Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Boo Hoo

Sometime back in January or February, we bought a pair of tickets to last night’s Cubs game vs. San Francisco. Dave estimated that Giants slugger Barry Bonds would be making his final assault on Hank Aaron’s career home run record.

And we wanted to be there to boo.

Baseball fans take their records seriously. If they’re going to broken, we like to have the breaking done by someone we deem worthy. We could pretty much stomach Cal Ripken passing Lou Gehrig for the lead in consecutive games played. Cal, after all, has Hall of Fame credentials and seems like a stand-up guy. But we don’t want some journeyman veteran, random rookie—or worse yet, total asshole—reeling off hits in 57 straight games and eclipsing the great Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio.

And we definitely don’t want Barry Bonds’ name in the record books.

For most people, the trouble with Bonds, apart from his surly disposition (a trait that DiMaggio & Co. at least made the effort to hide from fans) is his alleged use of steroids. Hank Aaron came by his 755 dingers honestly, the thinking goes. How many of Bonds’ homers were chemically enhanced?

I liken Bonds to all the uber-skinny Hollywood actresses who insist they gorge themselves on whatever food they want, never have to exercise, and were just blessed with a really high metabolism. Or the ones with the frozen foreheads and puffy lips and cheeks who won’t cop to undergoing cosmetic procedures. What bothers me is Bonds’—and the actresses’—unwillingness to admit that they have taken extreme and unnatural measures to get their bodies to do things regular mortals’ can’t. What bothers me is that others feel forced to compete against a standard that, without resorting to similar measures, is impossible to achieve.

I’ll concede that some people have been gifted with extraordinary athletic ability or beauty. But I can’t tolerate Bonds’ claims that his exceptional skill in hitting a tiny baseball incredibly long distances is solely the result of pure talent. Just like I can’t tolerate certain actresses’ claims that their bony hips and unlined faces are solely the result of genetics. Why are they so insistent on placing themselves on delusional pedestals so far above the rest of us?

In short, I was really looking forward to booing Barry Bonds.

It seemed as if I would be denied the chance. Due to some mysterious nagging injury (“swollen ankles,” one local sportscaster posited), Bonds was scratched from the Giants lineup for Tuesday’s game. Typical Barry, I thought. He had to know how many of us had purchased tickets just for the opportunity to blow raspberries in his direction. He wouldn’t give us the satisfaction.

We settled into a rather desultory game, a 2-2 tie heading into the late innings, marked largely by piss poor play from the Cubs latest acquisition, catcher Jason Kendall. The crowd was restless, like a group of office workers slogging through yet another Power Point presentation.

And then a jolt of current ran through the stadium, low at first, then gaining in strength. The boos began so quietly that at first I mistook them for “Lou,” thinking the fans were lauding Cubs manager Lou Piniella’s decision to make a pitching change. They weren’t.

Barry Bonds was in the on-deck circle. With Giants on first and second in the top of the 8th, he had entered the game as a pinch hitter.

I’ve read plenty of articles about Barry Bonds. Most of them in Sports Illustrated. Most of them negative. I’ve seen plenty of television reports about Barry Bonds. Most of them focused on how poorly he treats the press. I’ve never been in his presence in person. I have to admit, the word “mighty” came to mind.

There are hundreds of major league baseball players. Only a handful have the power to inspire awe. Barry Bonds is clearly one of them.

It reminded me of another night not so long ago at Wrigley Field when The Police came to town. I was thrilled to see one of my favorite bands reunited after all these years. While taking nothing away from the brilliance of Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland, I couldn’t keep my eyes off Sting. It’s called charisma and you know it when you see it.

I saw it in Barry Bonds, even from my perch in the upper deck, section 529, row 8, seat 104. He didn’t need the steroids to become a legend.

Bonds stood on the field, stoically taking practice swings. The atmosphere was electric. And I know that’s a cliché but sometimes clichés are true. He brought 41,000+ fans to their feet. Booing loudly. Booing vigorously. Booing with gleeful abandon. Chants of “cheater” and “Barry sucks” built up steam. The anger, and I will go so far as to say hatred, directed at this one man was fierce. The once jovial crowd had taken on the trappings of a mob.

Finally—the moment I had been waiting for. And I choked. I couldn’t bring myself to boo Barry Bonds.

It must be awful to be treated like this, I said to Dave. Maybe that’s why he’s such a jerk. No, Dave replied, people are mean to him because he’s such a jerk. This is exactly what he wants.

I pondered the flaw in my nature that causes sudden gushes of misplaced empathy. Most memorably, this happened when I was a little girl and my sister Anne finally got all the kids in our neighborhood to revolt against the reigning queen bee. I didn’t much care for this particular person—sycophant not being a favorite role of mine to play—yet I inexplicably befriended her when everyone else switched allegiances. (Note to self: Explore motivations further.)

But I wasn’t the only one at last night’s game suffering from mixed emotions. Those very same people yelling “cheater” were also holding up their camera phones to record the moment. Flash bulbs were popping all over the stadium. Deep down, everyone was hoping for the same thing—that Barry Bonds would deliver the kind of epic home run that only Barry Bonds can.

Oh, they would boo and hiss and call him names as he rounded the bases, make no mistake about that. And then they would tell all their friends and family—and years later their grandkids—that they had been there the night Barry Bonds hit #752. Make no mistake about that.

Bonds, once again, refused to comply. He hit a hard line drive to left field, which was easily fielded by Alfonso Soriano. We all cheered. The dragon had been slayed.

The Cubs went on to lose 4-2.


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