There are no rock-solid formulas for building statues for athletes

OTHER VOICES

April 12, 2005|By William C. Rhoden | William C. Rhoden,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A few days ago, I asked Peter Magowan, owner of the San Francisco Giants, if he would consider building a statue in honor of Barry Bonds, the Giants' star left fielder, perhaps the greatest player of his generation.

"I would like to think that one day there will be a statue of Barry here, and I think there should be," Magowan said. "He's the best player I've seen play the game since Willie; if you don't acknowledge the best player you ever saw, then why be in the market?"

I had spent the first three days of the Giants' new season around SBC Park. Like a number of major league baseball teams, the Giants have carefully maintained a legacy that stretches from 1883 to 2005, from New York to San Francisco.

The club's mailing address is 24 Willie Mays Plaza. There is a fabulous statue of Mays at the park's entrance. The Giants have memorialized Willie McCovey, the great first baseman, with McCovey Cove. Barry Bonds' T-ball field was built for youth leagues to play on from now until August.

But now more than ever, I think it's silly - and borderline foolhardy - to name streets and highways, building and stadiums, after human beings. Especially in an age of instant communication and free-flowing information.

Magowan, obviously, disagreed. He said he felt the benefits outweighed the risks. "We've got to keep that tradition and history alive," he said. "If we get to a point where nobody is ever going to be good enough to compete with Mays and good guys like that, and we get out of the monument business, then I think we're also getting out of the tradition and history business of baseball."

I offered Bonds as my Exhibit A. Bonds is the face of the Giants. He is also at the center of a steroid scandal that has rocked Major League Baseball. A woman, Kimberly Bell, has said that she was Bonds' mistress and that Bonds told her he had used steroids. She also said he gave her money and told her how to deposit it to avoid paying taxes.

Of course, Bonds should have a statue in San Francisco. We celebrate Babe Ruth, a man, according to biographers, whose moral compass often malfunctioned.

In Atlanta, a statue of Ty Cobb, sliding into a base, stands outside the northern entrance to Turner Field. Cobb was not a nice man. By nearly all accounts, he was much worse than that: a bigot, a drunkard and a thug.

"There are things named after Robert Byrd, the senator from West Virginia," Magowan said. Byrd was a former member of the Ku Klux Klan and filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He has apologized for joining the Klan as a young man.

"Are we going to tear down monuments to him in West Virginia?" Magowan said. "We don't know the end of this story at this point, but the fans love Barry Bonds and they understand what he has meant to this franchise. Our fans have seen him hit his 500th home run, his 600th home run, his 660th home run, and they're going to see him go past Ruth for sure."

Magowan added, "I do think we can put the pedestal so high that nobody gets there."

But let's not set the bar so low that our streets, highways, stadiums and arenas are named for miscreants whose only redemptive value is their ability to put a baseball in orbit.

Owners and politicians have to rethink the knee-jerk reaction of memorializing great performers before the dust of their athletic careers settles. The politicians who approved naming a five-mile stretch of Interstate 70 near St. Louis the Mark McGwire Highway let sentimentality get the best of them. Now they're scrambling. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., wants to take McGwire's name off.

At the same time, those of us in the news media who help shape images must develop a more finely honed sense of right and wrong, especially in an age of Internet access. We know everything about everybody and can ruin a career in a matter of moments. Every misdeed can be news: from minor traffic violations to domestic squabbles to steroid use.

We've got to widen our strike zone.

For different reasons, my bottom line with Bonds is the same as Magowan's: innocent until proven guilty. Obviously, Magowan has a business and an emotional stake in Bonds. They came to the Giants at the same time: Magowan led the investment group that bought the franchise, and Bonds was the first major hire.

"I'd feel different if he murdered somebody or if he'd really done some horrible crime," Magowan said. "Has he committed a crime? You can ask me that question, I honestly don't know. We may know a lot more down the road than we know now. Until we have more proof, I'm going to stand by him and support him."

Let Ty Cobb have his statue and his records. Give Bonds his day in court and his shot at Babe Ruth.

A pitcher can throw a perfect game; there's no such thing as a perfect game in real life.

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