When I was in college, many years ago, I had a friend named Bill who was — let’s call it eccentric. You may be surprised to learn I was something of a geek in those days, and that most of my friends were gamers. This was in the days before gaming was high tech and cool. Back then, if you wanted to play video games you went to an arcade. Games at home were played with pencils and paper. And dice. Oh, God, so many dice.
Bill was by far my most obsessive friend, and that was saying a lot. One of Bill’s obsessions was a baseball simulation game that he half-created. Big fantasy baseball leagues were many years in the future, still. Bill took a fairly simple baseball game that he bought somewhere — it had all the teams in MLB and cards for each player, listing their statistics as simple percentages that allowed you to play out a game by rolling dice and checking the player’s card on each play — and added seemingly endless levels of complexity, including modification for each stadium, day and night game multipliers and much more. Did I say obsessive? Bill was determined to play through the entire season. Or at least, the NL season. He was a devoted National League fan, known to swear uncontrollably at the mention of the designated hitter rule. Many nights, while the rest of us were watching TV or studying, Bill was at the table with his baseball cards all spread out, working through the season. He seemed to spend a lot more time updating statistics, taking care of trades, and who knows what else than he actually did playing out the games. Occasionally, he would even let me help play out the games, but he didn’t think highly of my managing skills.
For some reason, Bill came to mind this week as I was engaging in my own baseball-related obsessive behavior — re-watching Ken Burns’s entire baseball documentary on Netflix. I won’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it (less than the Ken Burns Jazz documentary and more than the Civil War, but only slightly), but this was the first time I’ve re-watched it since Burns went back and added a two-part epilogue to the series, which he titled “The Tenth Inning”. It deals with the period of the late nineties and early 2000’s — The Steroid Era as it is unfortunately known. It has a section on Ichiro and some brief coverage of the great 1995 post season — but most of all “The Tenth Inning” is about Barry Bonds. Remember Barry Bonds?
Burns has a sympathetic take on Bonds, which might be why I like “The Tenth Inning” as much as I do. Honestly, I miss Barry Bonds. There was never any shortage of excitement when he was around. I only got to see him play once in person, but I watched him on TV as often as I could and followed his career for many years. Burns paints Bonds as a brilliantly talented player — already one of the best of his generation long before the steroid controversies — with a great pedigree (Willie Mays was his godfather) — who watched as players like Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were feted for their accomplishments, while his often combative relationship with fans and the media kept him from getting the recognition he deserved. The film suggests this led him to make the poor choices that ultimately tarnished his reputation forever.
I think Burns makes a pretty good argument for that case — and whether it’s really true or not it’s a great story. There isn’t much new material with Bonds here (he was probably in the midst of legal complications when the documentary was being filmed) but there is a lot of great old footage. It’s well worth the time of anyone who was a baseball fan through this era.
As I said, I only saw Bonds play in person once. When he was in San Diego and the Padres came to Seattle. He hit a home run that day. It’s on my list of favorite baseball moments.
But when I think of Barry Bonds, what I think of most vividly is the season that never happened. I think about the season after he broke the all-time home run record (say anything about an asterisk and we’re going to fight). That was the season when one of the greatest baseball players of all time just dropped off the face of the Earth. I have to say that I have seldom been less proud of baseball fans as a community. No matter what you thought of steroid use or Bonds as a person, his accomplishments deserved more than that. Greatness tainted is still great.
A number of writers suggested, at the time, that some team should sign Bonds as a designated hitter. Despite his reputation — which was as bleak as a Seattle winter at that moment — his offensive ability was uncontestable, and a team willing to weather the controversy could have added an awesome weapon. One writer suggested that the perfect place for that comeback would be Seattle. Not only are the Mariners perennially starved for offense, but they have, undoubtedly, one of the best PR machines in baseball, a unit which has succeeded not just in creating hit TV commercials year after year, but also in turning key Seattle players into national stars. If anyone could have put a positive spin on resurrecting Bonds, it would have been the M’s.
Of course, that was never going to happen. There’s no evidence that it was ever even considered. Except by a few sportswriters, and by me. But like my old friend Bill with his stacks of player cards and his dice, I’ve spent more than one evening playing that season over in my mind. Barry Bonds as DH for the M’s. Buy me a cup of coffee sometime and I’ll relive it for you.
It was legendary.