Birthday Bonds

This column ran on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on August 13, 2007.

On August 7, when Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s home run record, my mother called to wish me a happy birthday. “A lot of folks are celebrating your birthday tonight,” she said. I was happy because I like the Giants. Despite his grumpy public demeanor, Barry Bonds is fun to watch, and as far as I am concerned, it was downright decent of him to break the American pastime’s greatest record on the day of my birth.

Not everyone was happy to see Barry Bond’s 756th home run. Though he has never failed a drug test or been convicted of a crime, Barry Bonds’ legacy is tarnished in the public imagination. A growing body of evidence suggests Bonds’ athletic prowess has benefited from chemical assistance. This does not make Mr. Bonds an anomaly in baseball, but his unique ability to send balls into the bleachers makes him an important target for baseball purists and those who would rid the sporting world of doping.

Many is the baseball fan who would like to see Barry Bonds’ accomplishments recorded in the official annals of baseball lore with a caveat—an asterisk denoting the use of drugs to augment athletic ability.

I disagree. As much as I dislike the use of steroids and other illegal drugs, I would like to see Barry Bonds’ prowess with a bat recorded without adornment in baseball’s books official books. This has less to do with Barry Bonds than it does with baseball itself.

I love baseball because it is so lacking in uniformity. Each park has different dimensions and characteristics, making it easier to hit home runs in some venues than in others (Barry Bonds, for example, has played all of his San Francisco home games in ballparks that favor the pitcher: ATT park has a high wall in right field and night games at Candlestick parks are frigid and windy, making it hard on hitters). The grass in every field varies, depending upon the climate and the abilities of the grounds keepers. Some fields have large foul territories, making it easier for the fielding team to make outs. Each umpire calls balls and strikes a little bit differently. Relative humidity affects the pitcher’s ability to throw breaking balls. During different eras, the construction of baseballs has changed, causing the game to change as well. Technical advances in the construction of mitts has changed the game as well.

Baseball, in short, is a lot like life. It’s wild, unpredictable, and full of variables. No two situations really are alike. In life, as in baseball, we succeed only if we are able to accommodate the unpredictable. The bad news is that some people will cheat and play unfairly, but at other times the favor will swing in support of the just and the good. Giving Barry Bonds’ records an asterisk would deny what is true in life and wonderful in baseball.

As far as I can tell this unpredictability is a divine gift. It adds to life’s beauty. Who knew God was such a baseball fan? Or who knew my mother was a baseball fan? Mostly, my mother only follows baseball when one of her children or grandchildren is playing little league. But Barry Bonds brought us together around baseball for a short time last Tuesday, and for that I’m grateful. Come to think of it, I would like Barry Bonds’ all time home run record be noted with asterisk: one that says “his 756th homerun made a certain Presbyterian minister happy on his birthday.”

2 thoughts on “Birthday Bonds

  1. Happy Birthday, Ben, and thanks for weighing in on a controversy that inevitably swirl for decades.

    Baseball is unique for all the reasons you mention, and more; among it’s endearing (and sometimes infuriating) aspects is, it is the only sport that truly dwells on the past — I think in part because the elements that make the game unique also create endless “what-ifs”. F’rinstance:

    What if Aaron hadn’t played most of his career home games in Fulton County Stadium, known to the cognoscenti as The Launching Pad?

    What if Ted Williams hadn’t missed six seasons at the peak of his career because of WWII and Korea?

    Willie Mays (for my money the best player to ever play the game) hit “only” 660 homers — but he played the bulk of his career at Candlestick. What if he had played for Braves, instead?

    And best of all: when he broke into the majors, Aaron wanted $500 to sign; the enlightened Giants ownership only thought he ws worth $350, so he went to the Braves. What if Mays and Aaron were in the same lineup every day — particularly when Cepeda and McCovey also were in the lineup?

    Again, Happy Birthday, Ben. I think you deserve that asterisk.


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