Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Asterisk

So the “agonizing wait” is over. Barry (The Asterisk) Bonds has finally hit another ball outta the park, matching George Herman (The Babe) Ruth’s years-long record of 714 homers. The Asterisk still has a way to go to reach -and pass- the all-time home run leader Henry (The Hammer) Aaron who holds the record of 755 home runs after surpassing the Babe with no. 715 in 1974.

Is it fair to compare players from such different eras, who played under such varied circumstances as these players?

The Babe spent the first years of his career as a pitcher, and his appearances at the plate were limited by the reduced number of games a pitcher would play. Once he started playing in the outfield, his at-the-plate numbers increased. The Babe had limited access to physical conditioning (unless you count the Budweiser arm curls) and the equipment in use at the time was a little less advanced than today’s gear. Still, Ruth was able to produce some great numbers as a pitcher and even better numbers as a batter.

The Hammer spent the first years of his career in the Negro Leagues and then battled racism when he moved to the majors. That’s quite an obstacle to face, day in, day out. The people who are screaming FOR him inside the ballpark would cross the street (or make him cross the street) to avoid him outside the park. The conditioning, equipment, and pay increased pretty steadily during The Hammer’s hammerin’ years. Hank kept hitting the homers while at the same time earning several Gold Gloves for his fielding skills. Another all-around great member of the Hall of Fame.

The Asterisk may not make it into Cooperstown. Not without a ticket. The Asterisk is the product of advanced equipment, rules changes, monetary rewards (when he signed with his current team, the Giants, he was the highest paid player ever in MLB), and state-of-the-art conditioning of the last few decades. But that wasn’t enough for Bonds. Nope. He had to take it a step or two further. He “allegedly(?)” used steroids to enhance his physique and thus his power at the plate. Hence the asterisk that will, in my opinion rightfully, follow him around as he sets and breaks records for hitting. It’s really unfortunate that Bonds has to live with this. He has had an incredible career, breaking records for stealing bases, walks, winning a number of Gold Gloves, playing on multiple All-Star teams and being named MVP more times than any other player in either league. But doping is cheating. And cheaters never win. Well, they do, but that’s not the American way. Well, it is, kind of. At least in big business and that’s what professional sports has become, big business.

That’s why I like Cape League Baseball. I like to watch players who play for the love of the game. And room and board. Some of them will go on to make the big bucks when they reach The Show, but most will end up with respectable careers as coaches, teachers, salesmen. With stories to tell their sons and grandsons about the summer they played against the next guy to break the home run record.

Oh, yeah. One other thing. I wonder if The Asterisk will slide over to the AL so he can DH after his real career is over. In fact, he was DHing in interleague play when he tied The Babe’s record. With some of the injuries he’s had recently, he may have to resort to the DH spot to break The Hammer’s record of 755. I’m kinda on the fence about the DH rule. I understand the justification of it and I think I accept it more as other sports develop one-position players. Football players rarely play both sides of the ball. Even the kickers specialize in either punting or tee-kicking. There are few good, all-around basketball players who consistently hit the triple double. It’s all about specialization now, about dominating one part of the game. Of course, without the DH we wouldn’t see so much of sluggers like David Ortiz. But we wouldn’t have to put up with players like José Canseco or Jason Giambi, either.

But that’s what big business has done to professional sports. That and the high cost of being a fan. How many regular folks do you know who can pay hundreds of dollars to bring their average family of four to a professional sports game? A couple of hundred for decent tickets, another fifty bucks for parking, then add in food, the $8 beers and $4 sodas, and a souvenir apiece for the little ones…sounds more like a mortgage payment than a night at the park. It used to be the rest of us could catch the game on TV. Then came ESPN and we had to pay to watch. Now it costs hundreds of dollars to get a full season of your favorite sport on a cable network. At least the parking is free and the snacks are cheaper.

Ah, but there I go digressing again. Somebody stop me.

Click here for a timeline of Babe Ruth’s career. Priceless