Swing and a Myth

Baseball's extraordinary season was staged by a mix of good and bad guys.

Have you heard? Barry Bonds is an arrogant egotist who has three lockers in the San Francisco Giants clubhouse but not three friends on the entire team. He's a slugger who hit 73 home runs this season but wouldn't score 23 points in a fan approval poll. He's uncouth, ungrateful and unlovable. He's everything that's wrong with the game these days and nothing it should be. Barry bin Laden. Everywhere but on the shores of McCovey Cove, Barry is baseball history's unwelcome guest. Where is cuddly, camera-friendly Mark McGwire when we need him?

Well, let's get over it, shall we? And while we're at it, let's get over our communal dislike for Rickey Henderson, too. Sure, Rickey's a hotdog, even at age 43. The night he broke the major-league scoring record held for 73 years by another pillar of the game, Ty Cobb, he slid into home plate for no other reason than to celebrate his personal triumph. Claiming purity, many baseball fans bemoaned the gesture. They remembered that when Henderson broke the all-time record for steals a few seasons back, he yanked third base out of the ground and held it aloft, like the bloody head of a vanquished enemy. Baseball fundamentalists hated him for that one, too.

Let's not deceive ourselves. Not every great player in baseball gives off the personal warmth of Tony Gwynn or shows the ironclad selflessness of Cal Ripken Jr. Secret: Not every ballplayer is a good guy. Pete Rose, who holds the records for career hits and career hustle, trashed his off-the-field image with belligerence and gambling scandals. Babe Ruth was a womanizing boozer who never bothered to learn the names of his own teammates. Cap Anson was a virulent racist, Cobb a mean-spirited thug who gleefully spiked opposing infielders. Hack Wilson was a drunk who regularly stumbled onto the field with a half a quart of rye inside him. The great fireballer Bob Gibson wouldn't give the time of day to a visiting batter if the poor guy's mother had just died. Instead, Gibson threw at him.

Consider Roger Clemens, who this year became the first pitcher in major-league history to win twenty games while losing just one. Is he a good guy? Not if you saw that heater he beaned Mike Piazza with last summer. Or that shard of shattered bat he threw at Piazza during the 2000 World Series. By any measure, Clemens was dead wrong in each of those acts.

But is he a bad pitcher? Hardly. Are Pete Rose's baseball accomplishments, as gaudy as his page in The Baseball Encyclopedia, diminished by his extracurricular shenanigans? Is Barry Bonds to be castigated because he gets salty with reporters or fails to invite the Giant relief pitchers to dinner on Fisherman's Wharf?

Well, yes -- as long as you're willing to adopt the Jerry Falwell view of life and moralize about every detail of humankind's sinful nature. The fact remains that the eloquence and purity of athletes resides in their bodies -- in the brilliance of their play -- and not in their utterances (which, if you've ever been in a dressing room, can be virtually incoherent), almost never in their wisdom or the bravery in their hearts. Baseball's one true, unassailable hero, Jackie Robinson, is long gone.

These days, the role-model thing works for some players -- there's plenty of it to go around -- but the peculiar American insistence that pro athletes become earthly gods is not just unrealistic, it's delusional. And a bit desperate. The real role models are parents and teachers, medical researchers and poets, protective big sisters, firemen and cops. How about the mechanic who gives you an honest price on carburetor repair instead of nailing your checkbook to the wall? Or the cocktail waitress putting two kids through school?

As for Barry Bonds, he has no obligation other than to play hard. He hits a ball with a stick. Neither he nor Rickey Henderson should be expected to otherwise inspire us.

That brings us to the most extraordinary baseball season in half a century, the season just now concluding. It had grandeur (and some folly, too), but let's put our foolish myths aside and recognize that grandeur doesn't equal heroism.

Exhibit A: Barry's Bombs. In another year, another player's quest to break the single-season home-run mark would have quickened the hearts of baseball fans everywhere. In fact, that year was 1998, and that player was Mark McGwire, the St. Louis Cardinals' overstuffed, redheaded first baseman. McGwire's seventy dingers annihilated the record 61 Roger Maris struck way back in 1961, and the national lovefest that enveloped McGwire and fellow slugger Sammy Sosa was pure Norman Rockwell stuff, all squeaky-clean and ribbon-wrapped. So when Bonds shot past McGwire's mark two weeks ago with his 73rd homer, the baseball public was in no mood to honor a new standard -- especially one set by an unpopular egotist. It had taken McGwire and Sosa 36 years to catch Maris (who had taken 34 years to catch Babe Ruth), and just like that, Bonds, of all people, turned them all into midgets. The public deflation was palpable. Little matter that our Barry is probably the greatest left-fielder in the history of the game, or that his 73 homers are likely to stand up for decades, no matter how much Flubber the commissioner injects into the ball. Or that he set another important record this season: His 177 walks surpassed the 170 free passes Babe Ruth got in 1923. Non-Giants fans and the press just can't get over the star's three lockers and his three-word replies to post-game questions. In the end, even the very ball that became number 73 produced anger and resentment: One lucky spectator gloved the record-setting shot in the left-field bleachers at PacBell Park, but he was immediately attacked by fellow fans, and the ball -- a million-dollar ball, some say -- was torn from his grasp. Look for the mess to wind up in district court, complete with video replays, while Bonds winds up with a new club next season.

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