Sunday, May 06, 2007

Two Different Stories, The Poll And The Narratives.

By now, you have either heard of the ESPN/ABC poll on Barry Bonds on Baseball Tonight prior to the start of the Phillies-Giants game (which, oddly enough, Bonds will not be starting in), or have read it online, and Jayson Stark's companion column. For a quick summary: more blacks than whites polled want to see Bonds break Hank Aaron's record, and more blacks than whites think Bonds is getting a raw deal from the press and baseball.

Conflict, though -- Bonds is breaking a record held by a black man. Why should that perception of race feed into this? It would be easier to explain if Hank Aaron were white. However, let me throw a few things out there that might give some insight into the difference, and maybe why that is quite so stark. I can't say these are authoritative in any sense; these are, at best, educated guesses, and I would like to see what you all think in comments, if you're so inclined.

1) The legend of Henry Aaron is unimpeachable. Hardscrabble success story, one of the last links to segregation in baseball, and the trials he had to go through in order to reach the peak, never mind the death threats for breaking Babe Ruth's record back then. Barry Bonds' story is colored (pardon the accidental pun) by several issues, that do not fall in line with the preferred stories in athletes:

a. He is the son of a major league ballplayer. He watched his father Bobby get savaged by the press, and he is likely to know first-hand what this game is like as a profession. Thus, he may treat it as we treat our 9-to-5s, despite the fact that most athletes, in public, espouse the view of the fan -- they are lucky to be doing this for a living. Barry rarely looks as if he enjoys his work.
b. Bonds has always lacked tact with the press, for the above reasons with his father, and refused the humility a lot of fans and media like to see in pro athletes. This whole animosity did not start when the increase in muscle mass began -- that perception only fueled the contentious relationship.
c. Aaron's story is the American Dream writ large; to have his record go to what seems like a bratty, rich black man is off-putting.

2. Barry Bonds has never tested positive for steroids or any other performance enhancer. Yet, he is for all intents and purposes (at least to most sports media) a cheat, mostly based on the silence of his trainer Greg Anderson in the BALCO investigation, Book of Shadows, and an increase in muscle mass the likes that had not been viewed at an age where many athletes break down. (let's not forget "the cream and the clear" as well.) He has already been convicted in many media outlets; most are waiting the eventual federal investigation to turn up what they know to be true already. He hasn't been tried or found with a dirty sample. Would you blame anyone for thinking he might be getting ripped for very little?

3. The scapegoating factor: Baseball took a shot in the ribs after the evasion by Mark McGwire testifying before Congress (as well as the hypocrisy of Rafael Palmiero), and in its eagerness to try and forget its own blinders in the late Eighties and Nineties, would prefer to ignore Bonds' mark and play up his negatives, in order to make this less of an issue for the owners and commissioner Bud Selig to acknowledge. When Barry hits 756, that won't change, and even if Alex Rodriguez does own both the single-season and career HR records by the end of his time, that doesn't make it any better. A perception that may fuel the numbers is that the media is trying to pass off the game's indiscretions on the shoulders of one man, to avoid accountability for the steroid mess on both Selig and MLBPA head Don Fehr.

4. Sportswriters have been lousy at separating their perceptions of Bonds as a person, with his background, from analysis of his on-field performance. The steroid questions serve to fill a narrative -- a player whom all decent fans ought to hold in contempt has another chip against him, but let us remember that none of the alleged enhancers were illegal in baseball until after the fact. Narratives are easy to fill in the blanks on, especially when they are adopted more often than not. We can say he's a prick and an asshole, but if you had been made to wear the "villain" label your whole pro career (even in his days with the Pirates), wouldn't you just say, "Fuck you people" and go do your job?

(Cross-sport note: a similar narrative and animosity have worked for Kobe Bryant -- there was something precocious and ambitious about him that wasn't likable prior to the sexual assault trial, and the trial and civil settlement drives the on-court perception to this day.)

5. Bonds cannot be alone in the whole doping enterprise, if he has participated. So, why does he garner all the attention, especially when rumors have swirled around Roger Clemens for years now (more on his return to the Yanks later), for example, and he only faces the scrutiny of what team he will wind up with, as he plays with the media on his fake retirement? Revelations like the Mets' clubhouse manager having to talk as part of a plea deal will tell us more of the scope of this problem. It doesn't start and end with Bonds -- but with the framing of it, it's almost as if it did.

Again, these are impressions, educated guesses at best and completely off the mark at worst, so let me have it.


eska said...

all good points. i find the 5th reason to be the one with the most traction to explain the reason blacks see this as a race issue. how about we all enjoy this for what it is?

Signal to Noise said...

Would be nice to, eska.

Someone let the sports media in on that idea. Maybe they'll listen.

Anonymous said...

Doubt it. Look at how the poll is framed. "Over half the people don't want to see him do it" (break the record). It's actually 52%. You could just as easily say half (as the typical margin of error plus/mius 3%) want to see him do it which is in and of itself amazing given all the negative publicity.

I say go for 800 and make them all sweat.

Larry Brown said...

Good breakdown of all the factors at play -- I do believe you covered them all. Problem with #4 is that if a player gives the media a difficult time (e.g. by not speaking to them), then the writers have no quotes to use for stories, and make up for it by ripping the guy.

And about that poll, if you take a look at it, the numbers were rigged to make it seem like more people were in favor of Bonds than there probably are (25% of people polled were African-American, an unusually high amount for a "random sample"). And the poll also conveniently left out non-black and non-white fans, who also have an opinion on Bonds too.