|The Classic vs. The Frontier|
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
In Americana at its height, baseball is a game of larger-than-life icons. They can be assembled into two essential categories: the Classic and the Frontier.
The Eastern media elite is usually biased toward the Classic icon.
The Eastern media elite is usually biased against the Frontier icon.
The Classic ballplayer is seen as having special, wondrous skills no one else could approach, and as a gregarious, lovable, hail-fellow-well-met, life-of-the-party, come-on-in-and-set-a-spell sort. Whether he is or not.
The Frontier ballplayer is seen as distant, somehow unapproachable, grim, brusque, gruff, terse, downright ornery, lacking social graces, unwilling to bow to either prior convention or custom, and having attained from sheer implacable nature. Maybe between the lines sort of a bad guy, or leaning that way. Something about them causes a discomfort in the Eastern media elite.
Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds are the royalty of the Frontier ballplayers. Or would be, if Frontier ballplayers believed in royalty. Which they most often don't. Often, they feel as if they've been the victim of it. Royalty, that is.
The Classic player often represents the salons of the East.
The Frontier player represents the stoic rugged individualism of the West.
Dizzy Dean was a Frontier ballplayer.
Ted Williams was a Frontier ballplayer.
Joe DiMaggio was a Classic ballplayer.
Henry Aaron was a Frontier ballplayer.
Stan Musial was closest to a combination of Frontier and Classic ballplayer.
And, as the playwright Arthur Miller said in another context, "You can hear the winds of the West," when Barry Bonds swings the bat. Bonds has gone to the head of the class of the Great Icons of baseball -- the Mighty Whammers, the Caseys, and Ruth and Aaron -- as a hitter.
(Ruth and Mays are separate icons; Ruth was first a world-class dominant pitcher, and Mays was, well, the all-around dream. He did things like score from second on a sac fly, or catch a 95-mph pitch with his bare hands just to win a $50 bet, or turn a double play, 8-3, on what looked like a line-drive base hit to center -- not by catching the liner and throwing to first, but by playing shallow, charging on contact, short-hopping the liner, bounding to second himself, then throwing to first.)
Bonds has 653 home runs and counting, astounding in and of itself. This month, in all probability, he'll catch the Godfather, Willie Mays, at 660.
Then, over the next two or there years, Ruth. Then Aaron.
Definitely, if that's what he wants to do.
* * * * *
No matter how they are portrayed, in my experience, most great ballplayers are more alike than unalike, especially in attitudes toward lesser mortals, which would be all the rest of us. If we are quiet and observant, we might learn something; otherwise, we have no idea of what we're talking about.
Now personally, I try to stay away from all but the most essential numbers, because in baseball, numbers can become a bog from which it is difficult to emerge without drowning in your own prejudices. Numbers are about what has happened; but, conversely, baseball is a game about what will happen, about mañana, 162. It's about one game, one AB never being that important, about the eternal Hot Stove League arguments and rose-colored glasses, and about the next K, the next knock, or wait 'til next year, itself. And in this way, right now, as of this moment, Barry Bonds is the greatest hitter who ever lived, precisely because he is alive, and it's now, and he's on deck.
Actually, none of these men, Cobb, Ruth, DiMaggio, Williams, Aaron, Mays or Bonds, suffered fools gladly; and that's part of the problem, or what there is of a problem, in perceiving them. To big leaguers, especially the absolute top-of-the-line, iconic big leaguers like Ruth, Cobb, Mays, Aaron, DiMaggio, Williams and Musial, we're basically all fools, especially those of us who occasionally call ourselves baseball writers. I've been one myself, a baseball writer, both formally in the BBWAA, way back in the day, and informally now. For me, informal is better. The day-to-day act of baseball writing is an inexact science, and this can lead to a friction between the writers (see: Ted Williams) and the ballplayer that can be then easily ascribed to other factors, i.e., the ballplayer's social inadequacies and/or mean-spiritedness, or, race.
Race, for example, is the most familiar security blanket of dissonance.
Just this past summer, during interleague play, Bonds took his first trip to Kansas City and his first trip to the Negro Leagues museum there. By all reports, he was profoundly affected, to the point that later when queried about his home-run chase, or a ball he happened not to catch, or anything else by some baseball writer, he might say, "Well, it don't matter, since Josh Gibson hit over 800 anyway." Or his famous rant about the Babe, how he was tired of hearing about the Babe, he just wanted to pass the Babe, because then he wouldn't have to hear it any more.
Some people got indignant that one icon was dismissing another, because to many people Babe is still their icon, just as Barry Bonds will be the icon to many children and young people after they grow up and become baseball writers, or university presidents, or cutlery salesmen. (Remember "The Fan," the ill-conceived film starring Robert DeNiro as a deranged fan and Wesley Snipes as what the screenwriter apparently believed was some approximation of Barry Bonds?) What Bonds said about Babe Ruth was downright complimentary, compared to the things Ty Cobb said about Ruth. To show the absurdities of Race in America, people took what Cobb said about Ruth as racial -- only with Cobb thinking Ruth was of the opposing race, calling him a "nigger." Ruth was called "nigger" by Cobb so much that he probably thought Cobb didn't know his name.
Cobb knew his name. He just refused to say it.
Cobb was a proponent of little ball. To him, little ball was in fact baseball itself, holding his bat as if it were a hockey stick, hitting .400, stealing 96 bags in a season. They were antithetical as ballplayers, but Cobb went to race on Ruth as well as Bonds did, though Cobb went with bad intentions. And after visiting the Negro Leagues museum for the first time, Bonds was feeling the enormity of the fact that he himself would have been effectively shut out of playing big-league ball, no matter how sweet his swing, had he been born when his father Bobby's father was born. There'd be no Barry Bonds.
When he first realized this, it came as something of a shock. Bonds learned humility at that museum, and it's a painful lesson -- and, ironically, one that our Eastern media elite Bias Squad would have had him learn at the game's hands. Notice that the constant here is Ruth, an icon so very encompassing he could be seen as representative of a system of exclusion by one of his few historic peers (Bonds), and as example of some liberal, let-'em-all-in disgrace by his main contemporary peer (Cobb). Ruth is still amazing, not just as hitter or pitcher.
Ruth was also a Classic ballplayer. Like Mays.
Bonds is of the Frontier. Like Clint Eastwood's William Munny. Jeremiah Johnson. James Beckwourth. Josey Wales. It is not that he is bad, or evil, like Cobb. It is that he's efficient, honest, a frontiersman, hacking out a way, having little or nothing to say about it. Such men often make us feel inadequate, somehow, and nervous; they don't help matters along, the way they look at us, the way Eastwood looked at us, or the way they don't look, the way Bonds doesn't.
But we look at him, or at least at the awesome parabolas of the baseballs he loses into the Bay with that devastating snakebite of a swing.
("I catch the ball with the bat," Bonds told Rick Sutcliffe one day as I sat there watching. He meant like you'd catch the ball in a glove -- that's how simply he sees it. I actually want to ask him about this sometime when there are less pressing matters at hand for us both. I have been in his company, but I didn't press him for an interview, a fact he received with a great deal of relief. I had that luxury, but, unfortunately, many other baseball writers do not. In a way, this helps these proceedings; my read on "Bear," what some of his ex-teammates call him, is a pure read. I neither like him nor dislike him; it's irrelevant to the discussion we're having. I do find him to be smart, though.)
As Bobby Bonds was dying in the third week of August, he came out to the park one last time. Barry had come out to the park for the first game of a series with the Braves the night before. A big strong lefty reliever named Ray King had challenged Barry with heat in the 10th inning. McCovey Cove was soon cooling off that heat, accompanied by a roaring crowd. How many balls have been hit into McCovey Cove? 30. How many have been put there by Bonds? All but four. (Bonds had another walk-off piece against the Braves two nights later, the night after Bobby came to his last game, leading into the weekend when Bobby passed, Saturday, Aug. 23. Barry had dug down deep for his dad). After the King bomb, Bonds thrust both arms up, moved by the circumstances -- not to mention the fact that after he hit it, Pac Bell, the park Bonds built, exploded in emotional sound.
Will those people have some memories now, or what? Do you actually think they won't, just because Jeff Kent told my old bud Rick Reilly that Barry is not a good guy, or because the eminence of David Halberstam has a blind spot on Bonds?
Bonds is going to be an icon to somebody, whether we in the salons of the East begrudge him or not. Bonds later said he was sorry, he didn't mean to show up Gary Sheffield or the Braves by thrusting up his arms. Sheff can hit. Albert Pujols can hit. Jim Thome can hit. I mean these guys can really pole; all three of them have 30-plus homers as of this writing, and are on the way to 40-homer seasons -- which is, basically, what they do. Now, if you string together 20 or so of those seasons, then you're Henry Aaron. Yet you don't stack up to Barry Bonds. Not anymore.
As I say, I don't like to get caught up in numbers when talking or writing about baseball, because the game often goes beyond them. But Bonds' on-base percentage is .529; he's been over .500 three years running. Rickey Henderson, all-time leader in runs scored, a walking run, had an on-base percentage in his prime of about .400. Bonds' slugging percentage is over .700 for the last three seasons, Ruthian in comparison to everyone else in modern baseball. His 73 bombs in a season is the record. The 755 career HRs of Aaron are there to pursue.
But within and between those and the other numbers, there are larger truths. It's all about one AB, one run scored, one stolen base, one electric swing ...
The season when Bonds hit 73 home runs was also a season in which he was walked. A lot. When he had 69 home runs, the Giants went to Houston. The Astros flatly decided they would not pitch to Bonds. And so, over the course of the three-game series, they proceeded to give him nothing. And Bonds's discipline is such that it is difficult to get him to go out of the strike zone, so he was not swinging at any bad balls. The Astros' pitchers walked him eight times and hit him another in 15 plate appearances -- including an absurd intentional pass with one on in the sixth inning and Houston trailing 8-1.
Then, on his last at-bat in Houston, a rookie call-up lefty fireballer named Wilfredo Rodriguez -- in just his second game -- decided he was going to play serious hardball with Barry Bonds, just like Ray King of the Atlanta Braves did a few weeks ago. In a way, you have to admire it, this willingness on the part of the pitcher to compete, to die on his shield if necessary. It's not smart, but it is kind of noble. Like when Tony La Russa, playing Barry's foil as opposing manager, faced Bonds again and again and didn't walk him. Barry said he was going up against simple physics. Smarter in the long run was Buck Showalter, who as manager of the Arizona D-Backs actually walked in a run by walking Bonds with the bases loaded while holding a two-run lead in the ninth. It worked, too. The D-Backs won.
The Astros' rookie pitcher came in to Bonds, who looked at a strike just to gauge speed -- he distills the old National-League-of-the-'60s dictum, as best expressed by Eddie Mathews, lefty clean-up hitter who hit behind Aaron and crushed 512 home runs himself. Mathews believed "You can't throw it too hard for me." He'd merely adjust his swing speed, click up the meter, match the speed of the pitch. To get great power hitters out, you must locate your pitches, then re-locate them in odd sequence and then change speeds; and after that, disguise the pitch with arm angle or arm speed, and hide the ball. All that's to have a chance against the likes of Barry Bonds.
At any rate, on the next pitch from the Astros' rookie, Bonds crushed his 70th home run of the season. On one of the few swings he took in three days in town! I've had big-league hitters tell me that was the single most impressive feat they've ever seen a hitter do. Big-league hitters say that about many things Bonds has done. "I've never ..." are the two words most associated with Bonds by other big leaguers. His ability to hit has built his legend, not his ability to make writers comfortable.
The disgraced young "writer" from the New York Times, Jayson Whatshisname, made Howell Raines comfortable, smiling at him, dating a woman of the same ethnicity as Raines' wife. But that had nothing to do with journalism. Tony Gwynn made writers comfortable. That has little to do with baseball. Between Gwynn and Bonds, a comparison can't be made.
No, Bonds isn't Willie Mays, or Henry Aaron, or Babe Ruth. As a hitter, he is, in fact, better. How we react to that fact says much more about us, and our biases, and where we are in life, than it does about Barry Bonds.
Barry Bonds' swing speaks and has spoken for itself. Volumes.
If something gets lost in the translation, maybe that's on us, too.
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."