The Commissar Vanishes is a coffee table book for only the dourest of coffee tables. The hard-covered volume is a photographic compilation of the way that Josef Stalin systematically erased his chief political opponents, Leon Trotsky and his followers, from the history of the Russian Revolution.
Page after glossy page plainly displays the desecration of memory at the service of dictatorship. It shows before-and-after photos of people either airbrushed to invisibility or crudely vandalized, their faces blacked out with an ugly scribble.
Meet Barry Bonds, the Leon Trotsky of Major League Baseball. In 2007 Bonds broke the most hallowed record in sports, passing Henry Aaron’s record for home runs. When he wasn’t injured, this maestro of the batter’s box packed San Francisco’s ballpark, despite a team that stank like cottage cheese left on a radiator. At season’s end, the Giants refused to re-sign him, with owner Peter Magowan saying, “We’re going in a new direction; that would not be going in a new direction. The time has come to turn the page.” That is surely his right, but the page hasn’t just been turned, it’s been raggedly erased.
All traces of Bonds, the greatest player in baseball history, have vanished from the Bay. The left-field wall no longer carries an image of Bonds chasing Hank Aaron for the crown. There is no marker of where Bonds hit home run number 756. There is no reminder that Bonds ever even wore a Giants uniform.
But it’s not just Magowan trying to “disappear” Barry Bonds. He has been blackballed in a blatant and illegal act of Major League collusion, a bosses’ boycott. Yes, Bonds’ fielding has become painful to watch in recent years, as the seven time gold glover limped around the outfield on knees grinding together without cartilage. But despite the agony of movement most of us take for granted, Bonds still hit 28 home runs in 340 at bats, led the NL in walks, and had an on base percentage of .480. Since 1950, only Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Norm Cash, and Bonds himself have recorded higher OBP’s. [Cash’s epic season was an anomaly in an otherwise middling career. That a player could have a brilliant year out of nowhere, used to be one of the charms of baseball. Today they would be accused of sprinkling steroids on their corn flakes.]
Maybe Bonds can no longer roam the outfield, but there are at least a dozen AL teams that could use a designated hitter with a .480 OBP, not to mention a player whose every game would sell tickets and every at-bat would provoke baited breaths and empty bathrooms.
In this case of blackballing so obvious it would shame a Dartmouth frat house, one would think the media would be raising hell. But they have largely been yipping collusion lackeys. Bill Simmons, ESPN.com’s Sports Guy, wrote,
“Opening Day came and went without Bonds for the first time in 22 years, and nobody seemed to notice. I didn’t think about him for more than two seconds all spring. Did anyone? Can you remember being a part of a single “I wonder where Bonds is going to end up?” conversation? Did you refresh ESPN.com incessantly in hopes of a Bonds update?…Of course not. No one cared. The best hitter since Ted Williams is gone and forgotten. We wanted him to go away, and he did.”
There is one problem. Bonds doesn’t want to go gently into that good night and is pushing his union to fight back. He has asked the Players Association to file collusion charges on his behalf and the union has served Commissioner Bud Selig with papers. [There is a certain irony here as Bonds was hardly Big Bill Haywood during his career. In 2003, he became the first player in thirty years to not sign the Player’s Association’s group licensing agreement.]
The Player’s Association’s efforts on Bonds behalf have also met with high profile derision. Newsweek’s Mark Starr wrote “The union approaches new heights of absurdity when it bothers to investigate whether collusion has ended the career of baseball’s all-time home run king, Barry Bonds, who can’t attract an offer to play anywhere this 2008 season. What the union sees as possible collusion, once an honored practice among ownership, I see as a rare display of common sense.”
Bonds, according to Starr, is “widely regarded as a cancer in the clubhouse.”
This is moralistic spew. The idea that baseball owners would ruin their own team’s chances because they have collectively agreed to “turn the page” is a violation of Bonds’ rights and the unwritten social contract they have with fans. And when one considers the absence of saints on Major League Baseball teams, even on the God Squad in Colorado, it is all the more drenched in hypocrisy.
Mike Gimbel, who is a former adviser on player trades and acquisitions to the GM’s of the Boston Red Sox and the Montreal Expos, wrote it well.
“Bonds has been accused of not telling the truth to a grand jury investigating BALCO [the Bay Area Lab Company, implicated in steroid distribution]. He does not own BALCO and does not distribute steroids on behalf of BALCO. Why was the grand jury investigating Bonds? Weren’t they supposed to be investigating BALCO? How did that ‘investigation’ of BALCO turn into a witch hunt directed against MLB players?”
Good questions. Bonds deserves far better than to be forced into retirement and have his history coarsely expunged. The overriding ethos of the sports world is that of the meritocracy. If you are good enough, then you get to play. Yet a man who can get on base 48% of the time, has been told to go home and a new generation of fans will never see the Mozart of the batting cage. This is about more than a baseball player. It’s about people in power deciding on utterly unjust grounds, who gets to take the field, who gets to be heard, and even who gets to be remembered. Somewhere, Stalin smiles.