went in the house.  But when you flipped on the TV, there was more on the TV everywhere you looked about your email.  The newspaper had a huge interview with your coworker and the email was leaked.  Can you imagine?  Imagine how everywhere you went your mistakes were magnified on such a huge scale.

Now, think about your current life.  You say you would gladly play in the pros, for the love of the game.  Really?  Cause you want 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 thousand fans screaming at you every night when you screw up?  Yeah so you have the money but they are going to crucify you for that.  If you go near someone who might have some connection to a lab, you are juicing, even if no one has any proof.  You’ll never be convicted of and no matter how good you are at hitting and stealing bases, no one cares because you are already convicted in some people’s eyes.  You are supposed to be a role model after all.  You are supposed to take their money and be what they want you to be.  You aren’t supposed to be you.

I mean Allen Iverson found that out the hard way too.  He couldn’t be him.  We laugh at his practice interview but dig deeper into that.  He’s fighting against being something you want him to be and something he wants to be.  Is it fair?  I don’t know.  There’s no fair in sports.  We’ve created what amounts to an unfriendly game. It’s not friendly to anyone that plays it.  They give their bodies, minds and souls to the game and we still want more.  When they go out there and bleed and break bones we expect them to come back and finish the game.  We call them soft when they don’t.  The ones that chose to take something to help them come back we call cheaters, even though we’re the ones that expect them to keep coming back, especially when the lifespan of an athlete is so small.  When they give everything they have and it’s all over, what’s left?  We dump them and move on to the next in line.  We just forget.  But yet we expect them to act a certain way only for us to forget, to neglect, to say you aren’t as good anymore, we don’t want you anymore, we’re through.

We ditched a man who gave his mind his soul and his body to the game, he tried to maintain a sense of privacy and a sense of self.  But in a way, we took that away from him.  We forced him to defend himself from us.  We accused him of “not loving the game enough” to not take performance enhancing drugs to keep playing.  But he loved the game so much that he broke himself down in front of us every day in pursuit of the home run record.  He broke down his psyche and every day he went home to build it back enough to come back to face us and the criticism.  He didn’t deserve that and we didn’t have the right to crucify him and threaten to throw asterisks on his records.  No one throws asterisks on our lives or the things we do.  No one comes up behind us every day after work asking for a quote even though our legs hurt and our back aches.  Yeah yeah, he gets paid a lot of money blah blah.  It’s not about the money is it?  If everything was about the money wouldn’t we all be following Bill Gates after work and looking for a quote or watching what he does?  He makes way more than Barry ever did.  Barry had the misfortune to have America turn its collective back on him, and it’s time we turn back and put him where he belongs and that’s in the Hall of Fame.  Unfortunately it’s an unfriendly game and most of America still sits in the stands heckling.