Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Of Athletes And Men
By Ben Valentine

Let’s start by asking a simple question: how are athletes to be judged when their careers, and in some cases lives, are over?

I was left thinking about it Monday night upon hearing about the death of Kirby Puckett; did the sordid details of his post baseball career overshadow what was such a feel good story? Both John and David made splendid arguments for their case, but who was closer to the truth?

Then the Barry Bonds steroid news broke Tuesday and we get a different situation, yet one that has similarities. It is highly unlikely Barry Bonds will be caught breaking MLB’s steroid policy, thus everything said about him will be hearsay. If that is the case, does it overshadow his incredible accomplishments?

There is no doubt someone in the coming days will write Kirby Puckett embodied everything Barry Bonds does not; and they may well be right. Or perhaps they’re dead wrong; that no matter what happens with reporters, being a jerk to your wife still counts against you. But in the end, I’m left with the same nagging question. Does it matter when we look back on these players?

There is a fascination in our society to both elevate people to heights they do not deserve while also badmouthing others as if they had committed some type of horrific war crime. It isn’t just localized to celebrities and sports figures; politicians and historical figures often endure the same scrutiny. Thomas Jefferson was hero because he championed freedom and democracy… no wait… he was a villain who not only owned other human beings but thought of them as inferior and proceeded to force himself on one. Very rarely do you hear a middle ground. It seems as though we need our heroes, we need our villains, and apparently little in between.

To that end, Bonds has become the most villainous player of the recent era for numerous reasons; the most prevalent being his attitude towards the media and of course, the steroids issue. Now with this new book, Game of Shadows, it appears the issue will not being going away anytime soon. If it is all true, then has Bonds blighted the game? Has he given it black eye? Some would say unequivocally yes; the integrity of the game has been thrown in question. Cheating is cheating, whether or not it’s caught.

On the other hand, no one would be naïve to think Bonds was the only player taking steroids. The true number will probably never be known, but since there was no testing, the stuff was readily available and the fact athletes pour supplements into their bodies like water to get that competitive edge, the late Ken Caminiti’s assertion that 50 percent of the league used it isn’t as off base as one might think. So if everyone is cheating, is the playing field really uneven?

Which comes to the next point; taking a look at the guys who were busted, outside of Rafael Palmerio, none were anything to write home about. In fact they were players one might not suspect; pitchers like Juan Rincon and Ryan Franklin or a speedster in Alex Sanchez. The power hitters were not present unless you think Matt Lawton counts. So clearly steroids alone isn’t enough to turn your average major league 3rd outfielder like Lawton, into one of the game’s greatest players like Bonds. Talent still comes into play.

But what of the talk that there should be an asterisk next to the home run record if this stuff is discovered to be indeed accurate? Never mind baseball eras have been notorious for having statistics that only can be taken at face value against other statistics from the same era. Look at the pitching and offensive numbers from the 80’s up until the strike. Then look at them afterwards. Things changed drastically. Do records from before the mound height was lowered count any more or less than after?

The argument is not as clear cut as some want to believe. And if one realizes that, then perhaps Bonds isn’t the evil person he’s made out to be. Rather, perhaps Bonds is just one of the best players in an era that will be defined by its imbalance towards offense seen with not only performance enhancers but with small ball parks, tighter wound baseballs and Coors field. The numbers will be adjusted as they already are and life, believe or not, will move on.

But what of Kirby Puckett; the anti Bonds, if you will. He overcame his small stature to become one of his era’s best players at one of its most difficult positions, center field. However, despite memorable hits and numerous awards his legacy was being one of baseball’s most loved men off the field as well as on it. He had a career that was tragically cut short by glaucoma and now a life ended prematurely by a stroke.

However, as John accurately pointed out, there was a shady side to Puckett, one that is rather unsettling and throws into question his beloved character. Do we forget about this as we remember him or does this make him any less of a person worth honoring?

With Puckett and Bonds I can’t help but ask the question of why athletes have gained this hero worship. Men like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Malcolm X are one thing; they changed the world. Barry Bonds hits a baseball. Lawrence Taylor once famously remarked, “I crack heads for a living.” What have they done to deserve this praise?

Perhaps it goes to the fact they seem to be able to do the physical things we could only dream of. Sure an accountant who pulls in six figures has done really well for his or herself, but kids don’t sit around playing “office”. They play sports, so when they see someone hit a ball 420 feet it seems inhuman. It’s something they could only dream of doing. It’s not entirely logical, but hey, those are kids for you.

However, somewhere along the way, adults seem to have been caught up in it. So frequently we see comments of “what are we supposed to tell our kids?” when an athlete does something stupid, or “what kind of example are they setting?”

Hold on a minute. They play sports. While that can qualify you to make millions, endorse a wide range of products from deodorants to shampoos and get you a job often talking jibberish as a color guy, it doesn’t say anything about being a role model. These men or women are there to play sports for our entertainment. That’s their job. That’s what they’ve chosen to do with their lives. If they play the game well and thus entertain us, shouldn’t it be enough?

Barry Bonds may well be a jerk. I’ve never met the guy, so I can’t say for sure. He might have been one of hundreds of players who did steroids, he might not. Can’t say that for sure either. Kirby Puckett may have been a great guy, or a wife beating and cheating louse. He could have been both. Unfortunately, all I have to go on for either account is what someone, who I’ve never met, is telling me. There are reasons for everything, so for me to simply judge a man just based on what strangers tell me is wrong. And even if I did know every detail, it isn’t their job to be nice to me. That’s not what they’re paid for.

What do I know for sure? Barry Bonds is an all time great, who jerk or not, has made many Giant fans happy with his play. Kirby Puckett brought happiness to scores of fans, not only in Minnesota, but across the country. Both were joys to watch on the field. Forget what happened off it; that’s not what they were there for. In the end, Puckett and Bonds have this very important similarity; they’re both men who played the game of baseball well.

And that’s how they should be remembered when all is said and done.


Blogger Matt Brown said...

If we're judging Kirby Puckett and Barry Bonds by the worth of what they brought to the game, there is no comparison. One of the core aspects that makes sports great is that they reward human beings making the most of their natural physical ability.

Puckett was a shining example of this. He was 5'8" (maybe), chunky, and didn't really look like much of an athlete. But he willed his way to become one of the greatest hitters of his generation, and quite a good center fielder to boot. He brought a cheerful attitude to the game, in an era where baseball players were usually derided for being surly. He played baseball the way it should be played. You wanted to root for the guy.

Bonds, on the other hand, is in my mind the single most repulsive active player in major pro sports. He is one of the most accomplished players in baseball history. Millions of people, if not billions, would love to be in his shoes. Yet he is constantly miserable. But more importantly, Bonds has made a mockery of athletics and cast a shadow over his sport. He may never be tried in a court of law, but the information the Chronicle writers have in their book will be impossible for Bonds to refute. If Barry Bonds did indeed start taking steroids in 1998, we know what he was without the drugs. He was already the best player of his era. He won MVP awards, made All-Star games, and led teams to the playoffs. But the steroid revelations expose him as a lying cheat, and a miserable one at that. As a message to athletes everywhere about what sport is all about, Bonds should never make the Hall of Fame.

There are lessons to be taken from Puckett's life off the field. He cheated on his wife. He took poor care of himself in the last decade of his life. He may have been physically abusive. These things all reveal a flawed man. Every person on this earth is flawed. From each person's life I believe we can learn some lessons, both in terms of what to emulate and what to avoid. And so it is with Kirby Puckett.

Kirby Puckett brought honor to the game of baseball. Barry Bonds has disgraced it.

4:15 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

A couple of points here: first with the attitude issues. Barry Bonds is paid to play baseball. He is paid because he is good at the sport and generates tremendous amount of revenue for the game. Bonds is not paid to be nice. He could be, but that's not what he's there for. Ask yourself, would you rather have a good guy who hits .270 with 20 hrs, or a jerk who hits .370 with a .610 on base percentage. Like it or not, you're probably taking the jerk.

As for the steroids, as you said, he already was the greatest player of the era, so why doesn't he belong in the Hall of Fame? Because of speculation that, like it or not is not submissible in any court of law? (or MLB for that matter) Do I believe Bonds took steroids? Yeah I do. But I also think that tons of other guys did it and honestly, I don't care. Baseball players have been trying to cheat for ever... pitchers carrying nail files to scuff baseballs, corked bats, spit balls, the list goes on and on. Do we say those guys destroyed the integrity of the game? What about the steroid use in the NFL, which has been covered up? Who's using there? Does this mean we should put an asterik next to say, Peyton Manning's 2004 season?

It's easy to single out Bonds because of who he is and because he's a jerk. But doing that is just taking the easy way out. It would be different if Bonds were the only player in the game to use. But we know that isn't the case. Nobody knows how many people did steroids, but we can guess it went beyond Bonds, McGwire and Canseco. All that should be done is to accept this was an era of inflated offensive stats and go from there.

If we can learn from Puckett, then we can learn from Bonds too. However what gives us the right to excuse one man's actions and condemn another? Because he was nicer to the media and fans?

I don't know about you but I have been quite honored to watch one of the greatest players in the history of the game play. I don't care what Bonds is like off the field. I'm not watching the game to have dinner with the guy. I'm watching the game to see it played well and that's what I got to see from both men. What they brought to the game was different, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

4:57 PM  
Blogger Matt Brown said...

I don't mean to excuse Kirby Puckett's actions off the field, but they did not directly impact the game of baseball. Likewise, Barry Bonds has every right to be a jerk off the field, and we have every right to not want to go to lunch with him. But his actions directly relating to play ON the field have left a stain on the game.

Personally, I don't believe we can put asterisks next to Bonds, McGwire, et al in the record book, because the home runs counted at the time, and it's impossible to know exactly how many they would have hit without the steroids. But I do think it's justified to keep Bonds out of the Hall. Baseball's Hall of Fame qualifications do include a morals clause, and this is the perfect instance for it to come into play.

Usually when someone mentions the morals clause, the retort is to say, "Ty Cobb was a racist and he's in the Hall, Babe Ruth was a womanizing drunk..." and so on. But those behaviors did not directly impact the game itself. Baseball's records are an integral part of the game's enjoyment, moreso than in any other sport. What Bonds, McGwire, Palmeiro, and all the other 'roided sluggers have done is to throw the very validity and significance of some of those records into doubt.

Baseball and its fans wind up paying the price, and deservedly so, for enabling these frauds to do what they did. The hallowed records are no longer as meaningful, and we all suffer. The frauds should pay a price, too. Keep them out of the Hall of Fame.

1:46 AM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

Matt how can you kick guys out when it's impossible to know how many actually used or not? I mean the same circumstantial evidence against Bonds; the fact that he's posting career years in his late 30's, early 40's could be made for someone like Roger Clemens too.

Again, I don't doubt Bonds did steroids, but this is an issue that didn't start with him and it's ridiculous to use him as the scapegoating for all of this. Roids have been around before 98' and will continue to exist after Bonds is long since retired.

And do records from say, pre-integration not count? Should we dismiss Babe Ruth's homeruns because they didn't come against any black players? The integrity of the game is certainly compromised there. How can those records be taken seriously when some of the best players weren't even allowed to play the game!

If it were just Bonds, the integrity of the game would have more merit. But it was clearly more than a handful of guys here. So I classify it as another era. People will look at the inflated offensive numbers and adjust accordingly. Baseball will go on.

2:46 AM  

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