There is one thing above all else that I love about sports. It’s not what you would think. It’s not the reprieve. It’s not the fact that, on any given day, you can open the sports page and find a celebration of sorts, like what the Gospel means; for once we can read the good news. It’s not that I think sports are an example of man in his absolute most primal state, and his most evolved, in the same instance. It’s not the constant phone calls my father and I share, discussions of something mythical or so good it was almost obscene. For those who watch sports, no matter which game or player you are party to, it is not a generational thing. It is universal. It is binding. At their best, and their worst, sports are metaphor for whatever we need to see in them. And while I like all of those things, that is not what I love most about sports.
What I love most about sports is this: As long as there is some foundation for what you are saying, if you are well versed in the subtle nuances of the game you are talking about, if the facts you used are backed up by the fact that you actually believe what you are saying, then you can argue almost any point, from any angle. Sports are subjective. What’s the greatest basketball team of all time? The question has 5-10 answers, and the truly great thing is you can build a case for almost any of them. They were the best. Ever. Over a period of time, or for one single, brilliant season. They were the best there ever was. The person across from you will see it differently, and they will back up and defend their stance with a passion or knowledge that doesn’t ever level your argument, it simply builds there own.
When I was a kid living in Denver my mother and I were getting donuts at the local Winchells when John Elway walked in. This was his rookie year; he had yet to play a single down for the Broncos. He towered over me and signed the box of glazed and chocolate glazed I held in my hand. From that moment on I have lived and died by this man. He is, unquestionably, my favorite football player ever. He is also, to my mind, the greatest quarterback to ever play the game.
John Elway on the football field was Miles Davis on the horn; just a nasty master soloist, wailing around on his trumpet, making magic seemingly by himself and in the process elevating the level of play of everyone around him. All Elway ever did, with what could at best be considered a bunch of stiffs, was win. He was like Robin Hood, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, but honestly, who the hell were the rest of the Merry Men anyway? And, in the end, he got his rings. I can make this argument, and I might be right, thought I could be wrong, but it’s subjective, something that cannot be definitively rebuked no matter how hard sometime tries.
Every now and then, though, and this is such a rare case, there really is no argument to be had. Once in a generation something comes along that is fact. Set in stone and permanent fact. It doesn’t happen often, it is so rare, but every now and then something comes along that has one side, one take, one angle. There is one right answer, and no other.
Who is the greatest basketball player of all-time? It’s Michael Jordan. No, it is. That’s it. That’s the only answer that anyone could ever come up with, because it is so irrefutable. No one can reasonably argue any other side to this, there is no debate because there is nothing to debate. Wilt? Please, there’s just no way to go there. Not when Russell owned his ass for a decade. Larry and Magic? The problem is they don’t really exist apart from each other. They can’t reasonably be the greatest. Maybe you’d get somewhere with the Big O—the man did average a triple double over an entire season—but in the end there’s just one name. MJ. Air. The end.
There’s a similar truth out there right now. One single one-sided conversation in all of sports that cannot, or at least should not, be in doubt. And yet it is, and it’s bothering me, so I’m just going to come out and just say it. Barry Bonds is the greatest player who has ever played the game of baseball. There, it’s out there. Read it again. I didn’t say he is one of the greatest, because that’s not what he is. He is, without question, and it’s time we all just accepted the fact so we can enjoy the remaining few years of his career, the greatest there ever was.
I know the counter arguments. I’ve heard them all. I’ve read them all. It’s gotten to the point where that I now think sports nation is trying to convince itself of something it knows is a lie. When someone talks about something incessantly, repeatedly (like the myriad of “Barry Certainly Belongs in the Discussion, But…” articles that float around nowadays) it begins to be an attempt at fact by repetition. See: George Bush if you want to know what I mean by this.
I know you’re resistant to the notion, I know you don’t want to accept the simple, beautiful truth, but you also know, somewhere in the back of your mind, in the deepest, darkest recesses of your soul, that I’m right.
Why fight him so much? You don’t have to love him; no one said that was part of the bargain. It’s okay to hate him, it’s your given right. I won’t begrudge you a personal opinion. But it’s time for us all to stop disrespecting his game, stop hating the player (Hey! Player Hating!) because his game is beyond anything we knew was possible in the sport. And he doesn’t simply dominate baseball right now, he owns the game. There is Barry, and then there is everyone after Barry.
This is not a popularity contest; he’s not running for office. It’s not something you vote on because sometimes, and so very rarely, someone really just is the best. Period. Full stop.
And so what if he actually is the biggest asshole in the history of the game. (He certainly is not. That distinction belongs to Roger Clemens, who’s right arm should fall off with his next pitch as punishment for his crimes.) But what does that have to do with anything, really? I don’t watch sports because I give two shits about who these athletes are as people. Michael Jordan was a son of a bitch on the court. A single-minded, ferocious bastard who probably would have sold his children to beat on the court. But he knew how to wear a suit and give good interview, so we forgave him his for being aloof and dictatorial to his teammates. If personality is actually a qualifier for greatness, then the Babe and JoeD would not have been so loved. The Babe was a boob. And JoeD was white rice. And Ted Williams, for that matter, man he was a prick. But it doesn’t matter, because the game speaks for itself.
I also have a theory about the Barry Bonds personality. I think it’s all one big giant act. This is someone who grew up around the game. Who saw his father and Willie and all the others. He learned how management interacts with players, how the press steals a little bit at a time. He probably saw a number of people betrayed enough times that he just thought, “ain’t no way I’m letting that happen to me.” So he shields himself, acts all prickly and aggressive. The asshole was born. And it’s worked pretty well, too, because it’s allowed him to do what he needs to do when he needs to do it.
Of course I should use numbers to back up the statement, but I don’t really need to, do I? We know them by now. 500 stolen bases. 700 homeruns. 2,000 walks. And people can argue defense all they want, but for the first 12 years of his career, Bonds was the preeminent left fielder in the game. I remember watching him play so shallow, 13 feet behind the shortstop, I’d think, “What is he doing? What if someone hits it over his head?” But Bonds had what Willie had, and it’s not instinct or natural athletic ability—or whatever other euphemism sportswriters use when they want to subtly discount a black athletes abilities—what I’m talking about is a genius IQ of the game. He just knows baseball, and probably like very few ever have. He’s the product of a baseball man. He grew up around the game. He knows it inside and out, as he knows his own talent inside and out.
And this, too, rubs people the wrong way. I remember reading an article one time where the writer asked Barry how he did a certain thing on the field. “You wouldn’t understand it even if I told you,” Barry said. And he was right. I played the game, and if he and I were to sit down and talk, I could no sooner explain to Barry how I write these things than he could explain to me how he manages to keep a pitch on his hands inside the foul pole. And if that sounds like I’m bragging, I’m just trying to illustrate a point. No, wait, no I’m not. Why not embrace my inner Bonds for a second. I couldn’t explain what I do to Barry because I’m great at this. You don’t think so? Okay, fine. Try writing one of these every single day and get back to me in a week. I mean, every now and then, shouldn’t we all be a little bit like Barry? Aren’t we all great at something? Is it so bad to just say, every now and then, “Damn, I’m good,” without apology. Because, damn, Barry is just so very good.
And it’s not just good. It’s great. It’s not just great. It’s genius. Barry has been so good for so long at such a clip that we have actually gotten used to the impossible. I think part of the reason people have not caught up yet is because he won’t slow down to let us gawk at the unbelievable things he’s done in this game, things no one has ever done. Sure, people have hit as many home runs, they’ve stolen as many bases, they’ve hit for as high an average, tagged as many RBI, won as many Gold Gloves, gotten on base as often (well, actually, not that one), scored as many runs, thrown as many people out. There are players who have numbers that rival Barry’s. But there is no one, ever, in the history of the game who has number that put him in every single possible measure of greatness there is. None.
And what about the numbers? What if the numbers are because of something else? And here we come to the great sports debate of our time. And the most insidious undercutting argument there is. Breathe steroids next to Bond’s name and people think it’s the same as adding an asterisk.
Okay, so what about the juice? Wasn’t he so much skinner early in his career? Have you seen his head? Let’s take two tracks to this. The first is, Barry has never done a steroid in his life. That’s one way to approach it. After all, the man did grow up in the era before weight training. When he came up he was all raw sinew and speed, just kinetic energy. He was smaller then than most high school ballplayers are now simply because a work out regimen wasn’t done in his day. He came to weight training later in his career. And no one disputes that since then he was worked out like a madman to keep himself in shape. 6 hours a day.
But what about his head? This is the stupidest argument there is to me, only because I remember how large Michael Jordan’s head was when he came out of retirement the last time. How much bigger he was than early in his career. These men are 40. Go back and look at old pictures of your father when he was 20. Look at him now. He’s much bigger than he was then, isn’t he? Just, I don’t know, wider.
We also have to realize that Barry has never suffered that major joint injury that can ruin a big league ballplayer. His knees, elbows, shoulders, ankles, wrists and back have had their twinges and pulls and twists, but he has remained remarkably healthy. Couple that with the wisdom he’s accumulated just playing the game and what you have at this late stage is an unheard of combination of knowledge and skill. There’s not a single situation he hasn’t seen a thousand times before, and his body still does what he want it to. That, my friends, is deadly.
But let’s say he’s a juicer, something that never, ever happens in sports these days. Look, the truth is, if we are going to suspect him, we have to suspect them all. Because it’s not just steroids anymore. Mark McGwire turned himself into a giant late in his career, and no one dropped the kind of whispers about his numbers that they do about Bonds. Sammy Sosa swung a corked bat, something I think is far more criminal than strength enhancement for one very simple reason. Anyone who has every played baseball knows how fucking hard it is to put the sweet spot of the bat on the ball with any consistency. A reporter asked Matt Williams, a man who knows a thing or two about the game, recently if it was discovered that Barry juiced himself, would it change the awe with which Williams looks at Bonds career. He flatly stated no. He said something like, “people who think steroids would have anything to do with what he does simply don’t know the game.” But until something is proven, I’m not going to be bothered with it.
He has been doing this his whole career. I’ve seen him hit balls that never got higher than four feet off the ground, that hit the outfield wall on the fly, that were hit so hard they caromed back onto the field so fast that he was held to nothing more than a single. They famous Barry Bonds shift, with the entire left side of the infield shifted over to the other side of the 2nd base bag and into the outfield, has been in effect for well over a decade now. He’s been hitting where they aren’t his whole career, hitting balls that are so severe, with such unhinged aggression, you can't really describe the things without swearing. He’s just a baaaaaad mother—watch your mouth—I’m talking about Barry Bonds.
There was an article recently that said that he belongs in the conversation of the greatest players of all-time, and I thought, man, people just don’t understand what he is doing? It’s the same way I felt when people would call Joe DiMaggio the greatest living player and I thought, “Did Willie Mays die and no one told me?” I mean, JoeD was great and a cultural icon and all, but there’s no way he could hold Willie’s jock. We know Joe was great, because no man who looked as he did, who was as apparently bland as he was, could ever have bagged Marilyn without being great. That’s proof enough. He’s Pantheon. But Willie was Mt. Olympus.
And that, right there, to me is the heart of this issue. Because maybe that’s tiny secret no one wants to talk about. At least ask yourself the question. Do we not allow ourselves to accept him as the greatest there has ever been, or at least make the damn argument, because of some divergent strain of racism? I’m not talking about Racism. We’re not burning crosses on his lawn, no lynching parties are being organized, we’re not sending him death threats if he dares approach the Babe’s records. I’m talking about racism in its modern form, a form of nepotistic racial pride. One that finds itself rooted in a blind nostalgia.
I think we secretly don’t want to let go of our heroes, don’t want to see their achievements diminished or brought down to earth by the next generation. But it happens. The playing field in sports has been leveled. The best of the best actually get to compete against each other, which is something to behold. And because of this, because he is just so very much better than anyone out there, it has to be true.
For every knock there is against Bonds, the same applies to the Babe. You want to put an asterisk next to his name? Fine. That’s actually fine. Put one next to Ruth’s as well, because Ruth played in an era that didn’t allow the best to compete against each other, in a time when men 5 feet 5 inches tall and 135 pounds were the rule, not the exception.
The most common argument people use to justify Ruth’s greatness is this one. Babe Ruth dominated his league, was so much better than everyone else, that what he did was otherworldly. That is true. He was lapping the field. His stats are Bunyonesque.
And so are Barry’s. He earned his way into the discussion of the best of all-time 5 years ago, and all he’s done the last few season he has ended the discussion. It’s over.
I know the rest will come along. I remember a discussion I had with a professor one time about great art. She said, “We don’t define it. We don’t even try, because we know its art when we see it. But the true genius, the revolutionary, the one’s who’ve changed our perceptions and elevated what we thought could be possible in any form, who gave us things we had never seen before; those are harder to recognize, and take longer to sink in. People are naturally hesitant and resistant to genius, because we aren’t capable of it ourselves. We shun it before we embrace it, because, eventually, the truth catches up to us with such a force it cannot be denied.”
And that’s what I think will happen. In 20 years you will turn to your kids and tell them that you were alive and got to see the magnificent Barry Bonds. But for now, at least, instead of wasting your energy arguing with me, turn on the TV, go sit in the bleachers. Because I guarantee you, if you pay attention, he will do that thing that one player in a generation will do. He’ll stop time for you. You’ll just sit there, watching, waiting. And then he will do it, something so amazing, so outside the realm of understanding, that it will take a long time to truly analyze what you saw. But you’ll come around. You’ll see it. And one day you will even say it.
Fact: Barry Bonds is the greatest player there ever was.