Many issues to ponder

Originally Published: April 3, 2006
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

So what do you think of Barry Bonds now?

Are you rooting for him to launch fastballs on majestic parabolas into McCovey Cove? Are you hoping he leads the Giants to their first world championship since moving to San Francisco? Do you want him to pass Babe Ruth this month, close in on Hank Aaron in September and go on to become baseball's all-time home run king?

AP Photo/Eric RisbergAnother question: How long will Barry Bonds be smiling, if at all, in 2006?
Or do you hope his knee breaks down and he spends the season on the disabled list again? Do you hope no one ever throws a strike anywhere near his bat? Do you want baseball to investigate his reported steroid use, suspend him from the game and place asterisks the size of his bald head next to every statistic on the back of his baseball card? Would you like to see him wake up and find an IRS agent on his porch to ask about "certain discrepancies" in his tax return?

What do you think of Barry Bonds now? Before you call in to talk radio or update your baseball blog or fire off a scathing e-mail today to answer that question, think about these questions first.

If the published reports about steroid use are true, who is the villain here? Is it Bonds for flagrantly cheating? For defiantly and repeatedly denying the obvious? For gaining an unfair advantage over those players who obeyed the rules and worked hard and gave their best honestly?

Or is he just a world-class athlete looking for an edge to make himself and his team better? Was he gaining an edge or was he merely keeping up with some pitchers who also were taking steroids? Is he the worst cheater in baseball or was he just the best player in baseball doing the same thing many of his opponents were doing? Is he even the worst cheater in Giants history, or does that distinction belong to Gaylord Perry, who won 134 games for San Francisco while loading up the ball -- and still wound up in the Hall of Fame?

Is baseball the villain for not implementing steroid testing earlier? Is Bud Selig the villain for not responding to the steroid rumors that started in the late '80s? Or is Don Fehr the villain for having the MLB Players Association stonewall on this issue and prevent Selig from implementing a policy earlier? What would you have rather seen, a steroid policy put into effect earlier or losing a season to a strike?

Are the media the villains for turning Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa into heroes during the home run chase while conveniently ignoring that these guys had bowling balls for biceps? Are we at fault for turning a blind eye to what was apparent every time we walked through the clubhouse? And for that matter, are we now just reflexively piling on baseball and holding it to a higher standard than any other sport?

Are the fans the villains for passionately cheering on these players in record numbers when they cranked their home runs and then drafting them first in their fantasy leagues? Were fans just as conveniently myopic as everyone else?

Is Congress the villain for taking time from a war in Iraq and other pressing issues to single out baseball for hearings while giving football and its enormous players a virtual free pass?

Are all of us villains for being so hypocritical? For savoring every second of the 1998 home run chase despite our suspicions and then expressing our "tsk, tsk" disapproval years later? Why do we applaud Curt Schilling and other players for taking Marcain and cortisone and other medicines that allow them to keep playing at some risk while condemning steroids?

Are we upset because this is a health/ethics issue, or are we upset simply because we want whatever number that eventually replaces 755 to mean what we think it means?

If it's the former, then why aren't we alarmed at the size, weight, injury rates and heart risks of football players? If it's the latter, why don't we question the numbers 714 and .406 and 56, all of which were reached during baseball's color ban? Which do you think is more of an advantage, taking steroids or never having to compete against blacks and Latinos? And why are people so upset baseball's home run record might be tainted by steroid use when no one cares that Eric Dickerson's rushing record was set before the NFL began its "rigorous" testing for steroids

When it comes right down to it, are we really concerned about the statistic and only the statistic? If so, shouldn't we already understand that statistics mean nothing more or less than the context in which they were reached? That Cy Young won 511 games when the rules were different and the ball was dead? That Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs when blacks were banned from the game and pitchers hadn't developed sliders? That Roger Maris hit his 61 home runs in an expansion year? That Aaron hit his 755 home runs in a time when there was heavy amphetamine use? That McGwire broke Maris' record in an expansion year and in an era when ballparks and strike zones were shrinking while players were growing with better weight training and steroids? That today's players can surgically improve their vision to 20/10? That modern orthopedic medicine might have kept Mickey Mantle hitting home runs for another five years?

But if we are putting statistics into context, don't we have to know what the context is? Don't we have to know which players were cheating and which were obeying the rules? What's the point of even keeping statistics if we give the same credence to the numbers put up by steroid users as we do to those who played the game honestly?

That's a lot of questions, I know. But this isn't the SAT or a blue-book exam. There aren't any clear, set answers. And you've got time to mull them over -- at least an entire season -- before answering the original question: How you really feel about Barry Bonds?

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," was published by Plume. It can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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