Friday, January 12, 2007

Barry Bonds - The First Postmodern Athlete

I've been reading Greil Marcus's The Shape of Things to Come as of late, which is about far more than I can describe in one sentence. To paraphrase as best I can, the current chapter I'm reading - "Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer" - looks at David Lynch's Twin Peaks and its centerpiece Laura Palmer almost as a metaphor for America. Palmer is elected Homecoming Queen and she considers this a sham. It's no secret that Palmer is using heavy drugs and it's no secret she has sexual partners all over town. It may not even be a secret that she's being raped by her father. Yet, the town elects her to this position to preserve an idea - that this is just perfect, small town America, not the dark, secluded underbelly that it really is. Marcus spends much time finding this in American culture - the way we hide the truth to preserve this idea of what America is, even if all it is is an idea.

Yesterday, the New York Daily News reported that controversial San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds had failed a drug test for amphetamines. This is hardly the first nor last charge against Bonds we will hear, who has faced accusations of steroid use for several years and is currently under investigation for perjury. Bonds is 22 homers shy of breaking the most sacred of baseball records, and it's safe to say that most fans are not on his side. It's a widespread belief that Bonds's most recent career achievements are due in part to steroid abuse, and thus are cheating. It's true that in the last several years, Bonds has been one of the most threatening hitters of all-time. It's also true however, that use of performance enhancing drugs is rampant throughout major league baseball and at the lower levels. This doesn't justify what Bonds has allegedly done, but it speaks to this false idea of America.

Jayson Stark writes today at, "We don't know exactly how many other players failed one of those tests last year. But let's put it this way: Barry Bonds wasn't the only one. Just the only one who, by some astonishing coincidence, had the news of his positive test leaked to a reporter." He then quotes a baseball executive who says, "I know one thing. A lot of people want to bring this guy down." Bonds is a threat to baseball - but not a threat because who will break said sacred record thanks to performance-enhancing drugs. But a threat because he exposes the institution of baseball for what it really is. Baseball hasn't been a symbol of America for some time now - but this ideal (as seen in documentaries such as When it Was a Game and Ken Burns' Baseball) is passionately being held onto. Sportwriters spoke of baseball's greater symbolism as Mark McGwire chased Roger Maris's single-season home run record in 1998, and more explicitly as the New York Yankees overcame deficit after deficit in the playoff series that followed the events of 9/11.

Yet, baseball's greater importance, its place as the American game, the benchmark of our culture is merely an ideal. Not one that has ever been met. But it's much easier to believe, or much easier to portray one individual as the problem, if it means only to keep a false idea alive. That's why I'll be rooting for Bonds to break that home run record ... because I just love events that pull back the curtain and turn the world on its head.

1 comment:

Jacquie said...

Great piece, Will. Such an interesting topic, and you spoke eloquently on it. America's great institutions are so essential to American identity " the public" etc. (speaking as a Canadian who grew up getting at least 50% US media, maybe more)- that they are vulnerable to being knocked down under the impossible pressure as you have described. Then again as an impatient sports fan I seriously asked recently " Can't we just buy a Stanley Cup?, seriously?" (Our team has not won one in almost 50 years) Maybe corruption and falsity is key to these symbols working..