Give the devil his due
Steroids or not, Bonds' ability never in question
Posted: Tuesday August 7, 2007 11:52PM; Updated: Wednesday August 8, 2007 1:46AM
He didn't hit them out with a syringe. Say what you will about Barry Bonds and his chemically enhanced assault on the home run record, but keep in mind the cream and the clear and whatever other performance-enhancing drugs he might have used were not some kind of magic potions. He's not at 756 home runs, and counting, just because he found the right pharmacy.
In the endless discussion of all things Bonds -- his personality, his moral code, his legal affairs, his hat size -- the one inarguable fact about the man seems to have become an afterthought: Bonds is an incredible hitter, an absolute virtuoso in the batter's box. If there is to be an asterisk next to his name in the record books, perhaps it should be for that.
* He was a hell of a ballplayer, steroids or not.
Would Bonds have surpassed Hank Aaron as the most prolific power hitter in history without the aid of his friendly neighborhood BALCO lab? Probably not. But even so, good old-fashioned talent and hard work were more responsible for his greatness than anything concocted by renegade chemists. You don't have to give Bonds your adulation, but at least give him his due.
This isn't to say the booing that follows him around the country isn't well-earned. Bonds has brought most of that on himself, with as surly a public persona as any athlete in memory, to go along with the seemingly irrefutable evidence of his steroid guilt. But forget about Bonds the man for a moment and focus on Bonds with a bat in his hands. Those moments he spends in the batter's box should be appreciated, not lost in a shower of animosity.
Consider his remarkable sense of the strike zone, so rare for a power hitter, and the discipline that allows him to resist a fastball that's a millimeter off the plate. Watch the surprisingly compact swing he unleashes when he does get a pitch to his liking and how, even at the age of 43, he always seems to hit it on the sweet spot. The eye, the swing, the timing, the knowledge of the pitchers, all helped him to get to 756 just as much as any drug.
On some level, baseball fans realize this, even if some of them don't want to admit it. If you're not a Giants fan -- and perhaps even if you are -- you have probably booed him from the stands, or shaken your head disapprovingly when you've watched him on TV. But when he strides to the plate from the on-deck circle, you never turn away, do you? When he digs into the batter's box and starts wagging that short bat in preparation for the pitch, you stop what you're doing and give him your full attention, do you not?
When the Giants are on the road, boos invariably thunder down on Bonds when his name is mentioned or when he catches a fly ball, but listen to how silent it gets when he's at the plate and the pitcher goes into his windup. Notice how so many of the boos turn to cheers when he sends one into the stratosphere, even in the stadiums where he's considered the devil incarnate.
That's because fans can't help but admire when the game is played so well, when a hitter executes so flawlessly. And that is as it should be. For those milliseconds when Bonds uncoils that simple-yet-awesome swing, everything else should fall away -- the suspicions, the accusations, the investigations, all of it -- and we should marvel at the purity of his art. Watching Barry Bonds hit is one of sports' most beautiful sights. You don't have to love him, or even respect him, but don't cheat yourself.