I passed the first hurdle—a written test on world geography, U.S. history and culture and general knowledge. That qualified me to take the final step: a day-long, multi-part oral exam in Atlanta.
Everything went swimmingly, I thought, except maybe the interview with two Foreign Service officers. They peppered me with questions ranging from my thoughts on America’s contributions to global culture to how I would handle a scenario involving a senile, ID-less old woman who wandered into the embassy, claiming to be a U.S. citizen and wanting to go home. When they asked about U.S. foreign policy, I naively recited what I knew about our actual history instead of the platitudes they apparently wanted to hear.
But I thought I’d done well enough. That evening, to celebrate, we saw the Ramones at the Agora Ballroom in downtown Atlanta. (Halfway through the show, a drunk fell from the balcony and landed on his back. He lay dead-still for 10 minutes, then nonchalantly got up and walked away. Joey and Johnny and Marky and Dee Dee kept playing furiously the whole time.)
They weren’t too subtle in letting me know I would not be joining the diplomatic corps. When I got the letter several weeks after the exam, I learned that I had scored a 165. The letter also said that a passing grade was 160. But someone had drawn a line through that number and written 167 instead. No explanation, no nothing. They hadn’t even bothered to retype the letter to hide how they’d moved the goalposts.
If only it were that simple for poor, pitiful Bud Selig, who’d probably rather receive a barium enema every day for the next month than welcome Barry Bonds as baseball’s new home run king. It would be nice if the commissioner could simply declare that 755 was no longer the number to beat. Yes, a computer recount could show that Hank Aaron actually had hit 827 home runs. The most hallowed mark in baseball would remain safe from Bonds and the drug taint.
Selig can hide by staying as far away as he can from any Bonds-bearing ballparks. But he can’t run from the reality that Barry soon will own the record—and that a prime reason he’ll own it is because Bud and his brother ostriches hid while performance-enhancing substances took over their game.
Before 1999, Bonds averaged a home run in every 16.1 at-bats. After 1999, when he allegedly began loading up on human growth hormone, he homered every 8.9 at-bats, even though he had reached an age when the home run pace of every great slugger of earlier generations began to slow. After 1999, Bonds’ head grew, and his shoe size increased from 10 1/2 to 13.
It’s easy to make Bonds the target of our collective revulsion at what happened to baseball. Even his own teammates dislike him. But treating him as a pariah, while convenient for Bud and his fellow owners, ignores an utterly inconvenient truth: all of the achievements in the game over the past 15 years are tainted because so many of the achievers apparently practiced better baseball through chemistry. It’s not just the sluggers. Only last week, former pitcher Jason Grimsley fingered Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte as steroid users.
Of course, if so many were shooting up, you can suggest that Bonds shouldn’t be shunned at all. Just as he was arguably the best all-around player before the steroid era, he has merely demonstrated that he’s also the best in this brave new baseball world. Besides, as the journalists who broke the BALCO drug scandal suggest, Bonds joined the drug party only after he saw all the attention bestowed on lesser players like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa—and that baseball was content to turn a blind eye.
But such relativism also misses the point. The old marks like 755 have such relevance not because they’re old but because baseball remained so much the same. That’s why no other sport has records that fans bother to memorize. It’s one thing for performance-enhanced players to outperform each other. But when they gain an advantage over players, like Aaron, who achieved their milestones the old-fashioned way, the game’s unique treasure is spoiled.
That’s why there’s really only one thing for Bud to do: declare that all records from the steroid era are officially inoperative. Oh, they’ll still count. They’ll just go into a separate category, the way that records set before 1900, when the rules were different, are not measured against those from the modern era.
Bud could make the announcement with Hammerin’ Hank at his side, and then in good conscience applaud Bonds and Clemens and Sosa (who’s still knocking balls over the fence quite regularly, thank you, now that he looks like a normally proportioned human again).
Think about it. With the stroke of a pen, the commissioner could keep the barbarians at bay and defend the integrity of his institution. Hey, it worked for the Foreign Service.