Baseball: Bonds soap opera bringing America's beloved numbers game to its knees

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The Independent Online

Rebagliati, for those who don't remember, lost his snowboarding gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics after testing positive for marijuana. He won it back with a simple but brilliant explanation: he did inhale, but didn't actually smoke - just hung around in a lot of badly ventilated rooms with people who did.

Barry Bonds hasn't yet come up with anything quite so elegant - there are no cases in medical literature of anyone absorbing second-hand steroid metabolites just from working out in a gym full of bodybuilders. Instead he's pleading that old standby, ignorance. Flaxseed oil is what baseball's best slugger thought he was swallowing during his record-setting, late-career home run streak. And like a good celebrity frontman, he's asking everyone else to swallow it too.

Bonds, though, hasn't actually tested positive for anything, which limits his need for an alibi - at least for the time being - and leads us to the grotesque roadshow that is America's 2006 baseball season so far.

In the absence of any sanctionable offence under the rules of the game, the San Francisco Giants hitter is free to go about the business of trying to overtake Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, the only two men between him and the Valhalla of the all-time home run record. Outside baseball, the jury in the court of American public opinion, one gets the impression, wouldn't need a night in a hotel before bringing in a guilty verdict.

The book Game of Shadows damns Bonds with transcripts from the investigation into the Balco case, as well as testimony to the subsequent grand jury hearing; a new grand jury has been convened to look at evidence that Bonds may have perjured himself before the first one. All the while opposing fans wave their anti-Barry banners, shout abuse and toss syringes at him from the stands.

The man himself airs his innermost thoughts exclusively on his own reality show, Bonds on Bonds - as opposed to Bonds on anything else, I suppose, or on anything he shouldn't be on. What he's on mostly is the sofa at home, sprawled across the cushions, his huge bald head half in shadow as he holds forth gnomically on his troubles. He looks disconcertingly like Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz.

So far so squalid, then. So soap opera. Another high-profile athlete who may or may not be guilty of taking performance-enhancing drugs, so why should it matter any more this time? Well, the story does have that element of "live car chase" about it; usually these scandals erupt once the race is over, after the record has been broken. But mainly it matters because of the numbers.

American sport is built from them, baseball in particular. They are what outsiders often find most off-putting. Trying to get to grips with American sport can be like fighting your way into a phone box through a meteor shower. The sheer density of numbers drives you back; you could lose a limb to a passing cluster of runs-batted-in, or a high-velocity hitting streak.

Once you've got the hang of them they can be fun. In a game which measures every variable the trick lies in separating the useful statistics from the rest - then concentrating on the rest: the Yankees' Wednesday night road record when there's an R in the month; head-to-head pitching comparisons between left-handed born-again Christians and those who use chewing tobacco during post-match press conferences.

But the longer you look, the deeper the numbers take you. Whole games can be digitised and reconstituted as sporting drama, so long as you know what they mean. "6-4-3" is the classic double play: a throw from shortstop to second base to pick off one runner, then on to the first-baseman before the batter gets there. In the 1940s, live radio commentary was often done by men in windowless rooms decoding the play-by-play digits off the ticker-tape machines and turning them into vivid descriptions of action they couldn't see.

Each baseball player is ultimately the sum of his numbers, more so than cricketers and completely unlike footballers, despite the growing transatlantic drift towards measuring the organic flow of an improvised game as though it were a series of set pieces. Reducing Ronaldinho to his stats is laughable, and never more so than on Tuesday, when his sub-par passing numbers contained no useful information about the vision, timing and perfect parabola of the one pass that mattered.

Baseball players possess intangibles too, of course, but they function more as tiebreakers, brought into play only once the numbers have been tallied. And although playing conditions and rules and equipment have changed over the years, the numbers haven't. As in cricket they form a long cord of connective tissue stretching back down the decades and tying the modern game to its past.

So Barry Bonds matters because of his numbers. They are phenomenal across several categories, but in the house that stats built the home run record is the capstone. He's already set the single-season mark of 73 - in 2001, when his accusers say even his drugs were on drugs. Entering this season, his career total was 708 - six short of Babe Ruth and 47 behind the record holder, Aaron. If baseball fans can't believe in his numbers - and they just so happen to be the numbers that define baseball by being the best in history - then the whole structure collapses.

So far, the signs are that Bonds might be sabotaged by Exhibit A for the would-be prosecution; his 41-year-old body is breaking down. Whether that's the failure of a Faustian pact or just acquired immunity to the flaxseed oil, he's without a home run so far this season.

One player's ailments won't make baseball any healthier, but should they prevail they might make it a bit easier to maintain the suspension of disbelief in the numbers game.

Gary Imlach's book, My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes, won the 2005 William Hill Sports Book of the Year award

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