20 July 2007

Aim For His Head (BR)
A modest proposal to reclaim the integrity of America's game

As this article begins, San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds stands within two home runs of tying the Major League record of 755, currently held by Henry Louis (Hank) Aaron, and three of breaking it. Bonds is and has been embroiled in a cloud of controversy for several years as allegations of performance-enhancing drug use have been leveled at him from several sources.

In last year's book Game of Shadows, San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams documented Bonds' dealings with disgraced BALCO trainer Greg Anderson. Anderson was indicted for distribution of steroids to athletes before striking a deal with federal prosecutors under which he would not be compelled to identify his clients by name in open court.

The allegations in Shadows, based upon leaked grand jury testimony from Bonds, Anderson and others, paint a picture of the 14-time All-Star which most baseball fans had already understood: That of a phenomenally talented egomaniac with a sociopathic streak and few scruples to speak of.

Bonds was well in the midst of compiling a sure-fire Hall of Fame resume in 1998, when St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire and Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa each began hot pursuit of the all-time single-season home run record, held to that point by Roger Maris, the New York Yankees outfielder who hit 61 round-trippers in 1961. Both players surpassed Maris' total -- McGwire finished the season with 70 homers, Sosa with 66 -- and the story captured America's attention, largely eliminating remnants of ill will toward the game following 1994's season-ending players strike.

According to Shadows, the events of 1998 stoked Bonds' competitive spirit, as well as his jealousy. McGwire and Sosa were being hailed as saviors of baseball as the national pastime, despite rumors among players and press that they were getting a little "help" on the side. (During the '98 season, McGwire admitted to using androstenedione ["Andro"], a bodybuilding supplement that was legal and allowed under Major League Baseball's drug policy at the time. McGwire famously refused to confirm or deny accusations of illegal steroid use in front of Congress in 2005. Sosa has steadfastly denied ever taking steroids, and is currently enjoying a resurgent season with the Texas Rangers after a year out of baseball.)

Bonds coveted the adulation and professional respect afforded McGwire and Sosa and assumed that his methods would not come under scrutiny from MLB authorities so long as fans and revenue continued to roll in. In 1999, according to Williams and Fainaru-Wada, Bonds began a regimen of anabolic steroids. In 2001, Bonds, whose previous highest single-season home run total was 49, clubbed an astonishing 73 homers, breaking McGwire's three-year-old record. But the kudos Bonds thought he had coming once again eluded him, as his power surge was overshadowed by the terrorist attacks on the U.S. that same September.

Bonds' story is one of extraordinary ability not wasted, but most certainly tarnished and sullied. You or I could take all the steroids we wanted and never hit .370 against Major League pitching, as Bonds did in 2002. Steroids would not imbue any of us with the patience and visual acuity the slugger possessed in 2004, when he accepted a record 232 walks in a season, though his fearsome, "enhanced" presence likely contributed to that total. And steroids don't help anybody win Gold Glove awards for outstanding defense, of which Bonds has eight. Without steroids, Bonds was arguably the greatest baseball player of our generation. With steroids, the same is true, yet he is also a disappointment and a disgrace.

But why spill all these words over one man's dearth of character? Because: As we speak, this man is sneaking up on the most hallowed of records in professional sports; the all-time Major League home run record. And it's not just the record, it's the man who holds it.

Hank Aaron, who has still hit more home runs than anyone to ever put on a Major League uniform, began his career with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues before signing a minor-league contract with the Milwaukee Braves in 1952. He made his big-league debut in 1954. In an era of painful transition for baseball, when racial epithets screamed across baselines were still the norm, Aaron won the hearts of fans and colleagues alike with his no-nonsense style, superlative play, and clockwork consistency that garnered him 24 trips to the All-Star Game, another Major League high mark.

In 1973, as Aaron himself closed in on the record of 714 career home runs, held by Babe Ruth, he was inundated with racist hate mail and threats of death should he break Ruth's mark. He finished the year one homer short of Ruth. He tied the record on his first at-bat of the next season, and, on April 8, 1974, Henry Aaron sent an Al Downing pitch over the left-field wall at Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium to become the home-run King of all time, having overcome professional and societal adversity to achieve the improbable feat.

So now we come to the summit of what to now has been a history lesson, and a full explanation of that to which the title of this article alludes. My suggestion and plea to pitchers throughout the game is to do whatever is in their power to prevent Barry Bonds from ascending past Hank Aaron on the all-time home run leader board. In short, throw at his head. Or aim a fastball at his kneecaps. Maybe throw one behind him to provoke an altercation and rough him up when he charges the mound.

Whatever means are necessary -- short of outright criminal conduct, of course -- to put this big baby and no-good cheater out of commission and end his pursuit of a record rightfully owned and earned by a living embodiment of athleticism, sportsmanship and gentlemanliness, should be employed. The tacit policy of the league's pitchers should be not to allow Bonds to escape an at-bat without fearing for his long-term health. Hurlers with more pacifistic inclinations (I assume these are a minority contingent) should intentionally walk him. But the bottom line is that the batters' box should be a perpetually scary place for Bonds to venture into.

Hitters get thrown at for any number of violations of baseball etiquette. This is really no different. Stealing signs, crowding the plate, spiking a fielder on a slide into a base, all eventually earn the offender a knock-down or a bruise.

This sort of justice for Bonds would be beyond poetic, to come within tasting range of the glory he has for so long sought, and employed underhanded, unethical and illegal methods to attain, only to be ultimately stymied, and have his career ended, by a united front of his fellow ballplayers, who have for years now been victimized by Bonds' cheating. It would be the first real show of commitment on the part of players themselves to a steroid-free workplace, and the first step on a long road for Major League Baseball, an organization whose naked greed afforded monsters like Bonds a safe haven, back to respectability.

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