Wednesday, April 12, 2006

A Second Treatise On Human Understanding

Kevin has asked that Avi and I resume our Barry Bonds* debate in light of the recent Chuck Klosterman article in ESPN Magazine. I didn't think I would have much to say, since Avi and I have debated this over and over again in other posts and in person. After reading it, however, I think I do have several points I would like to make. But first, to what Avi has said so far:
Klosterman's essay is brilliant. I'd be all for discussing it tomorrow.

Although he builds the essay around the device of the seemingly inevitable HR 715, there is something quite striking about the fact that Hank Aaron goes unmentioned.

Ruth's place in history -- and legend (Klosterman does a great job of that) -- has persisted past Aaron, and it will persist past Bonds.

We're capable of integrating Bonds and what happened in the 'steroid era' into our belief/value systems.

Klosterman's done a fine job of starting the process by getting rid of the villain mentality.

I also thought it interesting, and sad, that Hank Aaron was never mentioned in the article. Here are the rest of my thoughts:

1) Much of what Klosterman talks about was already covered by Avi and I. Why aren't we working for ESPN?

2) Avi calls the essay "brilliant" in order to butter me up. He knows I have a soft spot for Chuck.

3) Klosterman, as always, does an exceptional job of taking pop culture and broadening it out into a more universal, philosophical issue. Calling Bonds' passing of Ruth an "indictment of modernity" is the best thing about the article. I couldn't agree more.

4) Saying that Bonds only sees the game as a business is bullshit. Bonds was very concerned about his legacy in the game; that's why he started taking the dope in the first place. As for him not caring because he was around so many ballplayers, my conclusion is quite different. He cared precisely because he grew up around his father and Willie Mays.

5) I wouldn't go so far as to call Bonds a villian, but he certainly is a cheater and deserving of all the scorn being heaped upon him. All the rationalizations about it not being specifically outlawed or it being the same thing as eye surgery are just that: cheap rationalizations. Barry Bonds cheated. Repeatedly. Over and over and over again. Intentionally. He worked outside the realm of fair-play, and took advantage of other people's honesty and integrity. I don't care if lots of other people were doing it, or others before him had done bad things. That's the argument a 6th Grader makes when he gets caught with his hands in the cookie jar (or in my case, down Sally's shirt). I don't expect athletes to be perfect human beings, but I expect as citizens of the human race they at least try to be ethically better than they were the day before. I also expect others to hold athletes to the same standard to which the general populace is held. Are we going to start rationalizing justifications for insider trading on the stock market, too? Or the tennis dad who poisons his son's opponents?


At 9:35 AM, Blogger Avi Schaumberg said...

Hmm. You agree with Klosterman's positioning that it's an indictment against modernity (which I also think is the best insight in the essay), and then two points later you're back to declaring Bonds a dirty rotten cheater.

A key part of the 'indictment' is the contention that we were all complicit, both for the specific (Bonds) and the general sins (the steroid era as a whole; the state of the world).

As for the Wolfer study that Gladwell references, I read that a while back. I believe I even sent it around to the basketball fans in our crowd -- at least the ones who are likely to wager on games -- as a warning.

There's a lot that a forensic approach can do to divine 'truths' that are hidden in large samples. I'm not sure the same approach can be used effectively to authenticate or indict individual records. Many of our best records are -- or were at the time they were created -- statistical outliers. That's why they're records.

Klosterman reminds us of this when he writes: "For all practical -- and statistical -- purposes, Ruth wasn't a real person. In 1927 he hit 60 home runs, exactly twice as many as NL co-champs Hack Wilson and Cy Williams hit."

Wow. How did Ruth do that? Maybe he cheated.

At 3:46 PM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

You purposely ignore Gladwell talking about Bob Beaman, who also made a giant leap (pardon the pun) in the record books. Ruth's leap exists for two reasons: he had been held back from being a hitter up until that point, and no one cared to hit homeruns until he started doing it. It wasn't a big part of the game, and you know it.

I don't think saying Bonds is a cheater contradicts my belief that it is a indictment of modernity. I have said before that the way we react to it is as much a problem as Bonds' cheating. I think we rationalize and justify all types of egregious moral behaviour in modern/post-modern/po-po-mo western society, and this is yet another example of it.


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