Whatever the outcome of that case, one thing is for certain: Bonds deprived us of more than we know as baseball fans. It's not just the asterisks that we attach to the records Bonds broke; it's more than that. It's what he didn't allow us to see: a great player who achieved so much through natural ability and dedication to his craft, who then got older and slowed down.
That's right. We didn't get to see Barry decline, and that's not fair to the game of baseball or its fans.
One of the biggest reasons baseball is America's pastime—the game of our forefathers, and now our game—is because we can identify with those who compete on the diamond. We see ourselves in so many of our heroes on the baseball field, both in their triumphs and defeats. We see men who toil in the minor leagues for years and years before finally getting their shot on the big stage under the bright lights. We see those who have such a beautiful, natural gift for the game, that it's simply a joy to watch them display that day-in and day-out.
That's why we see movies like "The Rookie" (where a middle-aged high school baseball coach gets a chance in the big leagues in his 40s) and "The Natural" (where Robert Redford plays Roy Hobbs, "the greatest there ever was").
We see tragedy, as when Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS (thereafter named "Lou Gherig's disease"), forcing him into early retirement and, rapidly, into an early exit from this life. We see triumph, like when hobbled pinch-hitter Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers limped to home plate in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series to face the toughest closer in the game, Dennis Eckersley, and homered to win it for Los Angeles, propelling the underdog Dodgers to a world championship over the heavily-favored Athletics.
These moments remind us of our own challenges, fears, failures, courage, and triumphs. We gain strength by seeing a man hit a round ball with a round bat, while other men chase that ball down. Baseball mimics life, and beautifully at that. That's why we're so addicted to it. It gives us something to remind us of who we are and what we can achieve.
One of the most important lessons we learn from baseball is that nothing lasts forever. It's true in the game, and it's true in life. Our heroes of the diamond are great ballplayers for 10, maybe even 15 years, but then they start to fade and their skills begin to erode right before our eyes. Willie Mays may have said it best, from the perspective of one of the greatest of all-time: "Growing old is just a helpless hurt." The 41-year-old Mays said that after he had fallen in the outfield during the 1973 World Series, when he was a member of the New York Mets. It was clear that diminishing skills and an aging body were even catching up with the Say Hey Kid.
Willie Mays is just one of many great players in baseball history that were among the best in the game during their primes, but whose ability faded with the passage of time, helping us see that we should make the most of what we have in life, and more than that, the most of what we have to give. More recently, we've seen some of the greatest players of our own generation hang up the spikes after coming to the realization that they just don't have enough anymore.
Chief among them: Ken Griffey, Jr. Junior Griffey was perhaps the greatest player of the 1990s, and were it not for numerous injuries that plagued him later in his career, he would have very likely passed Hank Aaron on the all-time home run list. Griffey finished with 630 home runs, and was a 12-time all-star and 10-time Gold Glove award winner. But in the last few seasons of his career, he changed physically, visibly gaining weight, as well as on the field, becoming a designated hitter rather than patrolling his usual center field territory with the Seattle Mariners. It was rumored last season, before he retired, that he fell asleep in the clubhouse during a Mariners game.
But Griffey's limitations were, in a way, refreshing to witness. It was clear that time had caught up with the former superstar, and the myriad injuries that hindered him during his career showed that he is, indeed, human. By 2009, it was clear that Griffey was in decline. In 117 games for the Mariners that season, he hit just .214 with 57 RBI. The Kid retired in 2010 after a storied big league career, leaving a legacy as one of the most beloved stars in baseball history—in Seattle and around the baseball world.
And then there's Barry Bonds.
From 1986, when Bonds broke into the big leagues, through 1998 (the year before he allegedly began using steroids), he was an eight-time all-star, three-time National League MVP, seven-time Silver Slugger award-winner, and eight-time Gold Glove award winner.
Those are first ballot Hall of Fame numbers.
Then in 1999 things began to change. Bonds body went through extraordinary changes. He bulked up immensely, and his head, hands and feet appeared to have grown as well. Before 1999, the most home runs Bonds had ever hit in a single season was 46 in 1993. In 2000 he hit 49. Then in 2001, he hit 73. In that season, he only had 49 singles. 47% of his hits were homers, and 69% of hits were extra-base hits. These numbers were mind-boggling, especially for a man who was now 37 years old.
How does a ballplayer who never hit more than 46 homers in a season in his 20s hit 73 when he was almost 40? Well, we all know the story.
And it's a sad one. Baseball is a game for the common man, and it should be played by the common man—not one who has added artificial strength to excel past his peers in the sport.
In a strange way, we want to—no, we need to—see our heroes decline. It shows us truth, and it shows us integrity and grace from those like Willie Mays and Ken Griffey, Jr., who played with what they naturally had. They thrilled us with their natural abilities while in their prime, and we watched in sadness but with great respect and admiration when they struggled through their decline.
Outside of San Francisco, and perhaps even somewhere inside as well, there was no respect or admiration for what Bonds did.
He may have hit a lot of home runs. But he did not give us what we wanted to see.
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