How Barry Bonds Saved Baseball

Andy Warhol, probably the world’s best known pop artist, is perhaps most famous for his screen prints of different-colored variations of the same Marilyn Monroe portrait or his work with Campbell’s soup cans. (Although, I argue his greatest contribution to the world was his notion of everyone in the future getting “15 minutes of fame,” a prediction made true with the advent of reality shows, Twitter, facebook, and most directly, Youtube.)  While his work lifted everyday objects such as the soup can to the level of high art, Warhol was commenting on pop culture (and capitalism) as a whole.  The subject matter, the perseverance and patience to carry on the art’s repetitive nature, even the very process of (re)creating the art (Warhol had a studio – called “The Factory” – where he employed adult film actors, drug addicts, drag queens and all the rest of Lady Gaga’s key demographic to work an assembly line, mass producing his work like a corporation.  The process was the art.) was saying something about the consumerist culture that, by the 60’s, was growing out of the World War II era and reaching something vaguely resemblant of our society today.  Think Mad Men

The effect, of course, is that by reproducing the same image over and over, its essence is lost.  It’s no longer a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, it’s a Warhol.  He lifted the subject such that it ceased to have meaning without losing its sense of still being art.  It’s like repeating a word, any word, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over until the word itself – that is, the collection of letters and sounds – separates from what the word means.  (It’s called jamais vu.  Never experienced that before?  Here, say the word “spoon” 90 times in a row.  Don’t continue reading until you have.  No seriously.)  Banksy, a truly original (perhaps the truly original) pop artist of our time says as much in his film Exit Through the Gift Shop.  “Warhol repeated iconic images until they became meaningless, but there was still something iconic about them.”

In 1998, Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs each hit home runs at a pace the game of baseball had never seen before.  They chased the record for home runs in a season, then 61, until September 8 of that year, when McGwire hit number 62 against Sosa’s Cubs.  McGwire would finish the season with 70, Sosa with 66.  The chase was enough to rejuvenate interest in the game of baseball for a nation that had soured on the sport since the player’s strike in 1994.  Suddenly, there was national interest in baseball again.  For one magical summer, people of all ages (and most certainly my generation) understood how important baseball must have been in post-war America, when the true legends of the game – Robinson, Mantle, Mays, DiMaggio – played the only game Americans seemed to care about with such fervor.  And no statistic in baseball was sexier – the “Marilyn Monroe”, if you will – as the home run.

Never mind that Sosa looked larger than he’d ever looked before.  Never mind that McGwire was caught with a supplement, androstenone, in his locker that wasn’t technically illegal but certainly spoke to a greater rot at the game’s core.  Never mind that before Albert Belle hit 50 home runs in the ’95 season, only three other players had achieved that mark in the previous three decades, but by ’97 another 4 players would join the 50-homer club.  No one cared then.  We chose to believe Sosa achieved his physique from a strict regimen of Flinstones vitamins. (Literally.  Sosa credited Betty Rubble for his Hulkish physique)  Denial is a hell of a thing.

Like an economic bubble, home runs were being hit with more regularity than ever before and at an increasing (unsustainable) rate.

Cut to 2001.  Barry Bonds, a player who, before that season, was known more for great defense, speed, and hitting than his home run totals, and a player who had never hit 50 home runs in a season before, broke Mark McGwire’s 3-year old record by hitting 73 homers.  Maybe it was his unlikable demeanor.  Perhaps his sudden explosion (at the age of 37, no less) was all too conspicuous.  (This was a player everyone knew was on performance enhancers.  You just don’t go from looking like Dave Chappelle your whole career to looking like the Thing at the age of 37.  As the legend goes, so envious was Bonds of all the attention given to Sosa and McGwire when it was he who was the best player in baseball, that he changed his entire approach to the game to prove once and for all who the best player of all time really was.)  Or maybe it was just because he is a black man.  Whatever the reason, Bonds’ record chase was met with decidedly more vitriol that McGwire/Sosa’s had been just a few seasons earlier.  “At least,” his critics maintained, “he’s too old and too far away to break the most important record in the game (or any other game, for that matter) – Hank Aaron’s 755 career home runs”.  But Bonds didn’t stop at the single-season record.  He went on to average 32.5 home runs a year for the next 6 years, remarkable when you consider one of those years was injury shortened, and Bonds already had 5 home runs in 14 games.  His average over the other 5 of his last 6 seasons jumps up to 38 when you remove that one short season.  His utter destruction of any and all records associated with baseball’s sexiest statistic continued when, on August 7th 2007, Bonds hit his 756th home run, passing Aaron’s record, which had stood since 1976.

On August 7th of 2007, Barry Bonds destroyed the most hallowed record in sports.  On August 7th, Barry Bonds saved baseball.

Baseball historians were incensed.  “Put an asterisk next to his name!” “Bonds has made a mockery of America’s game!” “In my book, Henry Aaron is still the home run king!”  The media (Read: ESPN) carried on the debate in a way that had only until then been rivaled by Court TV during the OJ trial.  And the children! Oh how the children cried! (Ok, to be fair, children didn’t care.  This is because children inherently know that sports aren’t real life, and athletes aren’t real people.  Athletes, to a child, are like Dora the Explorer, if Dora explored syringes.)  Bonds took the heat as the game’s premier cheater, even though he was only following in the footsteps of those who came (three years) before him.

Before all was said and done (and Barry Bonds was black-balled out of baseball), Bonds would hit another 6 homers, giving him 762 for his career.  But the magic was gone.  People looked twice at every player having a conspicuously good year.  Fans went back and re-examined the home run chase that had brought so many of them back to baseball.  Experts and sports pundits clung to the remaining “untainted” giants of the game like a child clings to a teddy bear hoping it will protect him from the monsters in the closet. (Every player who laced ’em up during the Steroid Era is tainted.  That’s what makes the Steroid Era so tragic.)   Detractors of Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez began to root him on, hoping he’d recapture the home run crown for the Good one fateful day. (The movement subsided quickly when A-Rod was found to be a steroid user as well.)

Barry Bonds had done to the home run what Andy Warhol had achieved with the Marilyn prints – he mass-produced home runs systematically as a commentary on the absurd value of home runs systemically.  Bonds never wanted to be the monster he became.  It was his appallment from the acclaim Mcgwire had been given as some American hero when he did literally nothing well except hit home runs, which were obviously the result of performance enhancing substances.  In his mass-production, Bonds succeeded at lifting home runs to the level of the highest in athletic achievement such that they lost their value entirely.  They were Marilyn Monroes before Barry.  Bonds made them soup cans.

Nowadays, the home run has subsided.  It seems almost as if baseball is embarrassed by them.  A player knocking a baseball 500 feet away from him is the most blatant reminder that there are drugs people can take to give them such strength.  Fans seem to be much more impressed with the “5-tool player” (the type of player Bonds used to be) than with the smasher.  Last offseason, the most sought after free agent wasn’t Adam Dunn, the prolific home run hitter who routinely got to the 40-homer plateau in the first decade of the 2000’s and who had hit 38 in each of the last two seasons.  It was Carl Crawford, a player who never hit more than 19 home runs, but who routinely steals 50 – 60 bases a year and bats near a .300 average.  Actually, the comparison between Dunn and Crawford to Mcgwire and Bonds is apt until you realize that Bonds actually hit home runs at the same clip as Dunn but with similar speed and hitting numbers (Bonds averaged 10-15 less less stolen bases and 15-20 more home runs than Crawford, but with a higher batting average than either Crawford or Dunn.) to Crawford, and that was before the steroid-induced 73-home run season.

This season, Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays in on track to once again eclipse 50 home runs for the second time in as many years.  Previous to last season, Bautista had never hit more than 16 with any of the 5 teams he played for.  Should he come close to 73, there will be coverage.  But it will be the coverage befitting such an event.  It will not be some sort of commemoration of the American Spirit, nor will Bautista be the hero that McGwire and Sosa were before him.  He’ll just be the guy who happened to break the record of the guy who made that record meaningless.  Just another Marilyn.

2 thoughts on “How Barry Bonds Saved Baseball

  1. You’re right. Awesome article. There’s a theory that claims that if you do something that you’re uncomfortable with or if you do something you perceive as wrong, just keep doing it over and over again, and your mind will eventually find justification. Like, say, an assembly line worker at a meat packing plant, who may stab hundreds of cows a day–something most people would find repulsive, an unimaginably gruesome way to spend our lives (speaking of Westerners specifically). And there’s a strong chance that the assembly line worker wasn’t raised with a propensity for killing or hurting living beings, but you do something over and over again and after a while you’ll find your justification (I need a job, animals are going to die anyway, I’m not the only one doing it and so on). It’s the way many people are wired.

    In relation to this article, perhaps it’s easy to justify repetitious acts because they lose they’re meaning after a while. A cow is no longer a cow after you slaughter 100 cows (I’m not trying to make an argument for animal rights, btw, just the first example I thought up). It’s objectified–a shadow of its former self. After repetition, meaningless. Like a soldier at war whose killed, say 10 opposing soldiers. If all 10 soldiers are equal (same race, age, gender), which would be the hardest kill? The 1st, the 10th? History has shown that, even for very morally grounded people who would never kill otherwise, killing another loses its meaning after you’ve done it a few times.

    Interesting how all this relates to home runs, but it does! Great tie-in. But I’ll disagree in paragraph 10: “Barry Bonds did nothing well but hit home runs.” He took walks like no one else. And maybe that sounds unimportant in retrospect, but for a guy who was out to prove to the world that he’s the best baseball player around, that takes discipline–a chess player’s approach to working the pitch count. Don’t know what the stats are off-hand, but I doubt Sosa’s and McGwire’s on base percentages were similar to that of Bonds during their reign as home run kings (McGwire above Sosa of course, because unless you’re Bobby Abreu or Albert Pujols, seems like most hispanic baseball players are wildly free swingers).

    Also sense a subtle criticism from you towards the exaggerated media coverage and, more so, all the folks who cried bloody murder when they learned that these icons were taking steroids. Agreed. And I’ll take a step further. I’m nostalgic for the steroid era. Baseball hasn’t been exciting since, sands a couple of isolated playoff series here and there (Red Sox comeback vs. Yanks). The witch hunt of the steroid era has brought baseball down to earth, returning it to its true form. Washed up old sport passed its prime, surviving by hanging from the coattails of its history.

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