Archive for September, 2011

I love Barry Bonds for the same reason I love Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.  I love a good bad guy.  I love Jack Nicholson in The Departed, Christopher Waltz in Inglorious Basterds and Barry Bonds as the all-time and single-season home run record holder.

The man played the bad guy his entire career, but saved the best for last.  We thought he was the antagonist in the “prime” of his career – pre-1999 – but he only became more despicable as the film progressed.  But even as his character became more detestable, or more fascinating, his audience grew.  Even the fans who hated Bonds – most outside of San Francisco – watched.  What Bonds did to himself in order to hit a baseball better than anyone else in the world was captivating.

Joe Pesci was the villain you loved to hate in Goodfellas.

I know Barry Bonds was a jerk.  I had a good feeling he was using performance-enhancing drugs.  I knew Hank Aaron was the perfect person to hold the all-time home run record.  I didn’t want Bonds to break it.  Despite knowing all of this, when Bonds came to the plate, I couldn’t turn away.  He is one of the most interesting characters in the history of the game.

I loved Bonds as a kid because he was the best baseball player in the game – nothing more.  I didn’t read the columns or the articles.  I read the statistics page and Bonds was all over it.  His numbers could be found among the league leaders in home runs, runs batted in, runs scored, stolen bases, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, walks, and he was also one of the great left fielders in the game.

I remember reading reports from spring training in 1999 that Bonds had gained something like 30 pounds of muscle over the offseason.  In the heart of the steroid era, this was not rare.  Baseball players claimed they simply learned how to train more effectively in the offseason.  They didn’t mention the illegal drugs they were using.

But much like the rest of the country, I turned a blind eye as I was too busy the previous season watching Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa steal every headline and magazine cover they could.  Many fans had their doubts even then, but who cares, home runs are fun!  Plus, who’s Roger Maris anyway?  To many, he was a grumpy guy from North Dakota who had a couple of good seasons and then faded from the limelight.

It was hard not to root for and shutter every time Christopher Waltz was on-screen.

Sosa and McGwire destroyed Maris’s single-season record like they were cheating.  What else could they do?  Neither player could do more than blast the ball hundreds of feet and knock in runners.  They struck out a lot and weren’t known for their defense.  Sosa had some speed, but nothing to brag about and McGwire was a liability on the basepath.  Barry Bonds could hit home runs, knock in runners, play wonderful defense, steal bases, avoid strikeouts, get on base and go from first to third on a single.  Bonds was a better baseball player by far.  But Bonds was not a self-confident man.  He needed the attention.  He needed everyone to know he was the best, but in the summer of 1998, no one outside of San Francisco noticed.  Baseball fans were too busy watching two steroid-injected behemoths rocket long ball after long ball.

Barry Bonds, the greatest player of the last decade, spent the offseason saying to himself, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”  If the public wanted steroid-fueled home runs – if that’s what made baseball players famous – he’d give them home runs like they’d never seen before.

Has there been a better villain actor in film history than Jack Nicholson?

He spent 1999 on the disabled list for much of the season, probably not figuring the right mixture of workout to drugs.  In 2000, he figured it out.  From 2001 through 2004, Bonds was playing baseball on Beginner mode while the rest of the league was on Expert.  The years 2001 through 2004 Bonds was holding up his middle finger to baseball fans saying, “You said you liked home runs?  I gave you home runs.  What, you only like it when guys with smiles on their faces do it?  I didn’t know that was a stipulation.  I can’t stop now.  Here I come, Henry.”

I love Henry Aaron and I think he’s one of the greatest to play the game while also being a good man.  Barry Bonds is not a good man, but I’m glad he holds the record.  Too many baseball fans want purity from the game.  The individual game will give you purity – a cleanly fielded ground ball, a double in the gap, a knee-buckling curveball for a called strike three.  There is purity in the game, but not in the league.  If you don’t want records broken by those who you believe shouldn’t break them, don’t keep them.  If you don’t like players using performance-enhancing drugs, don’t obsess over the overrated statistic that is the home run (https://tripleinthegap.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/ban-the-home-run/).

Barry Bonds did not sell nuclear secrets to the Soviets.  He did not start an unnecessary war.  He defiled his body to make himself an even better baseball player.  He took drugs that made his head pumpkin sized and break some meaningless records.  He shot up to make up for the love his father never gave him.  He hurt himself, his reputation and eclipsed two meaningless records.  He has not hurt a soul except his own, yet fans act as if the man stole third base … literally stole every third base from every baseball field in America.  He did not hurt the game, only himself.

Every antagonist. Bonds's was baseball fans who took their love for the game too far.

It is in spite of the angry fans calling for Bonds’ head that I appreciate what he did.  Baseball fans put too much emphasis on the home run and its records.  Bonds spent a career spreading his skills across a vast number of statistical categories, but after the fiasco that was the 1998 season, no one seemed to care about any of those categories, so Bonds obliged them.

Fans complain that an asterisk should be placed next to his all-time home run record: not necessary.  In every bar, barber shop, restaurant, ballpark and home in America, fans will discuss their favorite baseball players and the topic of sluggers comes up they’ll talk about Ruth, Aaron, Mays, Killebrew, Griffey Jr., Thome and Jackson.  When someone suggest they add Bonds to that list, someone will scoff at the idea, a few others will second the complaint and the topic will move on.  When children look at the record books and ask their mother about Barry Bonds, she’ll tell her kids about Bonds and why he had so many home runs and those kids will remember.

I will tell my kids another story.  I’ll tell them how the nation became overly obsessed with the home run in the 1990s and our attention was drawn from interest in a good baseball game to a good slugfest.  I’ll tell them how the greatest player of his generation mocked the nation’s notion of a good baseball game by increasing the absurdity of that notion.

Barry Bonds: baseball’s greatest villain.


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Who wants to learn how to play baseball?

Every boy in the classroom raised his hand.  The Peace Corps wants me to do what the community wants.  If that’s what they want …

I was surrounded by kids as I walked onto the soccer field.  I had a plastic bag with six tennis balls, one baseball and a bat.  They were all reaching for the balls, but I wanted to get a quick vocabulary lesson in first.  I taught them the words for bat, ball, throw and catch.  They weren’t listening.  They had their eyes on the bag of balls like a hungry dog hoping you can’t finish that hot dog.  I handed out one ball for every four kids and kept the baseball to myself, knowing it wasn’t safe.  Somewhere in the chaos, someone took my bat.  I wanted them to learn to catch and throw before I got the bat out, but they would have none of it.

A lot of the kids could throw and catch a lot better than I expect from the land of soccer.  I played with a group of them and made the mistake of throwing a fly ball as high as I could.  After that all they wanted me to do was throw the ball 100 feet in the air.

Soon enough there was a group of kids hitting tennis balls with the bat.  I stepped in to show them how to hold the bat and to make sure there was plenty of space for the batter with the fear of some Thai kid getting his head cracked.  But then I remembered it wouldn’t be a big deal as the Thais aren’t the suing type and there’s universal healthcare – what doesn’t kill us…

Then, I had to do it.  It would be a shame to go an entire “summer” and not hit a baseball.  I told all the kids to stand back as I pulled the baseball out of my pocket and made sure there was no one in the first 100 feet of me in case I topped it.  I didn’t.  I crushed a deep fly ball, but there a few kids in its trajectory.  Don’t hit the kids.  Don’t hit the kids.  Don’t hit the kids, I said to myself.  It didn’t.  It landed safely about 30 feet past them.  It felt good and helped dissolve some homesickness.

After playing catch with some other kids for a few minutes, I looked to the kids who were batting just in time to see the pitcher about to throw the baseball.  I yelled to stop him before he pitched it and told everyone we would need gloves to play with the real baseball.  There was at least one kid who appreciated using tennis balls instead of baseballs when a line drive hit him dead in the face.  Luckily, he was laughing before he hit the ground as was everyone else.  I helped him up.

Eventually I assigned three or four kids to catch throws in from the outfield while I hit fungoes.  For 15 minutes I hit fly ball after fly ball to giggling Thai children.  I started hitting hard grounders to some of the kids who were closer and they did a great job blocking the ball having experience as goalies.  I taught them that the balls in the ground are called grounders and soon a half-dozen kids were yelling, “Ground-ah!  Ground-ah!”

Then I started pitching and found some good hitters – especially for their first day.  One of the little kids in particular was hitting everything I threw at him.  I would occasionally throw a real fastball at him and he managed to connect with a few of them.  I was impressed.

Then the downside of Thailand walked onto the field – grown men.  There were about six guys in their early to late twenties who planned to play soccer.  The kids didn’t seem to mind, but I did.  I wasn’t there to teach grown whiskey-drinking, immature men how to play baseball.  After playing along for a little while, I decided I wasn’t going to let these guys show up the kids so I pitched nothing but hard fastballs at them.  They rarely connected.  I even threw a brushback pitch to one guy, but I don’t think he knew the significance.

When I told the kids I was leaving and would come back next week, they said thank you – in English.  I haven’t taught them Thank you.  I was touched.

They know how to throw, catch, pitch and hit.  Next lesson: the balk.

Take a good look – there could be future major leaguers in this pile.

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