Friday, August 10, 2007

Heroes just aren't what they used to be

There hasn't been a lot of coverage so you may not have heard, but Barry Bonds broke the all-time home run record the other day. He's kind of a big deal.

The achievement is overshadowed by the seemingly obvious fact that he cheated by taking performance enhancing drugs. I know, he hasn't owned up to it, and I even heard one person say he took the stuff but didn't know what he was taking. (You'd think he would have gotten curious when he swelled up like He Man and all of a sudden his hat and his shoes didn't fit anymore, but hey, maybe he's just not that observant - or when they studied cause-and-effect in school he was out sick.)

Bonds is not the first to get juiced in one way or another. Mark McGuire, of course, is as tainted as a doubleheader is long, and Canseco admitted it along with a number of others. You wonder if some of these guys could have even lasted in the bigs without the dope. But a little perspective is in order. If we cast our minds back to the early 1970s, we may recall a little book that created a big scandal. It was ,Jim Bouton's Ball Four which was a formative bit of literature for me. I had never thought about ballplayers struggling to make it, treating each other like crap, chasing tail, and - least of all - taking pills to enhance their performance. "Greenies" he called them in the book, and we're talking about speed here, amphetamines. That scandal was glossed over by the MLB back then. And I think there was some looking the other way in the 1980s, too, when it seemed so apparent that players were doing coke. I remember watching Pete Rose and Steve Carlton in one of the playoff series, (Phillies, early 1980s, back when Mike Schmidt used to lead the league in homers with about 40) and in the close up shots you could see them snorting back that nasal drip the way only coke users do a few minutes after they've done a line. Or maybe it was just allergies.

So I'm a little cynical about baseball these days. I think the greatest performers out there now, the guys I really admire, are those little guys who you know must be clean because - well, because they're so little. Your modern day Manny Motas and Campy Campaneris-types, punching singles around. I'll make those little guys my heroes.

But in light of the suspicion that so many of the "great achievements" of the day have been made possible by pharmaceuticals, , you've got to admire one player above all the rest - Mickey Mantle. Here's a guy who put up amazing numbers, hit some of the most monstrous taters ever measured, and not only did not take drugs to enhance his performance, he was drunk or hungover most of the time! If you've ever tried to hit a good fastball sober, you can imagine what a feat it was to get it done with the beer goggles on.

So Bonds goes in the record books, but when I'm picking my team I'll take Mickey, and Hammerin' Hank, and Barry's godfather Say Hey Willie Mays. I don't like cheaters.

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