Passing the Torch
I watched the first at bat tonight, catching it (deliberately) between other pursuits. Barry roped a double 400 feet to right center field, centering a good breaking ball perfectly but failing to get under it. Barry's second at bat coincided with my going to bed, and I ran in from the bathroom, toothbrush in hand and a mouth full of foam, to watch him lash a single to right field.
It was clear that he was hitting the ball well, very well -- hitting it like Barry hits it. Adjusting during lengthy at bats in those minute increments that are familiar to those who have watched Barry over the years and know what they're seeing, taking a breajing ball inches out of the strike zone on a 2-2 count, fighting balls off that weren't quite in the right location.
And then instead of reading for five or ten minutes and lying down, as I usually would, I decided to mute the television, read a little longer, and see how quick the Giants' line-up came back around. It was fast enough for me to linger, reading a good novel with my glasses on, looking up every so often to check on things.
I have tickets to see the Giants when they visit PNC Park on Monday, and as Barry slumped and time passed I allowed myself a sliver of hope that he would come to Pittsburgh still at or below 755. But when he tied the record over the weekend, I knew it wouldn't last until the thirteenth. Tonight as Barry came up for the third time, I found myself impatient, knowing in my heart that he would hit 756 this week in San Francisco, as it should be, and preferring it to happen when I could watch live.
And so as the count went to 2-0, then to 2-1 (looking) 2-2 (swinging) and 3-2, Barry then fouling off one, and another, I watched his battle, his focus, and I didn't doubt for a second that he would swing for it with two strikes, as he always does, missing far too rarely for the force and majesty of his swing. His sweet swing.
And he hit it, sky high into cavernous right center field, and what I imagine was an ugly scrum in the stands -- as much at least hinted in the video replay -- ensued.
Perhaps portions of Barry's career have been improperly enhanced by steroids, Human Growth Hormone, or amphetamines. History increasingly teaches us that athletes will do anything to exceed their peers, to reach what they imagine is their peak potential, sacrificing their own safety and their integrity, for the ephemeral incidents of dominance, or simply to push themselves over the hump, to make themselves competitive in a crowd of athletes with greater natural gifts. Barry's case is hardly unusual to the sport, or the person. That we do not know the breadth of the problem, that we may never know, does not entitle us to burden one man with the sins of an entire sports-media complex -- and yes, I impeach the whole establishment, for reasons that may or may not be self-evident, but which in any event are too lengthy to consider now.
If it was true of him, it was true of the pitchers whom he always dominated throughout his career, and if true of them than true as well of the outfielders who chased his flyballs, the infielders who reached balls that might otherwise have slipped under their gloves.
In the past weekend, Alex Rodriquez hit his 500th homerun and Tom Glavine pitched his way to his 300th victory. Earlier this season, Frank Thomas hit his 500th homerun, and that threshold, once itself rather rarefied, came closer to reach, as it will continue to do as the big hitters of the past twenty years, steroid-fueled perhaps; more effectively physically conditioned and video- and computer-aided no doubt; beneficiaries of modern medicine and nutrition, diluted pitching talent, shrunken modern ballparks, maple bats, certainly -- as this class of hitters and those who follow retire.
And what other records coincide with the steroid era? Sosa's and McGwire's three-year epic battle for the homerun title, of course; but so does Ripken's 2157th consecutive game played, several perfect games and myriad no hitters, Clemens' dominant rush past 300 victories, Kerry Wood's twenty strikeouts on a hot day in Chicago -- the Boston Red Sox winning the championship that had eluded them for decades upon decades. What of these will remain, what feats can we recognize justly, if we refuse to honor Barry Bonds' achievement?
None, an entire era ripped from the history books baseball adores like no other sport even begins to emulate, an entire batch of American legends, none more venerated than the sluggers, the men who bat fourth in the order, who can change the complexion of a game, of a season, with one perfect swing.
In order to reach 755 homeruns in a 20-year career, one must average 37.75 home runs per season. Taking into account physical and mental development, injury, external conditions like the ballpark one calls home, the hitters who line up behind you, distracting personal problems, this is an astonishing thought, especially in light of the fact that when I was young and learning to love this game, when Barry was just entering the game to much fanfare in My Adopted Fair City Pittsburgh, gangly and fast and more of a scrapper than a slugger, 40 homeruns was a plateau that no one reached for entire seasons on end, a very different time than the pumped up, power-focused era that has coincided with my majority.
Whatever happened happened; and with or without chemical assistance, Barry would have finished his career honored among the same handful of legendary hitters to whom he is compared now, even mired in suspicion and invective. And isn't it telling that only a few of the loudest and least informed naysayers seriously maintain that he ever was not destined to be one of the great hitters, or deny that this event, this night, was something that fits a pattern of mastery established long before anyone has suggested any impropriety on Bonds' part. Whatever Bonds has chosen to do, he's done.
At home plate, Barry's son, Nikolai, stood alone, waiting for his father, his complicated, standoffish, embattled father, professional teammates at a discrete distance ringing the dirt at home plate. The real celebration, Barry's embrace of his son, his elevated hands and his upturned face, having passed in a few seconds, the for-the-cameras festivities ensued. The sound of fireworks past center field, over McCovey Cove, visible eventually on camera, Willie Mays on the field (whom Bonds gestured toward repeatedly, honoring his Godfather and legendary predecessor, perhaps his better), Aaron on the Jumbotron making the only appearance he was willing to make, but doing so with dignity and grace.
And then one of the announcers put Barry Bond's thoughts, pensive on the bench in the wake of the crowd's loving display, to words: "It's over." Until the next time, when I'll be watching if I'm able.
Thanks, Barry, for the memory.