Yet another post topic about which the internet needs no more words: Barry Bonds. I’ve been trying to figure out what to think about the Bonds scandal, which is really just baseball’s so-called “steroid era” bundled into one person at one particular moment. You know, breaking the really big record in baseball, the career homerun record, arguably the only record in American sports that matters. Everyone excited is faking: this is nothing but uninspiring.
I love baseball. It was my childhood passion, especially the viewing and the statistics. I played, yeah, but it was as much about imagining myself the images and the statistics (oh, the numbers we compiled in little league!) as about the physical play. Don’t get me wrong. Baseball was a blast to play, and even now I see the fattened guys – like me – in their late-30s to early-40s playing in adult leagues with an slightly envious eye. If only I could finish this stupid book, I’d go out there and dominate some motherfuckers! I miss the trash-talk, the posing, the glory shared only with your teammates (and, you hope, with your woman in the stands – although she’s just as likely to have tuned the shit out).
Baseball has always been our most historical sport. I don’t just mean the intricate, inarticulable codes of conduct and honor about which we often hear. I don’t just mean the notion that baseball is the truly “American” sport. Yes, I mean those things too, but just as much I mean that baseball is about all the spare time when watching. This is a slow sport. It is slow and that’s what’s so beautifully human about it. You have conversations at a ballgame. You can discuss each move in detail without missing the play. The build-up, the enormous season, the sense that everything you see can only be seen in the context of all these others you don’t see, but remember. In that sense, baseball is like an old lover: you understand her playing with her puff or adjusting her glasses with all the significance of the movement. And you appreciate that stuff just so much.
That’s why baseball fans are so generational. I remember my pops groaning on about Drysdale and how Koufax was unlike any other and so on. But I thought those old farts couldn’t survive in “today’s game” (ca. 1980), what with the Dusty Bakers and Reggie Smiths of the then-world. Then came Fernando, the great debates with friends about Gooden’s prowess, and so on. If you’re a fan, you know what I mean. It all came down, over and over, to this: is player X the best ever? Hell yeah! Hell no! And so it begins. Before, during, and after the game.
So when the Bonds chase began, I could not have been happier. For sure, I’ve always hated Bonds (he’s a Giant, after all), but I loved the chase. The sense that, well, once and for all, beyond all dispute, I could say it: I’ve seen the very best player ever. I didn’t have to argue with my pops about those old farts he loved as a kid and then as a younger man. There are the numbers, man. Beyond friggin’ dispute! Plus, who doesn’t love homeruns? Hit into the bay. With one of the prettiest swings we’ve ever seen. But it’s all tainted and not the same. Why not? Why has everything changed?
Initially, I thought there were two sources of the outrage over Bonds’ steroid use (still “alleged,” though that’s pretty much a technicality at this point). One, I thought it was a principle of fairness. No matter our actual practices as a nation, which fall far of the ideal, of course, something I love about the United States is our sense that fairness matters. Matters a lot. It’s central and we have the sense to really hate corruption. (I know, we tolerate it, etc., not my point…) Bonds and his steroid generation – the big hitters we all love(d) – violated that by cheating. Or, two, I thought the outrage was based in a fantasy about nature. We love things natural, even more as our world is less and less so. From food to city life to entertainment, ours is a world of images and images of images. Postmodern theorists have chattered on and on about it for decades. They’re right. So, the sporting field – a place of projected fantasies good and bad, smart and naive – could play that last-hope role of nature. That’s natural out there. And then it wasn’t, in a flash. That’s a fantasy we’ve lost and it’s worth resenting losing it.
Now I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m more and more convinced that the fairness-thing and the nature-thing are subordinate to a bigger existential question: what is our relation to history? Do we even have a relation to history? Where do we stand in relation to history as judges, participants, or bystanders? Baseball is our most historical sport. It is all about history.
If Zygmunt Bauman is right about postmodernity, then our postmodern condition means that we struggle to connect across historical moments. Rather, time has become oh-so sequential, with life and “historical” events increasingly seen as distinct atoms assembled in fairly random order. There is no essential connection between who we are “now” and who used to be. We see that in so many places, especially when we look at historical atrocities. The common response? “Well, that’s just how things were back then.” That kind of relativism turns on the idea that we aren’t folded back into our history, that our very being isn’t touched by history.
In that kind of postmodern age, baseball can’t make much sense. Baseball has to be historical. We have to link players and events back into history in order for those players and events to make sense. Bonds has made that impossible. The steroid-era thing means that we’re lost at this moment, in this moment, genuinely and tragically unable to loop our baseball present into the baseball past. There is no continuity. There is only this man here, doing this thing here, and the numbers that might point back into history, well, they lie. This isn’t history. This is just a distinct moment.
Losing history is hard. While many might think of history as a great burden – as when we seriously consider the millions of dead and tortured upon which this nation (the U.S.) was founded – history is also a great pleasure. History enables our fantasy life, but always a fantasy life rooted in something real. That is, history makes it possible for us to imagine ourselves – judges, participants, bystanders – in relation to a long, long and very meaningful story.
Bonds took that away from baseball fans. Or, that is, Bonds sent us back into that disconnected thing called postmodernity. Whatever the fun postmodernity might bring to architecture, the arts, and so on, it sure evacuates the pleasure out of baseball. In fact, it just makes it all feel so meaningless. 755 and 756 will be meaningless.
Nevertheless, history has a way of making unexpected returns. It looks like Bonds is set to tie or break the record at Dodger Stadium. You know, the old Brooklyn Dodgers vs. New York Giants thing, which has become the L.A. Dodgers vs. San Francisco Giants thing – which is to say, the real shit on the West Coast. In other words, that super-historical moment visiting, at the same moment, the moment disconnected from history. So, if Bonds does it at Chavez Ravine and you hear the boos rain down (with no few beers, I am guessing), fine-tune your ears a bit. You’ll also hear that gasp of history at the very moment it fails to soar, with the ball, out of the stadium. The Giants. The damn Giants. Fuck the Giants! Of course they have a cheater on their team, folks…