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Barry Bonds Should Have Played Football

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San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds is about to break the most hallowed record in all of American sport, Major League Baseball’s career home run record. Many, if not most, baseball fans feel that Barry is an unworthy heir to current record holder Henry Aaron’s throne due to the torrent of steroid allegations that have surrounded his march toward the record. Barry is sure to be remembered as much for being the embodiment of the so-called “steroid era” in baseball as for his eye-popping statistics, which leaves me with one lasting thought. Barry Bonds should have played football.

Baseball fans can recite the circumstantial case against Barry Bonds chapter and verse. Barry entered MLB in 1986 as a 180 lb. outfielder with more speed than power. By the mid-1990s, his body looked decidedly more suited to the National Football League than Major League Baseball. Physically, old Barry was to new Barry as Off the Wall Michael Jackson was to HIStory Michael Jackson, which is to say bearing no resemblance at all. Not coincidentally to many, he increased his on-field power production in a way that no player his age had done. The 258 home runs Bonds hit in the 2000-2004 seasons from ages 36 to 40 were 36 home runs more than Bonds hit in all of his twenties, the eight seasons from 1986 to 1993. By the time Game of Shadows was released, a 2006 book by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams that described his alleged steroid use in incredible detail, the court of public opinion had more than enough evidence to convict.

Barry Bonds has been the focal point of the righteous indignation cast by media and fans, but he is not alone. Many players in the “steroid era” are starting to pay a penalty for their mostly alleged trafficking in performance enhancing drugs. There are only two members of the “500 Homerun Club” eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame who have not yet been elected to it — alleged steroid user Mark McGwire and proven steroid user Rafael Palmiero. Further, many baseball fans consider all records set even today to be suspect, despite MLB’s new and improved drug testing policy. The MLB players union, the strongest union in professional sports, is certainly troubled by the public scrutiny as evidenced by its willingness to submit to the strictest drug testing policy in its history without earning even a single concession from the MLB owners in return. Baseball’s reputation is not quite as sullied as track and field or cycling, but it is much worse than that of the National Football League. I find this extremely puzzling as the circumstantial evidence against the NFL is at least as strong as that damning Barry and Company.

The increase in the physical size of NFL players has been at least as dramatic as that seen in Major League Baseball. For example, the average weight of a starting offensive lineman on the 2006 Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts was 304 pounds. By comparison, the average weight of a starting offensive lineman on the 1979 Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers was 256 pounds, nearly fifty pounds less. This difference is astounding enough until one considers how many “lineman-sized” players today have running back speed. It seems unlikely that simply better training methods has accounted for all of the difference, yet the vaunted NFL steroid policy has only suspended an average of three players per year for steroid use.

As NFL fans, we seem happy to delude ourselves with the notion that the NFL drug policy was catching violators. We steadfastly hang on to this delusion even after the March 2005 revelation that three members of the Carolina Panthers 2004 NFC Championship team, offensive linemen Todd Steussie and Jeff Mitchell and punter (yes, punter) Todd Sauerbrun had steroid prescriptions filled by a South Carolina doctor under federal investigation. Yet there has been virtually no outcry to “clean up” football while the screams are at cacophony levels for baseball. How can the same “crap detector” that goes haywire every time we see Barry Bonds be so silent when we watch our beloved NFL?

Do we really think that football players are not using, that the incredible growth in the size of NFL players is simply a generation of, as Hulk Hogan would say, “taking vitamins and saying prayers?” We know the deal with the NFL. We just choose to ignore it. Major League Baseball’s real sin was not allowing steroid cheats to flourish. If it were, we would not have been so swept away by 1998’s “Summer of Love” in which Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both shattered Roger Maris’ single season home run record. MLB’s real sin was messing with the avid baseball fan’s enjoyment of the game. The avid baseball fan loves statistics and wants to compare them across eras. The “steroid era” made that impossible as a home run in 1957 now means something entirely different in 2007. Those fans have been robbed by their favorite means to compare players across eras and they are angry. Someone must pay and the object of their misplaced consternation is Barry Bonds.

This is why I say Barry Bonds should have played football. If he had traded his thunder stick for shoulder pads, his legacy would have been entirely different. If Barry were an NFL player, he could have used his “clear” and “cream” with virtual impunity. His truculence with fans and the media may not have been such a problem in a sport in which a nasty attitude is a virtue. Who knows? Bonds may have been inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer. Instead, he is about to break the most hallowed record in sports to many boos and even more yawns.

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