Thursday, August 09, 2007

History and Choices

History is a funny thing. I was at the ballpark Tuesday when Barry Bonds hit his 756th career home run (and again Wednesday, when he hit number 757), breaking the former record set by Hank Aaron.

On one hand, it was great to be there amongst the excited throng to see an event of that magnitude. Having been there for many of his other milestone home runs (500, 600, 660 and 661, 700, as well as most of the big ones in his record-breaking single season with 73 homers), it gives me a sense of closure to finally see him atop the career list.

On the other hand, the excitement is dulled somewhat by the controversy over whether Bonds might have enhanced his performance in ways that are neither legal nor within the rules of the game.

I don't intend to rehash the arguments here (or even present my own). That's my point: I'm tired of all the speculation and opining and pontification. It has dulled my appreciation of the most impressive sports performer I have ever seen. Whether fueled by illicit activity or not, Barry Bonds has consistently outperformed my expectations of what is possible.

And really, that's why I watch sports: I want to see people do outstanding things, often things that I can't even remotely imagine doing myself. And Bonds has done more of that, on a consistent basis, than anyone I have ever seen.

A good friend pointed me to this excellent piece from the LA Times the other day. I found this passage particularly pointed (emphasis mine):
As a society, we're way too OK with being users. Abusers even. And our multimillionaire athletes, the ones we -- perhaps foolishly -- hold up as paragons of virtue simply because they can run and throw, are they supposed to be different?

Said Hoberman on the phone the other day: "You can't have an enormous development in performance enhancement in society in general and expect the sports world to be immune to it."

It's not only about pharmacy drugs. We want to be able to bash Bonds and head to a surgeon to get a new chin and new lips, so we can fake everyone into thinking we've slowed the march of time. We want to bash Bonds and then drive to a health-food store and load up on non-prescription pills that have us feeling as if we can walk through walls.
I need to go back and reread a novel on this subject called Achilles' Choice, by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes. As I recall (I read it back in the mid-90s), it wasn't a particularly well-written book (especially by their standards; I generally like those guys a lot), but it deals with exactly the dilemma an athlete such as Barry Bonds faces in what is popularly being called the "steroid era": whether to artificially enhance oneself if that is the only way to be competitive. And of course, it's not just in sports. There are plenty of everyday people using chemicals or other substances to help them perform in their jobs.

All of which calls to mind a quotation my mother sent me many years ago, when she was studying at Oxford for a summer, culled from Samuel Butler's novel, The Way of All Flesh:
What, then, it may be asked, is the good of being great? The answer is that you may understand greatness better in others, whether alive or dead, and choose better company from these and enjoy and understand that company better when you have chosen it--also that you may be able to give pleasure to the best people and live in the lives of those who are yet unborn.
As we evaluate the greatness and achievements of others, it would serve us well to examine them in light of our own choices and our own achievements. What lengths are we willing to go ourselves, and at what costs? And what will we tolerate in others in their/our pursuit of excellence?

The ancient Greeks honored the notion of aristos, or superiority, to the point that one who was the best at something could be forgiven shortcomings in other areas. Check out the Illiad, and consider how many characters (including the aforementioned Achilles) are described as being the best at something, yet display their shortcomings in other areas.

Instead of carping at one man's achievements, perhaps we should be having a larger discussion of virtue, how we define it, and what we're willing to tolerate in the pursuit of achievement.


Anonymous said...

That's a really interesting commentary, Chard, and it's got me thinking about the likelihood that most athletes are probably using one substance or another in the pursuit of their goals.

That Barry out-batted all others likely has nothing to do with what he does or does not put into his body. Methinks it has a great deal to do with keeping his eye on the ball and knowing how and when to swing.

I'm not a major league fan; I much prefer the friendlier competition of AAA ball. In this case, however, I say, "Bar-ry! Bar-ry!"

Chard said...

Well, there is a line of thinking, and I've heard it said by athletes, former athletes, and sports radio folks: "If you're not cheating, you're not trying hard enough."

There's a sentiment that one must do whatever one can to win, and as long as you don't get caught, you've succeeded. That doesn't match my personal ethics, but I suppose it works for some.