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NOISE FROM THE DUGOUT

The Era of Barry and Bud
By Tom Goldstein

 

By the time you read this column, Barry Bonds will have surpassed Hank Aaron to become Major League Baseball's all-time career leader in home runs. By the time Bonds hangs up his spikes, he will likely have become the all-time leader in runs scored, and depending on how many more seasons he plays, could conceivably end up number one in runs batted in as well. What's especially a-mazing about Bonds' stats is that he's arguably the game's most prolific hitter despite having walked more than 2500 times in his career (also an all-time record), and, unlike the great Babe Ruth (2,062 lifetime passes), never had a Lou Gehrig waiting behind him in the on-deck circle. With seven MVP awards to his credit, Bonds has dominated the game like no other player of his generation, and his 500-plus stolen bases makes him the deadliest combination of speed and power ever to appear in a major league uniform. Although he seldom gets credit for his fielding, Bonds has also earned eight Gold Gloves in the outfield. So while baseball's all-time greatest player debate usually revolves around the names Ruth, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Aaron, or Ted Williams, from a purely statistical standpoint, Barry Bonds might trump them all.

There is, of course, the issue of steroids. Between 1986 and 1998, Bonds smacked 411 home runs, or approximately 31.6 per year. At that pace, assuming no major injuries, Bonds would be approaching 700 home runs this season. Since 1999, the first year that Bonds allegedly began injecting performance-enhancing drugs into his system, he has crushed 339 home runs, or 39.88 per year. (If one excludes the 2005 season, in which Bonds appeared in just fourteen games, he's averaged 44.5 homers per year since 1999!) It's possible that even without artificial means, Bonds would still be contending for the all-time home run record in 2007—after all, Hank Aaron, who averaged 32.28 home runs per year for his career, elevated those numbers to 39.375 per season between 1966 and 1973—but we'll never know for sure, because it was only after Bonds' alleged use of steroids began that his home run production dramatically spiked.

In truth, Barry Bonds might have become baseball's all-time greatest slugger, its greatest all-around player, just by continuing to play the game the way he had always done so, the way that Hank Aaron performed throughout his career. However, in this era of beefed-up sluggers, outrageous egos, and astronomical salaries, Bonds couldn't resist temptation. He wanted the acclaim that had always come his way to continue, and he wasn't afraid to put his body at risk. One can only guess at the long-term health consequences he will face as a result of that decision.

Then again, who really cares? Major League Baseball broke its all-time attendance record last year (for the third consecutive season), revenues exceeded $5.2 billion, and a new five-year collective bargaining agreement was reached between MLB and the Players Association ensuring that there will be no labor unrest in the immediate future. As Bud Selig never grows tired of crowing, the game has never been more popular. (He should know: Selig's annual compensation now totals $14.5 million, only slightly less than what Bonds hauls in for launching baseballs into the San Francisco Bay.)

Barry Bonds may have abused steroids, his all-time single season record of seventy-three home runs may be forever tainted, but that hasn't kept baseball from treating him like royalty. At mlb.com, Major League Baseball's official website, there's a special section devoted to Bonds' career that highlights his chase for the all-time home run record, praises his thirteen All-Star Game appearances and twelve Silver Slugger awards, recognizes him as "a devout family man . . . with . . . philanthropic missions"—and contains nary a word about allegations that he's cheated his way into the record books.

In 1920, after the Black Sox scandal broke, baseball's panicked owners turned to Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to restore confidence in the national pastime. While Landis didn't have a player's union to contend with, and often acted in a petty, dictatorial, and contradictory fashion, he was decisive in putting the fear of God into any player who consorted with gamblers or bet on games. He unfairly punished Buck Weaver, and arguably covered-up the Cobb-Speak-er betting "affair," but he also created a climate in which the star power of Babe Ruth could flourish and the game could recapture the fancy of the American people.

In the 1990s, baseball turned to Bud Selig. If Barry Bonds has become the poster child for the "juiced" era, Bud Selig has been the perfect man at the helm. While the use of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs in sports became obvious to everyone else during that time period, Bud only knew of their "possibility." Rather than treat the issue as the modern equivalent of the gambling scandals that plagued baseball in the first part of the twentieth century, Selig and his cronies simply pled ignorance—and bid up the sal-aries of the bulked-up bashers whom they believed were responsible for boosting attendance following the work stoppage of 1994–1995.

Along the way, Selig perfected the stadium swindle (allowing billions in public subsidies to be extorted from local governments), took advantage of the cable television monopoly, and essentially brought baseball into alignment with corporate America, a place where the bottom line dictates how—and if—big business will address matters of social consciousness.

In a era where enlightened leadership seems as quaint as filling in a scorecard at the old ballpark, Selig's blind eye toward the steroid scandal should come as no surprise. After all, this is a guy who earned $316,926 per year as president of the Brewers, and as recently as five years ago was paid $3 million annually to serve as commissioner. Selig may not possess the avarice of the owners who pay his exorbitant salary, but integrity is not one of his known qualities, either.

Like so many other precious things in life, baseball has become nothing more than a commodity to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. In that myopic context, Bud Selig will likely be remembered as the ideal broker for the times, a man who helped foster the attainment of riches that were unimaginable a decade earlier. Better ready a plaque in Cooperstown.

—EFQ

TOM GOLDSTEIN has been publisher of EFQ since 1998, the same year that Bud Selig was officially named the ninth commissioner of baseball. The two have never met.

This column first appeared in EFQ 24:2, Summer 2007

© 2007 Tom Goldstein

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