In late August 1993, police responded to a 911 call from the home of Barry Bonds. It was Bonds’s wife, Sun, who had called, and she told the responding officers that, among other things, Bonds had grabber her by the neck and pushed her down a flight of stairs. Bonds had his own side of the story, and no charges were filed. For a while, the story stewed, undiscovered and untold, in a report record at the precinct.
For the next 10 days, Bonds continued the torrid hitting that had been his norm. He would win his third National League MVP award in four years at season’s end. He flirted with .400 for about two months to open the season, and seemed on track to hit 50 home runs. In fact, through September 2, Bonds was hitting .343/.464/.693 on the year, with 40 homers, keeping San Francisco in front of the Atlanta Braves in the NL West almost by himself.
On September 3, though, the San Jose Mercury-News ran a story about Bonds’s domestic incident. It was as if they had set the type with kryptonite, instead of standard ink. Bonds batted .256/.370/.333 over the next 12 games, by far his worst stretch of the season. He didn’t drive in a single run. The final of those dozen games saw him benched for non-injury reasons for the only time all year; he made an out as a pinch-hitter. The Giants won just three games of the 12.
Dusty Baker’s decision to bench Bonds certainly helped him get his head on straight. From September 17 to the end of the season, in fact, Bonds was more a monster than ever: .333/.472/.796, with six home runs and 21 RBI. San Francisco finished on a 14-3 kick that almost made it possible to totally forget about Bonds’s faltering fortnight.
It’s interesting that there was a link between problems in Bonds’s personal life and his performance on the field, but what makes the story really fascinating, to me, is that Bonds didn’t run cold until the story became public. That speaks to an aspect of sport psychology, especially among athletes of the highest order, that I see as a constant undertone in the narratives of all the greats.
Secrecy, mystique and a sense of separation are the most potent weapons in the arsenal of the elite competitor.
This isn’t totally about invincibility. I don’t think guys like Bonds want to feel bulletproof, so much as they want to feel certain that their adversaries aren’t even shooting in the right direction. It’s about knowing something your foe doesn’t, even though your foe knows there’s something to know.
Bonds, of course, found a new form of armor later in his career. You don’t have to believe that PEDs actually make an athlete any better, stronger or faster. You don’t have to believe that beating one’s wife in secret somehow enhances performance. Probably they don’t, and probably, Bonds knew that. Still, the secret is the source of power. The best ever make themselves robots, brick walls, and let their apparent lack of humanity become another in their list of advantages.
It’s not just Bonds. Tiger Woods’ big secrets came spilling out, and he was never the same. Mickey Mantle played his whole career alternating between drunkenness and hungover-ness. Michael Jordan’s and Pete Rose’s drug of choice was gambling.
I’m not sure the secrets have to be illicit, but I suspect that helps. I suspect Gaylord Perry got more help from the shared knowledge, between him and the batters he faced, that they were facing something more than a normal pitcher, than he ever did from the physical effects of doctoring baseballs.
With that, we’re on the subject most nearly at hand: Michael Pineda’s pine-tar addiction.
Pineda, of course, stirred controversy when he was seen with pine tar on his hand during a start against the Boston Red Sox two weeks ago. He stirred controversy, but that was all: No punishment was handed down. Pineda could have moved on, or even simply disguised his use of the substance better, and nothing more would have come of it.
In the first inning of his start against Boston 10 days later, that appeared to be precisely what he’d done. He pitched, as near as anyone could tell (and everyone was watching pretty closely), pine-tar free. He also gave up two runs on four hits, and got out of the inning with three fly outs. He threw 30 pitches, of which only two were swung at and missed.
In the second inning, the pine tar was back. This time, it was on his neck. If anything, it was more obvious than it had been the first time. It was unmistakable. Boston manager John Farrell had Pineda checked out, Pineda was ejected and Pineda was suspended.
I don’t think Michael Pineda relies on pine tar to pitch well. I’m not at all sure of the efficacy of the stuff, which I have never touched, and anyway, Pineda has also pitched well without pine tar, at several points in his life (as far as we know).
Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if this lingers. It wouldn’t surprise me if, like repeat offenders who use PEDs even after being caught, Pineda finds his confidence shaken when he takes the ball without having anything to put on it. This isn’t the placebo effect, per se. It’s something more. Whether or not it works is irrelevant: The competitor just has to have something over his opponent, and now, opponents have this over Pineda. Lance Armstrong was pretty good, actually, in the 2009 and 2010 Tours de France, but he was never going to win. He was no longer untouchable, no longer a dominant despot. He was human. So was Barry Bonds, for a moment there, in 1993. So is Michael Pineda, now.Next post: Minnesota Twins Notes: Joe Mauer, Ricky Nolasco, Team Approach
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