Sports Law Blog
All things legal relating
to the sports world...
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Where Have You Gone Barry Bonds?

Over on The Situationist, Will Li has an excellent piece on the myth-making of baseball records. He takes particular notice of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak and Barry Bonds career home run record, which currently and maybe permanently stands at 762 home runs.

It's an enjoyable read for anyone interested in baseball history. The lack of attention DiMaggio received at the time of his record is almost unbelievable, though years later he would be duly honored.

As Will details, the treatment of DiMaggio's record invites the intriguing question of how Bonds and his record might be remembered decades from now. Might future generations hold Bonds and his record in higher esteem than do many of us today, perhaps because they will focus more on the extraordinary raw number and less on the flaws of the person responsible for it?


It seems to me we have the opposite problem in our ESPN-era: We over-mythologize everything. I do not think anyone doubts or downplays down how tremendous Bond's achievement was. Indeed, the mythology probably was enhanced by the fact that, for the media (and, to a lesser extent, fans) the career homer record is *the* baseball record. We saw the same thing with the single-season HR record in both 1998 and 2002.

To the extent the achievement has been downplayed, it is because of who Bonds is--in legitimate ways (he, in all likelihood, achieved the record by doing what is widely understood as cheating) and illegitimate ways (the race issues), and neutral ways (Bonds is, by all accounts, a jerk--and even this did not stop the myth machine in 2002).

At some level, I think all the talk of asterisks (Li's post mentions Shula's stupidity about the Patriots) is pushback on this instant myth-making. To preserve history, there must be something tainted about the new record, so let's do something to maintain the old record.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 11/27/2007 8:48 AM  

I personally think race was a very nominal factor in the public opinion regarding Bonds. Unless anyone forgets he was chasing a record held by another African-American player. A very different situation than the one faced by Hammerin' Hank who began his major league career the same year the Supreme Court handed down the Brown decision.

Likewise when Sosa was racing McGwire he had a large number of supporters in the race.

Bonds is symbolic. Just as any great cause needs a public face to rally behind, evil needs a face. Bonds fairly or not has become the public face of juicing. He made the perfect target because he was performing great feats and was roundly disliked by those stuck covering him.

Personally my dislike of Bonds came from a day watching ESPN and seeing him oddly bring his kids to meet with the press right after the mistress story broke. The reporters asked about it and he scolded them for asking in front of his kids. It struck me as a cheap ploy to dodge the question because I'd never seen him bring a child with him to meet the press like that.

The desire for sports content is huge and the ESPN family of channels have a lot of air time to fill. If the biggest news of the day is that a punt returner for the Pats has turf toe then the time must be filled by analyzing how that news impacts their quest for the Super Bowl and an undefeated season.

Blogger Mark -- 11/27/2007 11:32 AM  

The desire for sports content is huge and the ESPN family of channels have a lot of air time to fill.

Well, heck.
I have a novel suggestion: the ESPN channels could fill air time by showing actual sporting events. Not out-of-shape middle-aged guys sitting around and bloviating about sports. Wouldn't that be nice?

Poker, bass fishing, billiards and spelling bees do not count as "sports" in this (or any) context.

Anonymous Peter -- 11/28/2007 1:04 PM  

I have to agree with Howard on this point - "We over-mythologize everything."

ESPN (and other outlets), in trying to capitalize on whatever's getting attention, play it up as much as possible. Just look at USC football a couple of years ago. Leading up to the Rose Bowl, ESPN did a comparison showing that USC was basically the best team ever. What happened after all that hype? Well, Vince Young happened. ESPN followed by declaring the Rose Bowl as the best bowl game ever, as to be expected (which it may have been).

In time, I think more people will appreciate Bonds' numbers. But those who were here and experienced all the news about steroids and asterisks will probably never hold the record in such high esteem.

Anonymous Jackie Bost -- 11/28/2007 7:47 PM  

I definitely agree with Jackie that "those who were here and experienced all the news about steroids and asterisks will probably never hold the record in such high esteem."

I am not a big baseball fan at all, but I am a huge sports fan in general; therefore, I watch ESPN (and all sports channels) constantly. All I think about when I think of Bonds is "great athlete who cheated the game and himself." It has nothing to do with race, Bonds being a jerk, or anything else. It's only about steroids. Having said that, I also realize that Bonds has not publicly stated that he took steroids. I try to think the best about people, but with all that has been said on ESPN and every other sports medium you can't help but think that Bonds cheated.

If I have kids one day that play baseball and if they ask me about Bond's record, all I will know to say is that he cheated. Nothing else will come to my mind. That is sad in my mind, but it is the truth.

Anonymous Jordan Ash -- 11/29/2007 10:17 AM  

Jordan Ash:

What is sad in my mind is the desire by so many to apply this new baseball standard on what is cheating to past behavior. No one in baseball (players, management, ownership, fans, media) cared about steroids until BALCO. If it was cheating before why did no one care before? It has only now become cheating and it is just flat ass wrong and unfair to apply this new standard to old behavior especially when this application is so clearly aimed at one primary target.

Anonymous giantsrainman -- 11/29/2007 6:19 PM  

Post a Comment