Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Game of Shadows

Kirby Puckett (1960-2006)
Kirby Puckett died yesterday as a result of a stroke suffered earlier this week. He was 45. Kirby was inducted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2001. He played 12 great years with the Twins as a center fielder, winning two World Championships in 1987 and 1991. The sad story is that after glaucoma forced Puckett to retire at the age of 35, his life entered a downward spiral. He started drinking, put on weight and suffered a difficult departure from the game he loved. Ugly allegations appeared in print about sexual misconduct and spousal abuse, with Kirby ending up in court for allegedly groping a woman in a public restroom. I haven't heard anything specifically about why Puckett suffered a stroke at such a young age, but I would imagine it was related to his deteriorating physical and mental condition. Everything I've ever heard about Puckett the ballplayer has been positive. His is another case where we've learned that we can't judge someone by their public persona. While I can't take anything away from what Puckett did for the Twins or baseball, it's important to remember him anytime we're tempted to hold athletes to impossible standards. It's not fair to them and it's not fair to us. The best thing we can do is to remember Kirby as the wonderful ballplayer he was while still learning from his tragic example.

Barry Bonds
The final nail may have just been driven into Barry Bonds' coffin. Two reporters with the San Francisco Chronicle, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, have released a book entitled Game of Shadows, which exposes Bonds' steroid history using specific detail and a variety of sources and documentation. The best information I've gotten on it has been from this page on espn.com, which also contains links to audio interviews with the authors.
In the larger sense, the book doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know. What the book provides is a huge amount of detail, context, and documentation to replace speculation and guesswork. This is, however, very significant -- the problem before wasn't so much determining whether or not Bonds did steroids, but the context in which it occurred. The reporters have apparently done an exhaustive research of the context -- and it doesn't look good for Bonds.
The book alleges that Bonds started doing steroids in the 1998 off-season, inspired by the home run heroics of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. This is a few years earlier that previously thought. The book provides an almost day-to-day account of Bonds' medication regimen, exposing him as a hard-core steroid user, anything but a dabbler or an innocent victim. The book tells of Bonds' increasingly violent mood swings, including specific threats against his then-mistress, Kimberly Bell.
These are still just allegations, and we must resist the temptation to accept them right away. I'll be interested to read the book and gauge for myself the reliability of their sources and the soundness of their conclusions. But not only are these two respected reporters, who have already done significant work on the BALCO case, but they appear to be supported by a great deal of documentary evidence and interviews with a wide variety of sources. It also must be said that no publisher would go ahead with a book like this unless they were sure of the soundness of the conclusions. Barry Bonds can afford the best libel lawyers in the country, and this book is scandalous enough to merit the greatest scrutiny from Bonds' attorneys.
So what does this all mean? In the immediate sense, it's going to put an even bigger dent in Bonds' reputation. It's already circling the drain, but the specific nature of the book will be enough to silence even the most cautious and reasonable of critics (myself included) who were wont to claim that we still "didn't know enough" to condemn Bonds outright. There was never any doubt in my mind that Bonds was a user; but I was very hesitant to draw strong conclusions about him without the benefit of reliable data, as opposed to hearsay and leaked grand jury testimony.
On a practical level, it won't do much. There's nothing baseball can do that it shouldn't have done years ago, not that they would want to, anyhow. Bonds will still enter the season chasing Hank Aaron's home run record, but now nobody outside of San Francisco will be cheering for him. Even those Giant diehards who cheered Bonds last season might decrease in number after these allegations. Bonds is not one to do the appropriate or selfless thing. He's already hinted that 2006 might be his last season; but there's no way he'll leave before this season is over, I believe. He's far too stubborn and selfish for that. It will be an embarassing situation for the Giants, who will never take action against their resident box-office attraction, although they're starting to look more culpable as big-time enablers of Bonds' behavior.
The biggest result might be on the historical level. I thought before that Bonds would eventually make the Hall of Fame, in spite of the steroids. But now, I'm much more hesitant. With a factual basis behind their hatred and distrust of Bonds, I can't see many writers voting for him. My personal feelings are very split. I'm still trying to put the information in perspective. The whole Hall of Fame question is dicey; it's entirely a question of morality and values. In the larger sense, though, Bonds will be the most disrespected baseball player this side of Pete Rose, likely even moreso. I could argue that it's unfair to paint Bonds with a brush that could equally be applied to others, but his arrogance and selfishness are such that it's very difficult to argue anything in his favor.
The only thing we can do is read the book, Game of Shadows, and draw our own conclusions. But either way, the game of baseball just got a little more depressing.

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