My general take on modern sports — that the game is more important than the hoopla surrounding it — means that I have a rosier view of Barry Bonds’ achievements than the average fan. By now, it is axiomatic among all but the most delusional Bonds fans that he took steroids; the bigger question is, So What? That’s not something I want to debate right now (as I have actual work to do). Here is the news I want to talk about: Bonds said yesterday that if the Hall of Fame accepts his record-setting 756th home run ball after it has been branded with an asterisk (courtesy of fashion designer Mark Ecko, who bought the ball for $750,000), Bonds would refuse to participate Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in the event he is elected. He’s obviously trying to bully the Hall of Fame into not accepting the ball, the same way he has allegedly bullied everyone around him for years. I’m not interested in the latter, but I think that the Hall of Fame should accept the Bonds ball without hesitation and basically tell Bonds to fuck off.
It sounds like they’re doing as much. The Hall’s president, Dale Petrosky, said the museum would be “delighted” to have the ball. Bonds’s take: “You cannot give people the freedom, the right to alter history. You can’t do it. There’s no such thing as an asterisk in baseball.” Here’s where Bonds runs up against the the-game-is-the-thing ethos. Marking the ball with an asterisk does not alter history, the same way placing an asterisk next to Barry Bonds’ name in the record book does not alter history, should that happen. He has hit the most home runs ever, and that will not change until someone hits more. That’s the long and short of it. ESPN can run as many “Outside the Lines” specials as they want about the “legitimacy” of Bonds’ record, but, in the event that both teams are attempting to actually win the game (gambling scandals deserve to be excepted from the-game-is-the-thing rules, because the teams are not playing the same game), the only necessary legitimacy for the home run record is to be the guy who clubbed the most pitches over those walls.
For a long, long time, this seemed to be fine with Barry Bonds. He claimed that he just wanted to play baseball, and that the media bore a large responsibility for tarnishing his image. He was right about that. The stories of his outrageously bad attitude were salacious enough to overshadow his monumental accomplishments even before his late-career weight gain; he was hated before he ever saw the Cream or the Clear, however knowingly. But he can’t claim that the media’s twisting this one. He’s finally in a web of his own lies. When Matt Murphy caught his 756th home run, wearing a ketchup-stained Jose Reyes jersey, Bonds sent message through the media that he didn’t expect the ball back. Absolutely not. “I don’t want the ball. I never, ever believed that a home run ball belongs to a player,” he said. “He caught it, it’s his.” Now that Mark Ecko owns the ball, Bonds has backpedaled: it now belongs to “history,” he says, and marking it would be wrong. I think it’s quite obvious that he was right the first time, and the second thought was a burst of hot air. We have to pay attention to Bonds when he swings, but we don’t have to listen to him when he talks. If he doesn’t speak at the Hall of Fame induction, that would make things even easier. But as soon as Barry Bonds closes the book on his career, the hard part of his life starts, because we’ll have to judge him on Barry Bonds the person and not Barry Bonds the player. By the time his Hall of Fame induction rolls around, he may need all the friends he can get.