Sympathy for a slugger

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Sportswriters skewer him. Bloggers blast him. Talk radio jockeys jab him. Teammates tiptoe around him.

It would be easy to conclude that Barry Bonds boasts not a single sympathizer, let alone a fan or friend, anywhere in captivity.

Well, hold on a minute. If you’re looking for a few good, young men willing to stand up as witnesses for the defense in the ever-so-public trial of The People Versus Barry, the baseball diamonds of Lewiston and Auburn are a good place to start.

“Leave him alone! Just leave the guy alone,” said Lewiston High School catcher Ryan Lagasse. “He’s doing things that nobody has ever done or probably ever will do again, and all people want to do is tear him down.”

The baseball thinkers most eager to tattoo Bonds with a scarlet letter often invoke kids as a primary reason for their crusade. Mounting evidence of the slugger’s experimentation and no apparent show of remorse persuade the pastime’s rank-and-file to pronounce Bonds a bad example for the youth.

Much of this hand-wringing is done, of course, without consulting said youth. Ask a high school baseball player about Bonds and you’re bound to get a reasoned and forgiving response.

Some even presume him innocent.

“As far as steroids are concerned, I really don’t believe he took them,” said Edward Little High School senior pitcher and outfielder Kyle Giguere. “Yeah, he got a lot bigger in a just a couple of years, but I believe he did it through hard work. That’s what it takes to compete in Major League Baseball.”

Sympathy for a slugger

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Bonds’ deadlock with Babe Ruth for No. 2 on the all-time home run list and his ongoing pursuit of all-time king Hank Aaron don’t seem to polarize America in the manner of “The Da Vinci Code” or the season-ending vote on “American Idol.” Feelings about the San Francisco Giants slugger are much more concrete and one-sided.

Couple Bonds’ familiar smirk and perpetual irritability with the controversy surrounding his alleged use of steroids and other bulk-building supplements and you have a recipe for disdain. Whatever is the lowest ebb of President George W. Bush’s supposed approval rating, Bonds’ public perception is probably worse.

But it depends upon whom you ask. Public opinion polls are generally limited to people of voting age. And for every old-school traditionalist offended that Bonds is leapfrogging legendary names on his sport’s most hallowed list, there is a kid who doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.

“He is the best hitter that has ever lived,” said Justin Ciszewski, himself a proficient, heart-of-the-order hitter at EL. “I’m sorry, but steroids can’t help you hit a fastball. That’s just pure talent.”

Not everyone agrees, of course.

Kevin Smith, of EL, not only is convinced that Bonds is guilty of using steroids, he sees Bonds as an exception. Smith does not believe that the impact of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball has been as widespread as the media has reported.

“If he does break the record, I want to see someone else who doesn’t use steroids to come along and break it, like Alex Rodriguez,” Smith said. “I have a lot more respect for guys like A-Rod, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez who just seem to be natural home run hitters.”

Lewiston clean-up hitter Chad Guimond, meanwhile, has ample company among the adult population. He’s sick of the discussion altogether.

“I don’t really care, to be honest with you,” said Guimond. “I follow (baseball), but I don’t think much about (the home run chase).”

Those who do embrace strong opinions on the subject have a different frame of reference than their parents, grandparents and teachers.

DIFFERENT WORLD

For starters, they have arguably grown up in a more permissive society, one that affords second and third chances more liberally that past generations.

Products such as creatine, caffeine-laced workout drinks and a hundred varieties of protein shakes have been openly available on nutrition store shelves throughout their entire childhood.

And to those who accept Jose Canseco’s book, “Juiced,” as baseball gospel, steroid use was common as far back as the late 1980s. Until two years ago, random tests designed to curtail it were almost non-existent. A bulked-up baseball world is the only baseball world the teenagers have ever known.

“It’s like saying, OK, Michael Jordan took hops enhancers so he could jump higher, so we’re going to take away all his records,'” Lagasse said. “As if that would have made all the difference. It’s ridiculous. That kind of stuff is why I don’t watch baseball.”

Bonds has suggested that the heightened hue and cry over steroids now that he stands on the doorstep of history is a racial issue. He believes that other players of his era linked with the steroid debate, namely Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa, haven’t been held to the same standard.

The implication is obvious. McGwire is white. Palmeiro and Sosa are Hispanic. Bonds is African-American.

Local admirers believe that Bonds has a legitimate beef.

“When Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs in one season (the record, until Bonds later belted 73), you didn’t hear many people saying it was because of steroids,” Ciszewski said. “Now all of a sudden Bonds is about to break the record and all the talk is about steroids.”

Smith says Major League Baseball should label Bonds’ continued progression up the home run ladder with an asterisk, similar to the one it gave Roger Maris when he edged Ruth’s then-single season record but with the benefit of a slightly longer season.

His teammates don’t buy it. Although Bonds and Ruth began the weekend knotted with 714 home runs, one rung down from Henry Aaron’s 755, Giguere believes any notation in the books should go next to Ruth’s name. That, he said, is because Bonds played in an era of superior athletes.

“You have to look at the pitching of today. It’s so much stronger. There are so many more great pitchers today than there were in Babe Ruth’s day,” said Giguere. “Thats why I think what Barry Bonds has done is a greater accomplishment. He’s hit them off the greatest pitchers.”

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