Looks like Barry Bonds will own the Major League Baseball home run record any day now. Unfortunately, two of his most recent homers took place against the Cubs in my neck of the woods. (Ah, but the Cubs still won the game.)
I personally think it’s unfortunate that Bonds’s achievements will forever be stained by the possibility (likelihood?) that he was aided by steroids or some other performance-enhancing substance. There’s no way to get around the fact that Bonds—along with Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jason Giambi, and others—will always have asterisks (whether literal or figurative) next to their names in the history books.
There has long been a racial angle to the home run record story, in part because of the racism Hank Aaron faced from angry, white baseball fans as he was breaking Babe Ruth’s original record, and partly because Barry Bonds has gone on record about the racist hate mail he has received from angry fans. Though Bonds’s circumstances are complicated by the steroid issue, I’m sure there’s still an element of racism involved.
Recently, the Rev. Jesse Jackson irritated his critics (as usual) by chiming in about the Bonds controversy. On the topic of whether MLB commissioner Bud Selig should celebrate Bonds’s accomplishment once he hits the record-breaking homer, Jackson suggested Selig should be there. If you can’t prove that Bonds did steroids, Jackson said, then you should embrace him.
I’m not sure I agree with Jesse on that, but he went on to suggest something that I’ve been thinking about ever since I heard comedian Chris Rock talk about it on The Late Show with David Letterman: If you’re going to put asterisks by players’ names for cheating with steroids, then what about the players, like Babe Ruth, who set records when the game was still segregated by race? Should asterisks be put by those records because those white players benefited from not having to compete against blacks? Chris Rock’s bit on this is hilarious, but as is the case with a lot of his humor, it challenges you to think.
Chicago Tribune sports columnist Rick Morrissey reacted to Rev. Jackson’s comments in an interesting piece a few days ago. He flipped the script and asked, does this mean that the records set by the black players in the Negro leagues are also illegitimate? He writes, “The problem with Jackson’s thinking is that it minimizes, rather than celebrates, the accomplishments of people on both sides of the color line.”
Morrissey challenged me to think, as well.
Still, I find myself leaning more towards the gist of Rock’s and Jackson’s argument. Am I just “showing my color” on this one, letting my allegiance to my race cloud my judgment? Honestly, I’m not sure. What I do know is that our nation is so haunted by the specter of Racism Past, that not even America’s great pastime is safe from its reverberations.