National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Bonds Shrugged

This Tuesday in San Francisco, Barry Bonds jacked the 745th home run of his career, bringing him within 10 of what for the better part of a century has been considered the premiere accomplishment in professional baseball, if not all sport: to become the all-time homer king.

Recovered from his injuries of last year, Bonds has been popping balls out of parks left and right, and is now considered a veritable sure thing to pass the revered record held by Hank Aaron this season, probably sooner rather than later.

Yet the silence is deafening.

As almost everyone knows, Bonds is accused by many of having utilized steroids or related strength-enhancing substances officially outlawed by the sport, even though there has been as yet no hard proof, no confessions and no sanctions against him. This has put a cloud over everything he’s done and is now in the process of doing.

It is such a dark cloud, in fact, that even the Commissioner of Baseball has indicated he may not bother to show up to watch Bonds set the all-time home run record when the time comes.

But it’s the public opinion about Bonds that is the most distressing: not because people think he’s cheating his way to the title, but that, once again, the data shows there is a deep racial divide evident in the case.

A scientific poll reported on CNN this week demonstrated, in effect, that two-thirds of white Americans think Bonds has used illegal steroids and don’t enjoy the idea of his setting a new record, while two-thirds of Afro-Americans think exactly the opposite.

One can extrapolate from the poll results that a large majority of Afro-Americans feel the negative attitudes of white Americans toward Bonds has a racial component.

Are white Americans more likely to hate (and it is the case with many people that I know that negative attitudes towards Bonds are very strong) Bonds because he is Afro-American than if he were not? Of course white Americans would say no, but in this scenario they would be expected to.

In this context, it is troubling to hear about Tuesday’s radio talk show comments of Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, roundly denouncing Bonds while making slanderous and factually false statements about “proof” of Bonds’ steroids use and bad personal behavior. Schilling, it should be noted, gained notoriety for his willingness to appear at the Republican National Convention in 2004.

As in the Schilling case, many commentators have dumped on Bonds because they just don’t like him. They don’t think he’s a very nice guy.

Since when is that a criterion for judging a guy’s value in sports? How many sports effectively require athletes to be mean and nasty, after all? As long as someone plays by the rules and obeys the law, and there’s no proof otherwise in Bonds case, his personality or his off-field behavior is totally irrelevant.

Some will argue that Hank Aaron was also Afro-American, and he was venerated by everyone, regardless of race, when he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record.

But that was back in 1974, in the peak era of the civil rights struggle, when most Americans shared a particular desire to hold up and praise achievements by racial minorities.

Times have changed a lot since then, and admittedly, so has the role of illegal substances in sport. Perhaps it started with the notion that achievement could derive from activity not directly associated with the skill of the sport itself, as in weight lifting. From there the path through health foods to energy enhancers can lead directly to banned substances.

I wonder what the legacy of Barry Bonds may eventually become when it is revealed, if he is on the juice, that not only was he never alone in that, but that a significant majority of his professional colleagues were too. Maybe some day, the notion of the “level playing field” in a sport riddled by such use will eclipse the notion of Bonds as the singular bad guy.

What a shame, one may think if that happens, that so many were blinded from an ability to embrace the historic achievement of Bonds’ run to the record.

As for me, I’ve got this cable TV subscription that allows me to watch or tape Giants games everyday. And until the record is set, I intend to do just that.