Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron & The Idiot Media (L-O-N-G)

Tom Verducci is a writer for Sports Illustrated. For the past several years, he's penned several columns and feature stories on Giants OF Barry Bonds that make no attempt to remain unbiased or impartial.

Quite simply, Verducci despises Bonds.

In the latest issue of SI, Verducci ostensibly writes an over-the-top mash note to Hank Aaron, whom Bonds is about to knock off the home run mountaintop. The "Hank Aaron" angle is one that's been done to death in recent months, with everyone simultaneously racing to the time machine to embrace a man who, not that long ago, was essentially ignored for his accomplishments and vilified for the bitterness he still carries within.

Excerpts of
Verducci's piece on Aaron are below in bold, with my thoughts immediately following. You know the routine, kids:

On this spot, in what was the Braves' bullpen at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, landed the 715th home run in the career of Henry Louis Aaron. Here too stand facsimiles of the outfield fence and the bullpen wall, on which there is a sign that makes no mention of the major league home run record or Babe Ruth, whose 53-year claim as the alltime home run king passed that night to a poor dry-dock laborer's son.

OK…a couple of things before we really begin: (1) If using the first, middle and last name of your subject isn't the most hackneyed tactic in journalism, it's definitely in the top two. (2) And, if it's not number one, then the tired "son of a (blue-collar profession)" certainly is.

In simple mathematical terms Barry Bonds will [soon] have outhomered Aaron and every other player who has swung a bat in the majors. Everything else about the new record, however, dissolves into the murkiness of interpretation. Bonds's ties to BALCO, the steroid factory busted by the feds, and Greg Anderson, his convicted, incarcerated friend and onetime personal trainer, have created the ugly impression of a bastard prince without true claim to the throne.

Make no mistake…for the millions of baseball fans in this country who've never met Barry Bonds, every "impression" of the man is first filtered through the media. And, because he's an a-hole to a locker room full of mostly middle-aged white men with a press pass and an ax to grind, we're expected to universally conclude that Bonds = bad, bad man.

Meanwhile, Yankees DH Jason Giambi, who was also caught up in the BALCO controversy, gets (for the most part) a pass because he schmoozes with the schleps who cover the team and smiles a lot. Don't believe me? About a month ago, Verducci referred to Giambi, in print, as a lovable "big galoot" and all but glossed over his supposed sins. "Interpretation"…getting…murkier…

Bonds's ascent to 756 has been (outside of his safe house in San Francisco) not only a joyless affair but, far worse for baseball, a public exercise in mockery and ridicule, with CHEATER banners, oversized syringes and "ster-roids" chants the de rigueur accoutrements of a traveling freak show.

"A joyless affair"? Yes, all of the props that Verducci cites have been in play, but to call this chase "joyless" is a sad attempt to transparently project his opinions on the proceedings. Check out the
highlights of Bonds' two home run game on the road in Chicago last week. Look at the immediate, instinctive reaction of the fans when Bonds makes contact. These are Cubs fans…generally, a discerning and knowledgeable lot…who rise to their feet, extend their arms in excitement, cheer for the ball to clear the wall – y'know, "joyless" gestures like that.

Admittedly, the cheers turn to jeers as Bonds is circling the bases. It's as if everyone suddenly realized that they'd been programmed to boo the man. An appropriate analogy might be the husband who is caught watching porn or pro wrestling by his wife. "H-how'd this filth get on our TV? Where's the remote? Where's the…oh, it's in my hand."

The commissioner of baseball doesn't want to personally witness the record-breaking home run (Bud Selig still hasn't said whether he'll be in attendance), and Aaron has been adamant in his refusal to be there. Corporate America too wants nothing to do with it, and a majority of fans (52%, according to a May poll by ABC News and ESPN) are rooting against Bonds.

The fact that baseball's commissioner can't separate his personal feelings from the game itself, isn't a good thing, Tom. Selig's non-response is an absolute embarrassment for a man who already embodies the word. Secondly, your statement on "Corporate America" is misleading at best and an outright lie, at worst. Or did I miss the dozens of press releases from sponsors who've pulled their advertising from any game Bonds has played or will play in?

And, let's save the survey data for later on…

Thirty-three years later it may take losing the record for Aaron to be sufficiently appreciated. Like Roger Bannister and the sub-four-minute mile, Bob Beamon and 29.2 feet, and Roger Maris and 61, Aaron and 755 are partners in posterity, not by defying belief, as Bonds has done, but by encouraging it. Aaron's record may be broken by Bonds, but it won't be eclipsed.

For any baseball fan who came of age in the 1970s, 1980s or early 1990s, the above excerpt is absurd. Patently absurd. It took decades for Hank Aaron's career home run total of 755 to receive the sepia-toned treatment. Babe Ruth's career total of 714 was the romanticized benchmark even after Aaron passed him in April 1974, just like the fat man's single-season mark of 60 was the still the standard amongst most of the media even after Roger Maris passed it in '61, retired in '68 and died in '85.

The retroactive "respect" for Hank Aaron is one of the worst residual effects of the media's hatred for Bonds.

They called him Hammerin' Hank, an encomium to his bluntly effective hitting but one that works just as well as a tribute to his overall ethos. Hammering is the life's work of commoners, not kings.

We get it, Tom: Hank Aaron = blue-collar, gritty, lunch pail, Midwest values, red states and other like people, places and things that were probably rooting against him breaking the Babe's record.

He did as much for the racial integration of the sport as any man who followed Jackie Robinson. Yet Aaron, in the pantheon of baseball gods and in the fabric of American culture, is an underrated and underappreciated presence. It must have been the monotony of all that hammering.

I don't even know what that first sentence means. What did Hank Aaron do for integration of the game? I'm not being facetious. I'd really like Tom Verducci to tell me one thing that Aaron did towards the integration of a game that was already integrated when he got there.

And, the last sentence makes even less sense. Let me fix it for you, Tom: "It must have been the media." Y'see, in sports, the concepts of "underrated" and "overrated" begin and end with the coverage from the press. Fan perception plays a part in that, but it's the media who runs with it and gets the word out to those who wouldn't otherwise see the guy.

Why else do you think that fans in Chicago were actually excited that the supremely untalented Darin Erstad was coming to their team?

It was the media who marginalized and/or outright ignored Aaron's career accomplishments. There's a reason why the man has such disdain, to this day, towards the fourth estate. Far from"monotony", most of Aaron's career was met with a cacophony of indifference from the same people trying to kiss his azz today.

Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker, who also played with Aaron, recently began a conversation about the home run record with a disclaimer, apropos of the times: "I don't really want to talk about Bonds at all."

So, because a career .200 hitter whose only relevance to the game of baseball is telling us how bad he played doesn't want to talk about Barry Bonds, Verducci would have us believe that everyone feels this way. Have you tried, Steve Balboni, Tom? Maybe Tim Teufel? If they're willing to talk, I'm sure they'd have something salient to say.

Even more monumental than what Aaron accomplished is what he endured. Aaron could not eat in the same restaurants, sleep in the same hotels or drink from the same fountains as his white teammates. Fans heaped racially charged insults at the teenager. A white teammate, Joe Andrews, bat in hand, would escort him out of the ballpark after games.

Was there some journalistic edict that mandates every story about a Black ballplayer in the '40s and '50s must include a heroic white teammate who "protected" him? Just wondering.

Now, we're at the part of the article that chafes me the most.

The racist crap that Hank Aaron had to endure is well-known by most fans. Long after he retired, Aaron's mentioned in interviews that he's kept most of the hate mail and death threats he received. He's often talked about how the home run chase was the worst time of his life. In many of those same interviews, he's spoken out on the sorry status of African-American management opportunities and other minority issues in the game.

And, you know the reaction he received from fans and the media? "Get over it." The phrase "bitter old man" was tossed around, along with the usual "he should've been grateful for the chance" type lines that are thrown at any African-American born after the slave days who talks about racial inequity.

But, in the same way that Republicans have memorized part of ONE line from Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech ("…not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character…") for use in their never-ending war against "reverse racism", sportswriters have gone back to the "well of racial challenges" in their war against Barry Bonds.

Aaron wants nothing to do with Bonds, not because Bonds is breaking his record, but because he doesn't want to get dragged into the conversation about Bonds and steroids and, as several friends have said, he does not find Bonds to be a likable person.

Bonds isn't likable? How come the media hasn't explored this previously uncharted angle?

One friend, for instance, says that Aaron was crestfallen to hear Bonds question whether the Hall of Fame is entitled to any memorabilia from his record chase. (Bonds has since relented slightly, saying he might share an artifact.) Said Bonds, in a self-styled epitaph worthy of his tombstone, "I take care of me."

"…an artifact." Verducci's tone makes it seem that Bonds has no use for the Hall of Fame. He also implies that it's not a sure thing that Bonds will give the Hall something to commemorate the home run race. Here's a direct quote from a
June 26 AP article on the subject:

"As I've said all along, [Bonds] has a history of being generous to the Hall of Fame, dating back to a bat from his rookie season. It was meaningful to have a face-to-face meeting. He assured me that if and when he hit 756, he will donate an artifact to the Hall of Fame, which in turn means he will share that milestone with the American public."

-Hall of Fame Vice President Jeff Idelson

The same article states that there are about a dozen items in the Hall of Fame connected to Bonds, including the spikes from his 400th stolen base and the bat and the ball from his 2,000th hit. Why let the facts get in the way of a good witch hunt?

A window into Aaron's position on steroids can be found in his autobiography, in which he said of 300-game winner Gaylord Perry, "I regarded a spitball as cheating, and because of it I have serious doubts as to whether Perry belongs in the Hall of Fame. . . . I had always taken a strong stand against anything that wasn't within the spirit and rules of the game -- like spitballs. I believed in the integrity of the game as strongly as anybody."

Verducci is quick to include this quote in his manipulative little story, but you know what Verducci thinks of the "spitball"? The following is from Verducci's August 3, 2005 "Mailbag"
column on SI.com:

And if you feel steroids are considered different from other cheating (corked bats, doctored pitched balls), why do you think so as these require as much or more planning and secret implementation?-- Bill Leonard, Chicago

Verducci: I should have known. Here we go again. The oversimplified cheating is cheating argument. On one hand you're talking about gamesmanship that has been around for more than a century. You're talking about skirting the rules of baseball to gain a slight edge in competition.


In summary: if steroids had shown up 100 years earlier, they'd be OK. And, also, spitballs and corked bats are just "a little bit of cheating". Thanks for responding to an oversimplified argument with one of your own, Tommy.

Bonds, by contrast, is desperate for the blessing from Aaron that will not come. He wanted Aaron sitting next to Willie Mays, Bonds's godfather and Aaron's charismatic contemporary, on the night he hit 756. Bonds so covets Aaron's acceptance that on several occasions he has reached out to Selig, far from a Bonds ally himself, for help in obtaining Aaron's support, if only to get Aaron to call him.

You know the difference between Verducci and me? I'm a hack blogger and he's a national journalist. The latter, you'd expect, would be obligated to provide a single shred of evidence to prove the above claims, since all of Bonds' public comments on the matter clearly indicate that he's OK with Aaron opting not to attend the eventual Bonds record breaker.

[Sports psychologist/sociologist Harry] Edwards compared Bonds to O.J. Simpson: a free man, but a prisoner of the widely accepted circumstantial evidence against him. The home run record is whatever you wish to make of it.

Ah…the obligatory O.J. Simpson analogy. Not altogether unsurprising, but, still…it has been over a decade since a certain demographic first found out that the system doesn't always work. Anyways, Edwards is an interesting choice of quote here. Verducci uses his words to shovel the last bit shyte on Bonds' legacy, while laying the groundwork for his racially inflammatory conclusion.

But, for those of you who don't know, Edwards is widely considered the influence behind the infamous
Black Power protest at the 1968 Olympics. The same people Verducci is appealing to wouldn't otherwise respect a word out of "that militant Negro's" mouth.

"Hank Aaron should still be considered the home run king," says Andrew, who is from Queens, white and here with his father, Michael, and friends as part of their quest to visit all the major league ballparks. "My friends and I start talking about baseball, and the conversation gets around to Barry Bonds. We don't think he should have the record. I think they should take away his home runs because he got so big using steroids. It's cheating."

Ervin Ross, who is 18, black and not on any sort of pilgrimage. He is a concessions employee at Turner Field. He knows about Aaron from history books, video of home run 715 and a story from his supervisor at work, a white man who told him Aaron once refused to give him an autograph. Ervin says he believes it is true that Bonds used steroids, but the teenager does not seem troubled by that. "He's a professional athlete," Ervin says by way of explanation. "I would have to consider him the home run king, just because he did it. It's good for black people. They can't take his home runs away, so he's got the record."

How can two people look at the same number and assign it a different value? Math isn't supposed to be this ambiguous. The home run record isn't supposed to be this complicated. Even when Barry Bonds holds the record, Hank Aaron can still be the people's home run king -- and 755 can still be the number in which we believe.


It was these last few paragraphs that prompted this post.

The
recent surveys that attempt to introduce race into the Barry Bonds debate are, of course, immediately swept aside by the mostly white sports media. So, when two differing viewpoints are offered up here, it shouldn't have surprised me that Verducci would drag out his soapbox and call one of the opinions "wrong".

And, I'm more than a little offended that Verducci would blatantly paint this as a black or white issue, while simultaneously dismissing the obvious racial context to this story. In other words, the white privileged kid is "right" and the Black working class kid is "wrong". But, it's not about race, right?

The media's coverage of Barry Bonds has been irresponsible at times and reprehensible at others. Verducci's piece above takes the proverbial cake.

Joe Sheehan, over at Baseball Prospectus, has had one of the few informed positions on Bonds since this whole thing began. His work is available on a subscription-only basis, but I'm closing with words he wrote on Wednesday that sum up my feelings perfectly:

The central truth about the "steroid issue" is this: average people don’t care about PED use. They care about tearing down those who they do not like, protecting those they do, and making themselves feel superior in the process.

5 comments:

That Mexican Guy said...

Just a fantastic rant Cam. And look at you with your research and inclusion of past SI columns to reinforce your points! The Sheehan quote at the end is a terrific wrap-up and really hammers the point home. If the steroid era is really all about weeding out the “cheaters” and not personal, can anyone name any of the major leaguers (w/o Google) who’ve tested positive? I’ll even spot you Palmeiro. This has been about the media vs. Bonds from the get go.

Anonymous said...

I like when you make reference to late 80's and early 90's R&B music acts.

Anonymous said...

I very clearly remember reading a piece on the best/worst interviews or some such list thing. Both Hank Aaron and Willie Mays were mentioned for their surliness, rudeness and every other adjective but "uppity". This was about 15 years ago, but I remember the writer's implication that neither should be bitter because they were still making great money at card shows, etc. Great memory on this stuff, AJC and great post.

Duff Soviet Union said...

Great stuff Bootleg Guy. You and Sheehan are both spot on. Plain and simple, it's a witchhunt to bring down a guy no one likes. Just try telling this to anyone though.

Mathan said...

Wow. If only 411Black were around to see how proactive you've become.

And how come you don't heckled like "what were you doing reading Sports Illustrated in the first place?"

I'd kill for readers like you.