8 August 2007

A record best forgotten?

Hot on the heels - or should that be pedals? - of the doping scandals which engulfed last month's Tour de France, which saw both the pre-race favourite, Alexandre Vinokourov, and the then yellow jersey, Michael Rasmussen, leave in disgrace mid-race, comes another, largely unwelcome, high profile drugs-related story.

Last night, in a Major League Baseball game against the Washington Nationals, San Francisco Giants' slugger Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run. In so doing, he broke Hank Aaron's all-time record of 755 which had stood for 33 years. It is the most revered statistic in baseball; perhaps the single most notable stat in all American sports. It would be like someone beating Dixie Dean's 60 goals in an English top-flight season, or surpassing Pele's career goalscoring record - if anything, it's even bigger than that.

It had to happen eventually. Despite the constant torrents of boos from opposition fans all over the US and the clamour from some fans and media calling for him to retire before breaking the record, the only thing likely to ever stop Bonds from achieving his goal was serious injury to his 43-year old body. And that simply didn't happen.

He has beaten the record with agonising slowness, a combination of being regularly rested by his team and his own poor form contributing to progress which has been more of a crawl than a sprint finish. It is almost as if he has been taunting all the naysayers by dragging it out over the longest possible time.

Why is Big Bad Barry so despised?

Well, there is the clear association between his trainer, Greg Anderson, and the Balco scandal in 2003, which revealed the widespread use of illegal performance-enhancing substances such as THG across athletes in all American sports. Bonds himself has always testified that he has never knowingly - what a loaded word that is! - taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs, but the fact remains that Anderson himself was jailed for his part in the Balco operation. Read into that what you will.

And, over the course of his professional career, there is the visible evidence that Bonds has grown in several key dimensions - chest size, neck size and so on - which, in fairness, can be reasonably attributed to hours invested in the weights room and the natural process of ageing. But perhaps more telling are claims that his shoes are three sizes larger than in the early days of his career, not something which is commonly seen through natural growth or gym work. Draw your own conclusions.

I must say, I've seen Bonds play, both live and on TV. He has always been brutishly strong which, coupled with naturally exceptional hand-eye co-ordination and fast hands mean that he would always have been an outstanding talent. But for his home run productivity to accelerate sharply beyond the age of 35, when the effects of ageing clearly start to outweigh any benefits of experience, is - to say the least - highly questionable.

Like any accused person, Barry Bonds is innocent until proven guilty. But although nothing may ever be proven against him, his reputation among the majority of fans is irreparably tarnished, and his entry into baseball's record books will always be accompanied by an unwritten asterisk.

Having said all this, despite the growing hysteria this story has created in the US over the past few months, it is also important to keep things in perspective. This is not a tragedy in the way that Heysel or the Munich air crash were.

And yet, for true fans who want to believe in the pure, unaided talent of our sporting heroes, it IS a tragedy.

One final footnote. In spite of Bonds' efforts, San Francisco lost the game 8-6. That is a matter of recorded fact. Symbolically, many fans will feel that baseball as a whole was the loser last night, and will wish that the most memorable record in baseball is now one best forgotten.

7 August 2007

1% that makes it all worthwhile

It's that time of the year again.

The new football season is just round the corner, and up and down the country fans are daring to wonder how great a season their team could have if they get off to a fast, confidence-building start, and if their new signings can make a big difference, and if the squad can stay injury-free, and if they can just get the rub of the green ...

In other words, hope springs eternal - before reality bites, that is.

Expectation levels vary widely from one club to another, of course. If you're a fan of Man U or Chelsea, then nothing less than a triumphal march to the Premiership title (and Champions League glory) will do. If you follow Derby County, then the avoidance of relegation and a couple of glorious giant-killing wins will more than suffice.

For my team, Arsenal, the situation is a little less clear-cut, and no doubt if you asked a hundred Gooners what they are expecting from this season, you will get a hundred different answers. For some, a top 4 finish with a young side in transition will be a good result, particularly if Arsene Wenger can be persuaded to stay. For others, a Cup and a good Champions League run will be evidence of solid progress. But the more impatient fans - and there are many - will expect nothing less than a first league title in four years, despite the substantially bigger spending of the other top clubs. There may be little empirical evidence to back these up, but it does not stop people hoping and expecting.

At times like this, before the true heat of battle has started the season-long process of bubble-bursting, it is easy to spot great portents in a resounding pre-season win, or an eye-catching performance from a new player. It's easy to believe that things must surely be better this season, that the final piece of the puzzle has been found, that this has to be our year ...

It's the same for most fans of most clubs; the delicious taste of glory, out of reach yet tantalisingly close.

I'm no different. I've been carefully following all the football news and transfer rumours since last season ended, elated by every new signing - da Silva, Sagna, Fabianski - and strong rumour, depressed by those exiting the club - Henry, Ljungberg, Aliadiere - and those long-desired fish who escaped elsewhere. I've read all the pre-season match-reports, looking for those early indications of greatness from some of our younger players. I've watched the two televised preseason tournaments we've played in with rapt interest, looking to add the evidence of my own eyes to what I have read in print. I've seen right back Bacary Sagna's pace and attacking power, which has allowed Emmanuel Eboue to convert into a swashbuckling winger. I watched Eduardo da Silva - 34 goals in 32 games last season, how can he not turn out to be brilliant (even if it was just the Croatian league)? - emphatically underline his potential with a brief cameo against Ajax. Two preseason trophies out of two must count as a momentum-builder, good for the confidence ... surely nothing can stop us now?

I can even see the positives in the big name players we have lost over the summer. Thierry Henry, our all-time leading goalscorer, is a huge loss, no question about it: how do you replace one of the world's top strikers, even if he is arguably not quite the explosive threat he was. And yet, he is also nearly 30 and increasingly troubled by injury, so was now a good time to cash in? Arguably, yes. Jose Antonio Reyes? A great talent whose heart had never truly left Spain - for every great performance he produced in an Arsenal shirt, there were four or five where he was practically invisible. Sending him home was the best thing for all parties - right for Reyes, and right in terms of preserving a positive atmosphere in the dressing room. Freddie Ljungberg? A once-great goalscoring midfielder who bore comparison with Paul Scholes, but for the past two years a fading force who spent more time injured than not, so no great loss.

When the warped mind of a maniacal fan is able to turn negatives on their head, it's no surprise how easy it is to be seduced by the positives, no matter how small and insignificant.

The question really is: how much do I dare to hope? Hope is like a drug; it lifts you up and can become addictive, but it can also dump you rudely back to earth once it wears off. The thing is, even the most optimistic of football fans knows, in their heart of hearts, that in 99% of cases hope promises far more than reality will ever deliver. But it is that rare diamond, that 1% of the time when a team produces something extraordinary beyond even our wildest dreams, that makes the rest of it oh so worthwhile.

And that's why hope will always spring eternal, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the previous season's despair. Odds are that hope will ultimately prove unfounded, but it's one that I - and millions of others - are only too happy to embrace, because sooner or later we just know that magical 1% will happen to us too. (This season, preferably.)

Roll on the weekend. And come on you Gunners!