August 08, 2007

The Natural vs. The Synthetic: Bonds Taints History

In 2001, when Barry Bonds broke Mark McGwire's single season home run record, I was glued to the TV set, and likely cheered as he crushed a ball into the seats for #71. Just three years prior, I had even cut class to see Mark McGwire break the much longer lasting record held by Roger Maris, and saw him trot around the bases with a grin on his face, as he became the first major leaguer to reach the rare air of #62.

But tonight, when Barry Bonds reached #756, I wasn't watching. I won't be able to tell future generations that I saw it live, and I really don't care. After all we've learned, and all we've seen, what should have been an incredible moment has been dulled into a gnawing disappointment I wish would just go away.

Naively, I'd like to believe sports to be pure. I want to think that those players I devote significant time to, who I cheer from the stands or at home, are on a level playing field. I'd like to think they achieve their levels of success without the aid of artificial enhancements, or that they aren't swayed by outside influence, such as professional gambling. But it's just not true - and likely, it never has been, even though Bonds' alleged steroid use is so blatant and so publicized in this era of the never ending news cycle.

Growing up as an impressionable kid in the late 1980s, my baseball heroes included Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, who could now be seen as the Madame and Pierre Curie of the steroids circuit - real pioneers who achieved greatness only to wilt away from the powers' eventual radiation. Though I'd like to think McGwire achieved his success without steroids, he has to be held to the same scrutiny as Bonds does, even though McGwire doesn't have an equivalent book like the must-read "Game of Shadows", which so devastatingly chronicles Bonds' flaunting of the rules and his overwhelming boorishness. Now, I simply accept the fact that McGwire cheated. Canseco cheated. Bonds cheated. Many cheated in a never ending spiral of malfeasance, targeted at chasing the almighty dollar and personal ego.

Upon learning that Bonds had taken away Hammerin' Hank Aaron's rightful spot atop the record books tonight, I did the only right thing I could think to do. I turned off coverage of "The Synthetic" and turned on "The Natural", starring Robert Redford, which saw Roy Hobbs rely on physical strength, talent and determination to become a major baseball star, and capture the fan's hearts through on-field heroics. Even when tempted by gamblers and mistresses, he eventually does the right thing, spurning evil and gaining success as a result.

Somehow, despite decades of focused baseball consumption, I had missed seeing The Natural until tonight. I knew the story's basic plotline, which is legend. I knew the main characters. I knew what to expect. But I had never seen it in full until tonight - the most appropriate of nights to remember that even when I find myself questioning the very core of those sports I champion and believe in, that the underlying foundation is true and without error. That it takes Hollywood and a 20+ year old film to bring me back to this stage is sad. It's completely unfortunate that a guy like Barry Bonds, who I want to like and want to root for, who has incredible baseball talent, chose to sweep away his charm and cleanliness for a run at synthetic, tainted history. Robert Redford would have said no to drugs.

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