Before we move into football (the NFL preseason kicks off on Saturday), the Box would like to award its Sportsman of the Year trophy. Regulars will recall that the trophy is a handsome 18-inch-tall bronze statue depicting a solitary professional athlete standing in an Iowa cornfield, weathered cap clutched tight by callused left hand, manly right hand extending outward to receive a check for ten million dollars. The trophy is awarded every August 1 to commemorate the Battle of Jutland.
This year's recipient is Barry Bonds. In addition to the statue, the Box would like to express regret for the unkind innuendoes that have appeared in this space concerning his use of steroids, head size, and unrelenting pig-like selfishness. They made me do it.
On Monday, Bonds announced he would not play this year, which, for those of us who love him and follow his good works hour-to-hour, was a nasty disappointment, but not a surprise. Bonds was merely closing the circle on a perfect season -- by far, the most productive baseball season of his professional career.
As you may recall, back in March, Barry was cornered, he was treed, he was dinner. His lifelong buddy and personal trainer, Greg Anderson, among others, had been indicted on 42 counts of money-laundering and providing drugs to well-known athletes. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the indictments, live, on national TV. A grand jury was empanelled and testimony portraying Bonds as a steroid user was leaked, or, more accurately, waterfalled to the press. Even a mistress turned up to rat-out Bonds, reportedly testifying that he told her he began using steroids in 2000.
On March 17, Baseball, in the form of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro, Bud Selig, Donald Fehr, Sandy Alderson, and Kevin Towers, came to Capitol Hill and revealed themselves to be guilty, corrupt, stupid, and arrogant. For the first time, all eyes turned to Barry Bonds.
One of America's great myths is the power of the press. Journalists cherish that myth for obvious reasons. The actual fact is, writing a story that changes anything -- from getting a pothole filled to helping an innocent man get out of jail -- happens once every 546,666 man-hours worked.
Another dirty secret about the press is that its members, on the whole, are job-afraid, which makes them terrified to be caught out of step. This is why the steroid epidemic went unreported for ten years; everybody knew, nobody wanted to be first.
But, every long once in awhile, critical mass happens and the media herd stampedes, all together and all toward the same story. The power of the press is actually the power of the stampede.
Being the all-time home-run champion is a record like no other in sports. The 2005 season was set to start in two weeks and every time Bonds came to the plate, you can be assured the stampede would scream, "Steroids!" Every time Bonds hit a home run, the stampede would generate stories about the home run, about his possible steroid use, wondering if that home run was the result of steroids, observing that Babe Ruth did not use steroids, nor Hank Aaron, nor Warren Harding. A version would be printed in major newspapers every single day.
Bonds would start this year with 703 home runs, 11 behind Ruth, 52 behind Aaron. Passing Ruth was a lock for 2005. Bonds needs 49 home runs to tie Aaron, 50 to pass and become The Man. As each milestone came up, the stampede would intensify. Hundreds, then thousands of media-empowered slugs would follow Bonds AT ALL TIMES, calling out the same questions, "Will you take a steroid test right now?" "Do you think you deserve to beat Babe Ruth's record?"
Suddenly, corporations, reporters, private detectives, lawyers, prosecutors are looking into everything Bonds has ever done or said. Every acquaintance, friend, relative, every woman he's slept with, will consider selling him out in return for a small check or an appearance on Fox News. No human being born of woman can withstand that kind of pressure. He was over, I thought.
Instead, he's triumphed by deciding not to play baseball. Now, maybe Bonds didn't have a choice, in which case his gimpy knee is the best injury an athlete ever had. Not playing this year stopped all the stories and scattered the stampede. Bonds can come back next year and hit 27 home runs, return the following year and hit 27 home runs, own the single season and lifetime home-run records, be 45 million dollars richer, and retire to the life of Living Icon.
He had help. I mean, how do you figure the government dropping 40 of 42 counts against his trainer and others, plus writing into its plea agreements the dispensation that no one had to cooperate with the government, thereby assuring Bonds of an uncomplicated future? That was a bases-loaded, bottom-of-the-ninth-inning home run for Barry Bonds and that's why he's Sportsman of the Year!