On April 15th, Major League Baseball will celebrate a very-special episode of Jackie Robinson Day, the one where we fete the 60th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball.
The fact that we feel strangely compelled to give special treatment to the round, even numbers like 60 as opposed to the 59th anniversary or 61st anniversary is probably an impracticable point. (I might have been too young at the time to notice whether we gave special recognition to the 42nd anniversary in 1989, though I suppose that would've been pretty cool if we did).
A lot of people will commemorate this anniversary in different ways. Bud Selig will probably make a bunch of political statements in the form of press releases. The Los Angeles Dodgers plan on all wearing #42 that day in honor of Robinson. Many members of the mass media are likely already salivating at the excuse to write a faux-sociological dissertation on "The Scarcity of the Modern African-American Baseball Player and Why This is Important and How Did This Happen and What Will We Do to Remedy It?"
Ken Griffey Jr., one of the few high profile African-American baseball stars left, lobbied the Major League offices for the right to wear #42 on April 15th in honor of Robinson's legend. The MLB brass thought it was such a good idea, that they've extended the offer to one player on every single team.
One of the first players to take them up on that offer? Our old friend, Barry Bonds.
This is interesting on many, many levels. Bonds, of course, was one of the most abhorred athletes in the country before we all suspected he was taking steroids. And perhaps it says something about our evolution as a society that even subconsciously, we don't appear to hate Bonds because he's black. We hate him because he's an egotistical jerk.
But remember, according to Book of Shadows, one of the main reasons Bonds was compelled to take steroids in the first place was because of what he perceived as undue naivety of the American people towards Mark McGwire's obvious steroid use, simply because he was white. Learning this created a very interesting abstraction: did Barry Bonds take steroids just to teach us a lesson about racism?
The answer is probably not. By all accounts, Bonds is too self-serving a human being to take steroids with the intention to create a transcendent moment in American sports culture. (There's nothing wrong with that. 98% of us would be too self-serving to do that). But the answer here isn't as important as how we potentially react to the question.
A lot of people (both civilians and members of the media) are going to take their pot-shots at Bonds over the next few days saying he doesn't deserve to honor Jackie Robinson. But I think no player in the last 60 years of baseball is more qualified than Bonds to honor Jackie Robinson. Because in his own self-aggrandizing way, Bonds has forced us to contemplate the correlation that still exists between sports and race.
Guys like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays and Frank Robinson were easy to like. This is especially true if you weren't actually alive when they played. They are probably three of the six or eight greatest hitters who ever lived and by all explanations were solid citizens who represented the game of baseball with aplomb both on and off the field. Compare this to many of the great "white" hitters of the 21st century: guys who we've come to know as pompous loners (Ted Williams), domineering narcissists (Joe DiMaggio) or womanizing alcoholics (Babe Ruth).
One could argue that Barry Bonds was the first fatally flawed black baseball player. The first black baseball player we were inclined to hate.
60 years ago, many Americans hated Jackie Robinson simply because he was a black man playing a white man's game. Over 30 years ago, many Americans hated Hank Aaron simply because he was a black man trying to break the most hallowed record set by a white man. Today, most of us hate Barry Bonds, who happens to be a black man, simply because he's a conceited jerk who wears earrings and cheated. But subconsciously, we all worry about Bonds being right, that we hate him on a deeper level because he's just another black man trying to re-write our culture.
Whether he intended to or not, Barry Bonds has reflexively forced us to glimpse into the juxtaposition of sports and race more so than any baseball player since Robinson. He was the first black athlete we were forced to deal with because he's a jerk. And he was the first black athlete we were forced to deal with because he's a cheater.
Let Bonds wear #42. Whether you hate him or not, he deserves it more than anyone.