So it is over. Finally. And one certainly feels relieved. The Barry Bonds home-run watch was suspenseful in the same way those Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethons were. You knew Jerry was eventually going to reach his goal. (Or perish trying and there was, I suppose, dramatic tension in that possibility.) The question wasn’t whether or not Lewis would raise however many thousands of dollars he’d pledged to make available to the children who suffered from critical illness. You did wonder, though, if you would be able to make it to the end. The ordinary human can stand only so much wretched excess whether it comes from telethons, contemporary sports, or weekly presidential debates. Eventually, some inner Darwinian mechanism compels us to simply tune out if we want to remain sane.
We’ve known for days — weeks, even — that Bonds would break the record and, of course, records are meant to be broken and we are all supposed to pay attention when it happens. Most this. Longest that. Fastest one thing or another. After the recent mayhem at Virginia Tech, some broadcaster no doubt noted that this event had set the record for number of people killed in a school shooting … so far.
Barry Bonds’s pursuit of the lifetime home-run record (he already holds the single season record) was tainted, of course, by question of whether or not he’d used steroids. Would the record be legitimate if he had used performance-enhancing drugs? This debate quickly became almost as tiresome as the one over whether or not Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame.
Rose violated one of baseball’s few sacred commandments by betting on games while he was managing the Cincinnati Reds. Confronted with undeniable evidence, he protested, righteously, his innocence and lashed out at his accusers. After years of denial, he eventually confessed to what everyone already knew he was guilty of and asked the world to feel his pain. Think Nixon. Or Clinton.
Bonds almost certainly cheated. To which some fans say, “So what?” There are pitchers in the Hall-of-Fame who got there by doctoring the baseball, which is against the rules. Bonds merely doctored his body.
He continued to play and hit home runs in spite of the controversy (which includes the possibility he may be indicted for lying to a grand jury) and television amped up the tension another notch with every home run. Countdown to immortality. Rendezvous with destiny. Ho hum.
Bonds became a highlight provider. If he hit a “dinger,” (sportspeak for home run, unless you want to say he “went yard”) then the sports shows would run, and rerun, the clip of him standing in the batter’s box admiring the ball in flight like Narcissus gazing adoringly into the pool. And when Bonds failed to move closer to the magic number, television viewers could view clips of him striking out, flying out, or, most likely, being walked intentionally by the opposing pitcher. Thrilling stuff.
But, then, the highlight is what sports are, increasingly, about. The games take too long and impose an intolerable demand on our short attention spans. So we get stars who are great at making the highlights. Athletes like Michael Vick, the Atlanta quarterback who is known for his dazzling, improvisational runs and for his recent arrest on charges of dog fighting. If Bonds’s steroid use has tarnished his quest and baseball as well, then Vick has done worse to professional football. It was, after all, Bonds’s own body that he was putting at risk. Vick was killing and brutalizing dogs who weren’t exactly asked for their consent. And, then, there is the matter of the crooked referee in the National Basketball Association.
These are not good times for professional sports in America.
Easy, then, to just tune out. Which I had done in the last week of the Bonds’s odyssey. I’d had enough; even though I belong to that subset of Americans who, when they pick up the (obsolete) morning paper, turn first to the sports section. But I was weary of the sports priesthood telling me, over and over, about the momentous event we would soon witness (over and over, again). The hype was both repetitive and manipulative. Boring and insulting.
I felt fortunate to have planned a canoe trip that would keep me out of electronic reach for a few days. Maybe, I thought, Bonds would break the record while I was in the woods and by the time I came out, it would be old news. (Which, only a few days later, it already is.)
No such luck. Bonds was still on the verge when I got back to civilization and a visit with family in a very small southern city.
There is a ball park in walking distance of the place where I was staying. Between walking over there and paying eight bucks for any seat and camping in front of the television to see if Bonds would reach the Promised Land … well, it was an easy call.
I’m not sure exactly what league the team I watched played in. It was down market a couple of notches from the Durham Bulls who were immortalized in that movie that starred Kevin Kostner and Susan Sarandon. The paid attendance, according to the announcer, was 2,000 and by my eyeball estimate, that seemed liked a stretch. But it was a lively crowd.
I sat down close, on the first base line, next to a young man who knew all the players.
“Our shortstop had a couple of at-bats in the bigs,” he told me.
I was soon transported by the rhythms of the game and by the late innings, I was totally invested, even though (with apologies to Mike Vick) I didn’t have a dog in this fight. One of the catchers had a big-league arm and gunned down a runner who was trying to steal second with a throw that seemed barely to clear the pitcher’s mound and that settled into the shortstop’s glove six inches off the ground, right at the runner’s foot.
The catcher had turned and was on his way back to the dugout before the ump had even gotten “your outtttt” entirely out of his mouth.
Then, in a late inning with the visitors threatening, the shortstop who had been up “for a cup of coffee,” gathered in a wicked shot and flipped to the second baseman covering. He pivoted, cocked his arm as he was leaving his feet to clear the spikes of the incoming runner, and fired a perfect throw to first. Double play. Prettiest, most sublime thing in baseball.
My faith was restored. Record numbers are interesting when you are talking the Dow Jones average and the like. Baseball is about finer, more fleeting things.