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Why We Shouldn't Bury Bonds

Marc Lamont Hill
Barry Bonds

Like American society itself, baseball is governed by a win-at-all costs mentality that doesn't discourage cheating -- only getting caught.

Over the past year, the sports world has been obsessed with Major League Baseball's steroid investigation. After years of ignoring the fact that players were taking illegal performance enhancers, a federal probe into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) has forced the league to deal with its most embarrassing scandal in nearly 100 years. At the center of this controversy is San Francisco Giants all-star outfielder Barry Bonds.

Although dozens of players have been explicitly named in the scandal, Bonds has remained at the center of public discussion. Despite Jose Canseco's incriminating public confessions and Raphael Palmeiro's humiliating "outing" as a liar, Bonds has been forced to bear the brunt of the American public's critical attention. After a grand jury investigation, countless hours of media commentary, as well as Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams tell-all book, Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports (Gotham, 2006), Bonds has been transformed into a poster boy for all that is wrong with professional baseball.

To be sure, the media's extraordinary focus on Bonds is largely due to his perennial status as the game's best player, as well as his annual assault on some of baseball's most sacred records. Therefore, it is no surprise that the attack on Bonds has intensified as he prepares to pass Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron for the career home run title. Additionally, Bonds' arrogance, aloofness with fans and media, and selfishness with teammates have made him one of the most reviled stars in professional sports and an easy target. Even the black community, which is notoriously loyal to its heroes long after the heroes have deserted the community, has been curiously indifferent to Bonds' plight.

Is Bonds guilty of steroid usage? Of course he is. Still, like the equally guilty OJ Simpson, a thorough analysis of his situation cannot be exhausted at the level of individual guilt or innocence. Rather, we must closely examine the context in which the controversy emerges in order to make clear determinations. In this instance, a careful reading of the situation suggests that the attacks on Bonds are largely unwarranted and shaped by shallow understandings of the circumstances.

"He's a Cheater!"
One of the strongest statements made against Bonds is that he is a cheater. This is simply untrue. If we are to believe the accounts of Fainaru-Wada and Williams, Bonds' steroid use lasted from 1998 to 2002. Although steroids have been illegal in the US since 1991, they did not make Major League Baseball's banned substance list until the end of the 2002 season. Unlike track stars like Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones, whose culpability is linked to Olympic Committee's stringent anti-doping policy, Bonds did not break any of baseball's ostensibly sacred rules. Instead, Bonds used performance enhancing products that were, at the time, as acceptable as the laser eye surgeries that many players undergo in order to hone their vision, or the pain relief injections that allow them to play through pain.

Some have argued that despite the lack of explicit prohibition, Bonds' alleged steroid use must be considered cheating because it provided him with a competitive advantage that dishonors the spirit of baseball's rules of fair play. This argument, however, is severely flawed since Bonds was one of the last players in baseball to begin taking steroids. In fact, according to most reliable accounts, Bonds' decision to take steroids was largely an attempt to level a drug-riddled playing field that privileged a generation of good but considerably less talented players who had been "cheating" for years.

Before Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's career-making homerun chase, a still steroid-free Bonds ranked among baseball's all time elite. In 1998, the same year that catapulted Sosa and McGwire into the realm of superstardom, a suddenly anonymous Bonds became (and remains) the only player in the history of baseball to register 400 career homeruns and 400 stolen bases. At that point in his career, Bonds had won eight Golden Glove and three National League Most Valuable Player awards. Additionally, he was ranked number 34 on the Sporting News "100 Greatest Players of All Time" list, based on career performance up to 1997. If anything, despite his staggering numbers, Bonds was playing at a competitive disadvantage during the period preceding his alleged steroid use.

A Culture of Cheating
Critics often claim that the activities of Bonds and others have disgraced the sport by perpetuating and normalizing the practice of cheating. However, the notion that Bonds' steroid consumption violated a tacit code of ethics within baseball is both naïve and ahistorical. From the infamous 1919 Chicago Black Sox World Series fix to Pete Rose's gambling problems to the Danny Almonte age fraud scandal in the Little League World Series, baseball has embraced and celebrated a culture of cheating.

Like American society itself, baseball is governed by a win-at-all costs mentality that doesn't discourage cheating -- only getting caught. More than any other sport, baseball prides itself on various forms of shortcutting that violate the spirit and letter of baseball's laws. Numerous base runners have been slowed down by water-soaked base paths provided by loyal grounds keepers. Countless baseballs have been refrigerated by teams in an effort to undermine the effectiveness of power hitters. In fact, baseball lore is chock-full of romantic stories about sandpapered baseballs, pine tarred gloves, corked baseball bats, and intercepted signs.

Such chicanery isn't merely limited to baseball's lumpenproletariat. In fact, many of baseball's elite have been implicated in some form of cheating or another. Hall of Fame pitchers Don Sutton and Gaylord Perry [who later wrote a book, Me and the Spitter: An Autobiographical Confession (Saturday Review Press, 1974), that detailed his cheating exploits] were notorious users of the "spitball", a baseball doctored by sandpaper and/or petroleum jelly in order facilitate the breaking process. Ty Cobb, one of the greatest players in the history of the game, sharpened his spikes in order to intimidate fielders and increase his stolen bases. Mickey Mantle, another baseball immortal, arranged for Denny McLain to throw him an easy pitch so that he could pass Jimmie Foxx on the all-time home run list. Cooperstown veteran Ralph Kiner admittedly used amphetamines throughout his playing career. In fact, decades before the "steroid era" of the 1990s and early 2000s, it is generally believed that most of baseball's top-notch players were taking amphetamines in order to boost their productivity.

While Major League Baseball has always turned a blind eye toward cheating, regarding it as a harmless vice, the league has taken a more active role in enabling the steroid era. After losing a huge sector of its fan base — partially due to the increased popularity the NBA among American youth and largely due to the series of baseball work stoppages between 1972 and 1995 — baseball was in desperate need of the national attention provided by Sosa and McGwire's pursuit of Roger Maris's homerun record. Despite myriad evidence suggesting that players were juicing, the league refused to implement an official policy on steroids until 2002, after numerous threats from the United States Congress. In fact, as Fainaru-Wada and Williams reveal, the league discouraged the media from acknowledging McGwire's use of Androgen for fear of losing the fans who were finally returning to the sport. Given these factors, much of the morally charged outcry against Bonds should be redirected toward the league itself.

Baseball's Record Books
Countless fans, players, and pundits have suggested that Bonds' inevitable leapfrog over Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron should be marked with an asterisk or completely erased from baseball history, given the current circumstances. The guiding principle behind this position is that Bonds' steroid consumption, along with that of his generational cohort, undermines the statistical integrity of the record book. In addition to being wrongheaded for the reasons already mentioned, such a position fallaciously presumes that baseball's record books could ever be unblemished and objective windows into baseball's past.

More than any other sport, baseball has relied on its record books to adjudicate arguments about the best players and teams in history. Using various statistical indicators of skill such as batting average, earned run average, and on-base percentage, baseball's cognoscenti frequently attempt to compare players across multiple generations. Steroids, they argue, contaminate the process, as there is no way to determine how the players of yesteryear would have performed if they had access to today's wonder drugs. While this argument is certainly reasonable, it represents a selective invocation of historicity that ignores countless other contextual differences that players confront across multiple generations.

In addition to steroids, players of today have access to a host of technology that promotes higher levels of performance. State-of-the-art fitness equipment, nutritional breakthroughs, new surgical techniques, and the use of the airplane are merely a few factors that make it easier to hit a ball, recover from pain, and concentrate on playing. How well would Babe Ruth have played if he had access and desire to engage in hardcore weight training? While some would argue that Ruth would rise to the necessary challenge, one could also point to his questionable work ethic and conclude that he would not be able to compete with today's players.

By fetishizing the game's statistics, baseball players are also able to ignore an otherwise apparent reality. Simply put, modern athletes are more gifted than their predecessors. Imagine how well Bonds, even the pre-steroid version, would perform against overweight pitchers throwing 60mph fastballs. It's likely that he'd be approaching 900 home runs at this point in his career. Of course, such generational disparities aren't restricted to baseball. After all, Hall of Fame NBA center George Mikan would likely be an extremely tall accountant if he had been born in the second half of the twentieth century.

The difference is, most NBA experts are not foolish enough to compare Mikan to Kareem Abdul Jabbar or Shaquille O'Neal based on raw numbers. Instead, they examine the impact of individual players within their own generational context. For baseball, the reality is that Bonds was by far the most dominant player in a generation rife with steroid use. We cannot punish him for being born in this historical moment any more than we can castigate Babe Ruth for not having to face Negro League pitchers due to American racism. While we should certainly critique the system that created baseball's latest crisis, we must simultaneously acknowledge the athletic life and legacy of the man who made the most of his circumstance.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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