Sunday, May 21, 2006

Second Fiddle Is Just That
By Ben Valentine

So as I paced around my living room today watching helplessly as the Mets’ 36 million dollar closer was blowing a lead a mediocre AAA reliever could have held on to, the telecast was interrupted for a FOX game break. The reason? Barry Bonds had finally hit his 714th home run, tying Babe Ruth.

My first response: “Finally! That bastard has gone two weeks without providing a freaking home run for my fantasy team. What a waste of a second round draft pick.”

Then of course, it was followed by, “oh yeah, that’s right. He tied Babe Ruth for second on the all time list.”

Joe Buck and Tim McCarver proceeded to wax on and on about how the home run feels meaningless now because of the huge cloud that sits over Bonds. Ironically, they’re right; the home run should be meaningless. Or to put it a little more specifically, as meaningless as when Bonds passed Willie Mays on the all time home run list. The reason, you might ask, why no attention should be paid to Bonds tying or passing Ruth? It doesn’t have to do with steroids.

It has to do with the fact Bonds did nothing except move into second place all time.

It’s a nice accomplishment. In fact it’s a hell of one. But long drawn out ceremonies, appearances by the commissioner, confetti and all that jazz should be saved for breaking a record, not moving into second.

Do you think we’d have a ceremony for someone who moved into second place on the all time receiving TD’s list in the NFL? How about second in points in a career in the NHL or NBA? Of course not. And before anyone says anything about how this is the most “hallowed record in sports” remember, a few years back that was the single season home run record. When Mark McGwire passed Ruth for third or Mantle for second, there was no ceremony. Just when he finally broke the record. Same for Bonds when he broke McGwire’s record a few years later.

We don’t give prizes for second in professional sports. It’s a winner take all world. So why should anyone make a big hoopla about Bonds passing Ruth? He’s still got 41 more homers to go before he can catch the actual home run leader Hank Aaron, which he may not do. If Bonds does do it, then do you think Bud Selig will be absent from that event? Do you think it will be devoid of emotion then? I highly doubt it.

However, this emphasis people have put on Ruth is strange. When people talk about protecting the records with asterisks, usually they are thinking of Ruth, not Aaron. In fact, we’ve heard more about Bonds in respect to Ruth than we have about Bonds in respect to Aaron. Why?

Perhaps because Bonds has made this about Ruth. His comments in the past saying he’s a better player have rubbed many the wrong way. The biggest issue however is that Bonds has insinuated this is about race. In his eyes, passing a white man, Ruth, might be more gratifying than taking the record from Aaron.

Bonds might be wrong to make it about race in this day and age. However, maybe he is on to something that people want to overlook. For starters why is Ruth even mentioned at all? It isn’t his record. It hasn’t been his record for over 40 years. Ruth is another name, like Mays, McGwire, Foxx or Schmidt. Those are all names who hit lots of home runs; more than almost everyone else that ever played. But they all share one thing in common; they didn’t hit as many as Hammerin’ Hank ever did. So why even bother to talk about Ruth?

It can’t be because he’s the greatest ever to play the game, because that’s debatable at best. Willie Mays certainly has an argument in his corner. So why aren’t people crying about the fact Bonds passed him? Is it because Bonds is his godson? Or is it because Mays can’t be the icon of a game that is in the end supported by a white majority?

Sounds crazy? Or is it? What about the outrageous drivel CBSSportsline’s Scott Miller actually wrote today? In reference to Bonds: “The historic homer was positively Ruthian, even if the man himself isn’t.”

He continues: “This isn’t just about lovability quotient, though Ruth had that in spades.”

Uh, excuse me what?

It’s funny and at the same time very sad what kind of revisionist history we have now days when talking about Ruth. The stories about the man are interesting so much so that you realize he would have been chastised if he played in this day and age. He led an active social life, was a drunk and did a lot of other things that if he were playing today would get him the title of “problem athlete.” He’d be the guy who’d show up at the stadium hung over or worse but in the end, his talent would cover up for it. He’d probably bounce around from team to team putting up great stats but wearing out his welcome everywhere he went. Think David Wells, who idolizes Ruth. Or perhaps Darryl Strawberry or Doc Gooden. Yet this type of behavior, which today’s athletes’ are chastised for, Ruth is cheered for. Another example from Miller; instead of saying “Ruth was a player who spent his time drinking illegal substances and associating with loose women” says Ruth “squeezed every ounce of life out of the mustard bottle.”

So did Lawrence Taylor, but sportswriters actually wanted to keep him out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame because of it. So if one of the best players ever to grace the gridiron isn’t above that kind of critique, why is Ruth? Why is he lovable and Taylor so despicable? Cocaine is just as legal as alcohol was back in Ruth’s day.

The irony here is that Bonds, as a teammate probably isn’t the problem child Ruth would be in this day and age. As much as people hate the guy, Bonds comes in every day, does his thing and then goes home. We certainly hear a lot about what he puts into his body, but he isn’t one found at nightclubs or doing god knows what at all hours of the morning before a game. Ruth was. Like it or not, Bonds is most likely a better teammate than Babe Ruth ever could be.

We all know racism and prejudice still exist. However, we all like to believe that in our little world, it is non existent. For the sports fan, the game is part of that world. So when someone like Bonds claims it’s all about race, the tendency is to scoff and call him a trouble maker. No one wants to think racism is part of something they enjoy, something they believe in. And when someone like me writes that there may be some validity to what Bonds is saying, there’s a tendency to just say I’m crazy.

But when people are outraged that a black man is passing a white man, while showing far less concern about the other two historical black men flanking him, something doesn’t seem right. When that white man, in a blatant attempt to make him seem angelic and the black man devilish, has his personality flaws not only glossed over but embraced, there is something wrong. Before anyone jumps on Bonds for making his comments, explain those issues. And don’t forget to explain why there is so much love and protection for a runner up.

Barry Bonds is a jerk. That’s not news.

Babe Ruth was a drunken louse. That’s not news either, but apparently nowadays I’m required to replace the “drunken louse” with “lovable chum”.

Today one jerk tied another for second place in the history books. Barry Bonds historically equal to Babe Ruth in one very big category. Do you know what that category is?

Being historical afterthoughts to Hank Aaron. Or at least that’s how it SHOULD be.

Just thought I should remind you all of that.


Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

I think the other thing lost in this is that while both Ruth and Bonds might be dislikable because of what they've done, there's no one around who will say a bad word about Hank Aaron. He's a great man, who was a great player, and he holds arguably the greatest record in sports. I could care less about Bonds passing Ruth, but I'd be saddened if he passed Aaron, if only because Hammerin' Hank was such a fitting emblem of everything baseball can be.

2:45 AM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

Good point Zach and something I was sort of alluding to.

Hank Aaron is lost in all of this. He is the perfect symbol and icon for the game, great workman like player who consistently played all aspects of the game well. He wasn't the greatest player ever but symbols don't have to be. Of course if they want to use arguably the greatest player, they could just use Mays.

But for some reason people want to keep Ruth as this iconic figure and make it seem like he's the victim here. So they make excuses or just flat out gloss over what he did during his life.

Something else also stuck out in Miller story. The kid who caught the Bonds ball said he "hated" Bonds. Bonds' reply: "I don't have any idea why anyone would express any hatred toward another person that you don't know."

I sort of feel this way. There a lots of jerks in the sports world and Ruth was one of them. Why should he be loved and Bonds hated? Nobody I know has ever met either. If we're just going on word of mouth, then you should hate both or neither.

It's hard for me to dismiss what Bonds is saying when Lawrence Taylor, Terrell Owens, and Allen Iverson's off the field antics = detrimental, while Ruth and even a guy like David Wells is almost the "lovable drunk".

In short, yes, it would make the most sense to use Aaron as a symbol for the game. But the truth is Zach, these Bonds critics don't care about character; they're just using it as an excuse to get their shots in. Because if they did actually care there is no way they could ever put Ruth up on the pedastool he's currently on.

4:12 AM  
Blogger David Arnott said...

At least one sort-of big time baseball writer has addressed this issue. Dayn Perry doesn't take it as far as he could have, as this piece attempts to do, but he's headed down that path. The statistical argument is necessarily vague and conjectural, for lack of data, but Perry's insight into the media is particularly relevant to your piece:

"Ruth is also remembered as a loveable, convivial scamp — a Falstaff with power, if you will. The sports media of Ruth's day were more interested in mythmaking than muckraking, and, as a result, they ignored many of the Bambino's human failings. Ruth was a drunk (he was experimenting with alcohol by age 7 and drank heavily throughout his career), a glutton (his diet consistent mostly of hot dogs and soda), a malcontent (as a Red Sox, he ignored signs at the plate, once threatened to punch his manager in the face, went AWOL from the club on a semi-regular basis and ritually broke curfew) and a philanderer (he was unfaithful to his wife on a number of occasions, and it was rumored that a 1925 illness was the result of a runaway case of gonorrhea). As a result, Ruth neglected his obligations to the team by failing to stay in even passable physical shape.
Were the media of Ruth's age not so chummy, they would've etched a thoroughly different portrait of the man. These days, when many parents outsource their role modeling to celebrities, you can be sure Ruth would be derided as a bad influence to American's youth because of his lifestyle and frequent insubordination."

3:37 PM  
Blogger mathesond said...

To be fair, drinking alcohol wasn't illegal in Ruth's heyday, selling alcohol was. The Babe wasn't breaking any laws, the bartenders serving him were.

5:53 PM  

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