08 August 2007
Barry, Barry, Barry!
I want to extend my heartiest congratulations to Mr. Barry Bonds, new Major League Baseball home run king. Last night he broke Hank Aaron's record of 755 career home runs. His is an amazing achievement, no matter how you slice it.
One day, I hope we will have a serious, sustained conversation about steroids, and other performance-enhancing drugs and other technological assistants (like Lance Armstrong's oxygen tent). For now however, thanks in part to the radioactive combination of Race and Sports, it doesn't seem possible to do that. All folks can do now it seems is scream at Barry Bonds.
People talk about Bonds getting bigger over the years (So have I, btw: it's hard for even me to believe that I could once pack myself into a pair of size 29 jeans, but I did it in 1984). His shoe size has grown. And look at that big bald head!
These same folks also forget that, so far, Barry has not tested positive for steroids (It's also difficult to say how, exactly, steroids would assist someone in hitting a little round ball with a big wooden stick. Seems to me you might need a bit of skill and talent for that in the first place). Nor do many remember the death threats, bad press, and snubbing from the then Baseball Commissioner that Henry Aaron got as he approached (Baltimore's own) Babe Ruth's "sacred record."
Okay, so Barry's not a 'nice person.' He's 'short on people skills.' He's 'surly' ... although somehow the Giants got him to dress up as Paula Abdul for their "American Idol" style mild hazing of the rookies this past year...I guess it's hard to be surly when you're up in a dress!
Sadly, this is often the case when a person of color doesn't want to play "the game." They become the "big scary black man" of SOME peoples obsessions (cf my previous post!) I'm reminded of the Baltimore Orioles' own 'surly' superstar, Eddie Murray. I remember the chants of "Ed-die! Ed-die" in the stands during his glory years. He too was not a great schmoozer of the local sports press, and was chided for being a 'dull' interview, non-responsive, aloof, surly.
When Ted Williams was here and inducted into the Hall of Fame 37 years ago, he said he must have earned it because he didn't win it because of his friendship with the writers. I guess in that way I'm proud to be in his company that way. I was never one much on words. For me to focus a lot on the individual, that's not the way I learned to play the game. Baseball's a team game. You win as a team, you lose as team. You also do so many things together, but it is not an "I" thing. That is one reason why I didn't maybe have the friendship with the media maybe like I could have. But I had to do what I had to do to make myself successful. That's what I learned, and that's what I preach today to my kids. And I still believe it. (Eddie Murray's Hall of Fame induction speech, 7/27/2003). As his Wikipedia entry notes, Murray also gave kids from Baltimore's Northwood Baseball League a dozen autographed bats, 24 autographed baseballs and 100 autographed Hall of Fame programs. Not bad for someone "surly and aloof."
One of my co-workers fits the profile of the big scary black man, tall, bald, thick. He's like a human wall coming toward you. The guy also has a great personality, very warm and friendly, and is, in some ways, just a 'big kid.' I'm sure that this is really him, that his ebullience is genuine, but I've also found myself wondering how much of his personality was formed in order to put others at ease, so they would NOT be afraid of him. Not everyone has this ability to be 'nice', however, in order to allay other's fears. Should they then be judged negatively for that?
It's also a dangerous thing for baseball fans to romanticize too much about 'the good old days', although it seems to be woven into the fabric of the game. Babe Ruth was overweight, and had huge appetites for food, alcohol, and women. Ty Cobb was a racist (as were many other players of that era), and flat out mean to many people. While sports radio blares on and on about putting an asterisk next to Barry's name in the record books, I and many others wonder if we should also be considering doing the same thing next to the names of all those 'greats' who never had to face the amazing cornucopia of talent that was the Negro Leagues.
As Dave Zirin commented to me prior to his program here at the Library in Baltimore, white sports figures are usually 'given their humanity.' They are allowed to make mistakes, be fragile, and are also allowed to redeem themselves. Black and other players of color are seen as extensions of the equipment, simply cogs in a system, and often interchangeable (this is particularly true of Latino players). They...we (African-Americans in general, and black men in particular)...are something more than human when they're successful; something less than human when they fall.
In the hyperbolic world of sports talk, people's masks of politeness and correctness slip very easily. Folks think they can get away with saying just about anything. I urge us all to pay attention to the commentary that will be going around for the next week or so, or until the end of the season, as Bonds starts to approach 760 homers. Genuinely listen to what people have to say about him -- and think about what their comments says about them -- and us.
Poetic coverage ("...on a cool Tuesday night near the shores of San Francisco Bay, 755 finally perished at the hands of a relentless, controversial invader from the west named Barry Lamar Bonds. Seven fifty-five is gone. Behold, 756.") from the Washington Post
Commentary from Salon's "King" Kauffman
Barry-mania from the San Francisco Chronicle
Dave Zirin on Barry ("756*")