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Monday, July 16, 2007

Bud Selig, Barry Bonds and 756 Home Runs

There has been great debate about how Major League Baseball and Commissioner Bud Selig should handle Barry Bonds’ becoming the all-time home run leader, specifically whether or not he should attend the historic event.

On July 10, 2007, a report from Sports Illustrated by John Haymen said SI had “learned” that Selig would be there “barring something unforeseen and drastic.”

Later that same day during a question-and-answer session with the Baseball Writers' Association of America prior to the All-Star game, Selig said he still had no plan for how he will handle the event.

"None. Zero. I said I'd do it at the appropriate time, and I'll determine what the appropriate time is... I'm just going to handle it in my own way and hope that that is appropriate."

So here is some media debate, a decent cross-section, about the issue from various writers at ESPN.

In Buster Olney’s Insider Blog (paid registration required) on July 15, 2007, he asked his readers to set aside whether or not they think Selig should be there when Bonds sets the all-time home run record. He then says there is no debate that “(Selig’s) presence -- or lack thereof -- will be a big deal” and likened the situation to that of Roger Maris’s in 1961 breaking Babe Ruth’s single season home run record.

"But (baseball commissioner Ford) Frick's so-called asterisk served to frame Maris's achievement for history. Diminished it. And Maris would live the rest of his life angry about that, believing that the credibility of his accomplishment had been compromised. 'They acted as though I was doing something wrong,' Maris said in 1980, 'poisoning the record books or something.'"

"While it’s hard to tell exactly how Olney feels himself, the picture he paints implies that it would be unfair in the long run to single out Bonds by not attending the historic event, though his point remains just that the issue is a 'big deal.'”

"If (Selig) is not there for Bonds' record-breaker, the Commissioner will effectively frame Bonds' achievement for history as something less than legitimate. History will note his absence as raising doubts about the legitimacy of Bonds' feat, in the same way that in almost every mention of Maris' 61 homers, we read about Frick's decree (that Maris had to break Babe Ruth's single-season home run record of 60 within 154 games)."

Most look back now and feel strongly that the asterisk on Maris’s mark was unfair and diminished the feat. But most feel that steroid use is a more serious issue, that there is culpability. Maris himself had nothing to do with the fact that he played eight more games than Ruth, so this comparison only takes us so far.

Jim Caple, in his ESPN Page 2 column, says it simply doesn’t matter if Selig is there or not.

Commissioner Kenesaw Landis wasn't in attendance when Babe Ruth hit his 714th home run. Did that diminish Ruth's record? Commissioner Bowie Kuhn wasn't on hand for Hank Aaron's 715th or 755th home runs. Does that diminish your appreciation of Aaron's record? Of course not. So why worry about whether Selig shows up?

In his ESPN Insider Blog (paid registration required), Peter Gammons says that the debate about whether or not Selig should be in attendance “is more silly than tedious.

"The Giants don't care if Selig is there when Bonds breaks Henry Aaron's record. And other than the perception that Selig's absence would be judged by the media as a condemnation of Bonds, Barry doesn't care whether Selig is there."

"The one detectable issue that Selig's presence could defuse is the alleged growing divide along racial lines. To be fair, we'd probably find that the majority of Americans didn't want Aaron to break Babe Ruth's record, and we know in the '80s, when the Pittsburgh drug scandal unfurled, there were similar "situations" involving icons in four to six other cities that somehow went away and raised flags for minority players."

"Perhaps someday we will have figured out what types of cheating -- be it in baseball, politics or Wall Street -- are acceptable, what are not, why some athletes whose names get linked to a Conte or Greg Anderson are judged guilty, while others are not."

In his ESPN Insider Blog (paid registration required), Keith Law penned an open letter to Bud Selig. Law urges the Commisioner “in the best interests of the sport you're charged with running, to attend the games in which Barry Bonds tries to tie and break Hank Aaron's career home run record.”

"This isn't a moral question, but a business one. Bonds' advance toward the record has been characterized by a pretty strong streak of negative -- one might even say heavy-handed and sanctimonious -- coverage by the mainstream sports media, labeling Bonds a cheater and arguing that his achievements are somehow diminished by the possibility that he used steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs. This type of content flourishes in large part because MLB is doing nothing to control the message."

Law’s argument overall is a strong one, but the idea of “controlling the message” in any context is a bit scary. In the same vain, it’s hard to swallow that “arguing that (Bonds’) achievements are somehow diminished by the possibility that he used steroids” is not what the media should be doing (because it has gotten heavy-handed or sanctimonious or whatever) and that MLB should have tried to curb that debate because it is hurting baseball.

What Law calls the “possibility” that Bonds used steroids many fans call “overwhelming evidence.” There may or may not be enough evidence to convict Bonds of perjury or tax evasion, but to many fans this shouldn’t necessarily determine how Bonds should be perceived.

The fans can’t ignore the Kim Bell testimony, BALCO calendars, Greg Anderson’s conviction, refusal to testify and his recorded conversation, Bonds’ head and foot size changes, his statistics, and all the other circumstantial evidence, even if some of those things are not admissible or useful in court. It is too overwhelming, and the reason that the coverage has seemed so negative.

Selig clearly believes that this is not just a business matter otherwise he would never have let it get to this point. It’s personal to him and he knows how important it is to millions of fans (for better or worse).

"This is just something that is very personal and very sensitive, and I'll make that judgment... I understand that I am the commissioner of baseball and this is the most hallowed record in American sports. I can understand [why people want to know if I'll attend]… But it's something I'm just going to handle in my own way."

Perhaps it’s much simpler. Should Bonds be singled out because he more or less got caught, when so many others didn’t, when so many pitchers were presumably enhancing their performance as well? Is it fair to distinguish Bonds records in any way when we haven’t distinguished any others? When the whole sport got out of hand? Is it fair to draw a line here and now?

Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a right answer.

 
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