FROM MY SEAT: A Game Abused



Thank the stars for the NCAA basketball tournament. Because after this month’s baseball news, a nice, overhyped sports distraction is more than a little welcome. At least till Opening Day, April 3rd.

First there was the death March 6th of Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, a modern sports teddy-bear if ever there was one during his playing days with the Minnesota Twins. The sad epilogue to Puckett’s life, of course, included the glaucoma that ended his playing career, legal troubles that revealed a personal life that was hardly angelic, then finally the extraordinary weight gain which, one must presume, contributed to the stroke that ended his life at age 45.

The contrast couldn’t be greater: a player who seemed most alive whenever we saw him in uniform, cut down so soon, his charms already having faded in the public eye. A dramatic reminder — once again — that the heroes we cheer on our playing fields remain very human.

Then came March 7th, and the revelation that an upcoming book will chronicle — in great detail — the steroid usage of one Barry Lamar Bonds. “Game of Shadows,” written by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams will serve as the most thorough, well-nigh definitive case against a baseball player who has repeatedly claimed he’s been steroid-free as he nears the hallowed career homer record of Hank Aaron. With the news breaking while the baseball world collectively mourned Kirby Puckett, the first World Baseball Classic was left as so much sideline distraction for lovers of our national pastime. Commissioner Bud Selig — the mind behind the marketing gizmo that is the WBC — has officially crossed Bonds off his Christmas list. (Bonds actually did Selig a favor by withdrawing from consideration for Team USA in the WBC. Had he been in uniform for the stars and stripes, baseball would have had a perfect storm.) If Selig had the brass, he’d ban Bonds, and immediately. Legal issues be damned. The commissioner’s office exists, after all, to protect the integrity of the game.

Where do baseball fans go now? How do we cheer? And for whom? Can a home-run record be broken if no one acknowledges it? All these questions remain to be answered as the six-month marathon that is a major-league baseball season opens next month. And as distasteful as it may be, Bonds will be at the center of discussion for each and every deliberation in ballparks coast to coast.

I, for one, can’t see how Bonds can play in any stadium outside San Francisco. He has been considered a cheat by many for years . . . without an entire book devoted to exposing his super-sizing methods. Even before he allegedly began doping, in 1998, Bonds was a menacing boor, and a player incapable of harmony with the media or, worse, his fans. As brash, as overtly arrogant as Bonds is, he’s ironically exactly the kind of personality who might thrive under the thunderous boos he’ll hear. “Sure enough,” one can imagine him thinking, “the world’s in my way. Only one thing to do . . . knock it down.”

Is Bonds a Hall of Famer? Not as long as Pete Rose remains a pariah. I’ve heard it argued by several pundits that, since Bonds had Hall-worthy numbers before he turned to steroids, his place in Cooperstown is still reserved. Such an argument is as blind as poor Kirby Puckett’s bad eye. If a player can be judged “before cheating” and “after cheating,” then Pete Rose — he of more hits than any other player in the game’s history, remember — should be inducted tomorrow. Every one of those hits came before he was caught betting on the game that made him a legend.

The saddest part of the Bonds legacy? Every home run hit this year (every year?) will bring with it a question: Is he or isn’t he? Unless your name is David Eckstein, when you go deep, fans are going to wonder what’s in your medicine cabinet. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, and the newly exposed Barry Bonds. ’Roid Royalty we might brand them. One of the few sports stories you’ll ever read where there is absolutely no winner.

Now, back to my bracket. George Mason?!

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