Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Life on Parade

The centennial anniversary parade down Market Street ended, and I saw a homeless man stealing flowers from the Lotta fountain, a monument to the 1906 earthquake. The disaster itself is sort of a strange thing to celebrate - I am not sure if there will be a Katrina parade in New Orleans a century from now. But I do think that it does bring out a few features of our city: our desire to dress in costumes and our need to stop traffic. We are a city of Bay to Breaker joggers, Saint Patrick patrons, Chinese dragons, and Rainbow marchers; and sometimes we need to reflect on our history as a city built on top of sand dunes on top of seismic plates.

Most of the time San Francisco is known only for the culture it brought in 60's, and so we needed a day to celebrate the 06's. The parade had relics from that time - the fire engines, the Red Cross and the burlesque dancers, but it would have been nicer if they could have brought back the 1906 real estate prices. San Francisco biggest export isn’t Rice a Roni, but bubbles.

There had been constant unsteadiness that crept into our spring. The rain came almost biblically for forty days and nights dampening our psyche in a slow deliberate fashion the way that earth is moved by relentless erosion. April showers might bring May flowers elsewhere; here we dream of blue skies.

And April’s other gift to the world, baseball, has touched us bitterly. Instead of hopes of finally winning a World Series, our attention is now on our ancient left fielder. In his younger days he was equally quick around the bases and the field, but over time he trades his speed for power and perhaps his ethics for immortality. With his new broad shoulders he had hit more home runs in a single season than anyone else, but he now must also carry the hatred of the nation more than any player since Jackie Robinson.

But if Jackie Robinson was about the changing the unfortunate accepted rules of baseball to give the sport a better future, then Bonds is about reevaluating what was tolerated to make us question the past. With its roots on the radio, there is audible narrative of the sport that wants to compare players from different times more than other sports. We want 500 career homeruns to mean what it did in Vietnam era 1970’s as much as it does in the Iraq era of the aught’s. In the simplest sense it does - the home run hitters who debuted in the Fifties hit about the same as the home run hitters that debuted in the Eighties. One era does not look more powerful than the other:

Hank Aaron 755 Barry Bonds 708
Willie Mays 660
Frank Robinson 586 Sammy Sosa 588
Harmon Killebrew 573 Mark McGwire 583
Rafael Palmeiro 569
Mickey Mantle 536 Ken Griffey 536
Willie McCovey 521

But there is a difference in styles - one group played in a time when you celebrated after a game by going out for drinks and the other honed their skills by taking supplements to train longer in the weight room. It is the difference between having good team chemistry and a good team chemist. Boston ended its World Series draught because they used cutting edge medical techniques (including the steroid, cortisone) to heal a pitcher for a game against the Yankees and were cheered.

There is little applause for the medical wonder of Barry Bonds. He has had a not only fastballs but also syringes thrown at him. The government leaked his closed testimony to reporters, and his mistress got a book deal. He certainly isn’t the most likeable person on the planet, but none else seems to have burned as much by the curse of trying to become the best player he could by using the available loopholes.

I believe it is because he ruins the fantasy of baseball. I think we want to pretend that maybe if we were just a little bit faster or that maybe we had few more lucky bloopers senior year, that just maybe we (or perhaps the best player from the neighborhood) could be in the big leagues. And even if we are allowed to daydream about stepping up to the plate for the first time in a major league park or perhaps as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning for the pennant, there just isn’t enough imagination to let us pretend that we could be Barry Bonds. We have neither the godparent’s nor the physique to come close in the same way we know we never could be Shaq in a pick up game, but perhaps we could hit shots like Kobe.

What we are left with is an unusually wet April armed with the knowledge that we endured larger disasters. The city and baseball will survive even if we have to steal the flowers off of our monuments to the past.