The mighty have fallen
As Barry Bonds, the taciturn slugger for the San Francisco Giants, stands ready to move past Babe Ruth into second place on the all-time home run list, the occasion is absent the hoopla expected for such a historic event.
With 713 homers (at the time this article went to press), he sits one behind the mighty Babe and 42 behind Hank Aaron, who broke the Bambinos record 38 years ago to set the current standard.
Amid allegations of steroid use, fans outside northern California have been assaulting him with boos and signs decrying him as a cheater, which, at least outwardly, doesnt affect Bonds in the least.
According to Dr. Stanley H. Teitelbaum, a practicing psychotherapist and faculty member and senior supervisor at the Contemporary Center for Advanced Psychoanalytic Studies at Fairleigh Dickinson University/Madison, Bonds is a perfect fit for the toxic athlete profile.
Teitelbaum, who also serves on the faculty of the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health and the Training Institute for Mental Health, both in New York, cites scores of similar examples in his book Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols: How Star Athletes Pursue Self-Destructive Paths and Jeopardize Their Careers (University of Nebraska Press).
Bonds is an interesting figure, he says. There are a lot of different feelings about him. Theres a sleaze factor. Hes the quintessential example of the toxic athlete, displaying characteristics including entitlement, arrogance, and grandiosity. He does it time and time again.
Teitelbaum is more forgiving than most, blaming at least a part of the obsession with Bonds on the media. When I was a young kid, we got all our sports information through the radio and newspaper, he said. Television and the Internet have changed reporting methods, often pushing sports items to higher, and undeserved, prominence.
Teitelbaum, a resident of Teaneck, grew up in the shadow of Ebbets Field in Brooklyn; his boyhood hero was Peter Reiser because of his drive, his determination, his win-at-all-costs, devil-may-care attitude.
Now its all about the pocketbook.
Ruth himself was no choirboy, but you would never hear about his indiscretions through the press. There was a gentlemens agreement among writers and athletes, in those days, Teitelbaum says. Now, the media has such a powerful influence and can either guide you up or devil you down.
The turning point in sports coverage came in 1985, when several athletes testified at the trial of a Philadelphia Phillies caterer who was found guilty of distributing cocaine to major league ballplayers, setting off a new chorus of Say it aint so headlines.
More recently, the House of Representatives held hearings on steroid use in baseball in 2005, hearing from such prominent players as Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, and Raphael Palmeiro, among others. Bonds did not appear at the hearing but has long been suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs.
The media have really done him in, Teitelbaum says. Its payback because he treats them so shabbily. They highlight his flaws to an extreme, probably more than is actually warranted.
Bonds statistics, especially those since 1998, when his use of steroids allegedly began, will be viewed by future generations with skepticism. It raises questions. What he has accomplished is probably influenced by steroids.
Despite the controversy, Teitelbaum says he believes Bonds will ultimately wind up in baseballs Hall of Fame, sending a mixed message to young fans. Athletes are role models, he writes in his book, whether they want to be or not.
Its part of the job. People watch how they conduct themselves on and off the field. All indiscretions are going to be in the headlines now. That may be an unfair burden to lay on a group who are barely adults themselves, but that goes with the territory, he says. Its not such a high price to pay for all the money, fame, and adulation these athletes receive.
Fans have a degree of culpability, too, he says. Anxious to bask in reflected glory of their favorites, the majority would rather have winners who bend the rules than clean-cut losers.
By using steroids, athletes create a negative role model, setting a bad precedent for the kids who identify with them and indirectly encouraging them to use drugs in an attempt to improve their own athletic abilities. In addition, substantial medical evidence indicates long-term health dangers to users. Finally, and perhaps most important, says Teitelbaum, its about fairness. If some players are juicing while others are not, it tarnishes the sense of fair play.
Teitelbaum disagrees with the famous quote from legendary football coach Vince Lombardi. Winning isnt everything. There are some things that come above winning. We see that when theres a national crisis. Baseball was suspended after 9/11, and that was the right thing to do.
He singles out Jewish ballplayers Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green for taking the moral high ground during their careers.
For them there was a higher standard, more important than playing, especially for Koufax who declined to play when his turn to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series coincided with Yom Kippur. For them there are things more sacred than the world of sports.
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