Homers, Hank, and Honesty–A Blog-Only Braves Column

(The following is a column I wrote for ChopTalk on Bonds and ‘roids. My editor rejected it because it wasn’t enough about the Braves. So here it is for your consideration.)

One of the most memorable moments of my sports journalism career came in 1999, when I had the good fortune to stand six feet behind Mark McGwire as he took batting practice at Turner Field. This was when baseball was still basking in the glow of the great Home Run Chase of 1998, and there were well over 10,000 people there in the park two hours early to watch McGwire send balls into the stratosphere. (Next time you’re at Turner Field, take a look at the red-and-white Southern Company sign up above the Chop House in left field. McGwire was hitting that. Unimpeded, those balls might’ve cleared Hank Aaron Drive.)

I still recall the feeling I had that day. It’s the feeling you get three bites into a Super-Sized Big Mac meal, savoring the unhealthy goodness and not thinking about what it’s doing to you inside. I knew there was something not quite right about a ballplayer hitting balls that traveled so far they needed a stewardess, to paraphrase Crash Davis. I knew, but—like almost every other baseball fan of the late ‘90s—I was reveling in the thrill of watching balls sail out of parks.

But now, at long last, the guilt—and the stomachache—of that Big Mac meal is settling in for all of us. This spring, with the United States suffering an early flameout in the World Baseball Classic—should’ve given Frenchy more at-bats!—the baseball topic du jour was “the Barry Bonds book.” As anyone who’s followed baseball in the last few months knows, Game of Shadows is an exhaustively detailed book convincingly demonstrating how Barry Bonds—heir to McGwire’s home run champion crown—willfully, knowingly, and consistently used performance-enhancing drugs to hit more homers in a shorter period of time than anybody, ever.

And as a result, fans once again had to face the fact that their beloved game and its most cherished records might be irredeemably stained by performance-enhancing drugs. Not the way we wanted to kick off a wide-open 2006 season.

The Braves intersect with the whole steroid debacle in several direct ways. Fortunately for Atlanta’s fans, none of the Braves’ long-term stars have ever even been mentioned in connection with the steroid scandals. It’s dangerous to speculate why anyone would or wouldn’t decide to gain an unethical edge on the competition, but knowing you’re part of an organization that’s the class of baseball certainly doesn’t tempt one to cut corners. Plus, as Braves GM John Schuerholz has documented in his recent autobiography, the Braves value character in a player—the kind of character that doesn’t resort to shortcuts or outright cheating in order to bolster stats or keep the division-winning streak alive.

Inside the clubhouse, John Smoltz has been one of the game’s most outspoken players in challenging baseball’s approach to steroids. Smoltz has repeatedly affirmed that baseball needs a firm steroid policy to allay public suspicion—and he’s also suggested that several players hitting far deeper than expected are using some less-than-ethical means of strengthening their game.

On a more personal level, it’s a Brave who holds the most cherished record in all of sports, and Atlanta fans view Hank Aaron’s 755 homers with something of a proprietary love. Aaron’s record will almost certainly fall one day, but when it does, shouldn’t the record fall to a player untainted by controversy about his performance?

For his part, Aaron has been exceedingly gracious and diplomatic about Bonds’ pursuit of the record, noting in a March Atlanta Journal-Constitution article that “No matter what happens with Barry or anybody else, my 755 is going to be there next year, the one after that and the one after that.”

There’s the potential for irony here. The Giants pay their only visit to Turner Field in late August, and if Bonds—47 short of the record as the season began—hits at anything approaching his former levels, he could be on target to break Aaron’s record in Aaron’s hometown. So how should the fans in Atlanta—or, for that matter, any town—react? With silence? By turning their backs? Me, I’d be there to watch—history is history, for good or ill—but I’m not standing, and I’m not applauding.

The title of this column is “Painting the Corners,” but let’s wrap up with one right down the middle: what do you think should baseball do about performance enhancers and the players who use them? This isn’t a survey, just a question that every baseball fan ought to be asking him- or herself these days. As Bonds’ date with baseball destiny nears, it’s high time for all of us to decide once and for all where we stand on the steroid issue.

Are we going to pine for the cheap glory of moonshots, or are we going to expect ballplayers be held to a higher standard of integrity? Shouldn’t we expect more—even if, in statistical terms, that means “less”—from our heroes and our game?

Jay

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