Friday, June 29, 2007

Bonds and Baseball Will Need an Al Downing


By WILLIAM C. RHODEN
Sports of The Times
June 29, 2007

During an interview on a Boston radio station earlier this month, in anticipation of the San Francisco Giants coming to town, Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling was asked if Barry Bonds was at home run No. 754 and Schilling was pitching, would he give Bonds a pitch to hit.

“Not on purpose,” Schilling said. “I don’t want to be Al Downing.”

In fact, the essential question is this: Who will have the courage to be Al Downing?

As Bonds nears Hank Aaron’s career home run milestone, pitchers and managers will have decisions to make. Under what conditions will pitchers pitch to Bonds? Who will give him a pitch to hit?

On April 8, 1974, Downing, pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers, threw a fastball that didn’t rise to Aaron; Aaron blasted it out of the park for career home run No. 715, which broke Babe Ruth’s home run record.

Aaron’s home run didn’t define Downing’s career as much as it tied him honorably to a historic moment.

Downing could have hidden — as Schilling apparently would have in the same situation. Instead, he tried to get Aaron to make an out.

“I feel that if you’re out on the mound and the manager hasn’t told you to intentionally walk someone, you have to do everything you can to get that batter out,” Downing said Wednesday during a telephone interview from his home in Valencia, Calif.

Downing said he had never lost a game against the Braves in the three seasons he pitched against them, “so I wasn’t worried about that, at that point. I think I’d given up two home runs to Hank. But I’d never struck him out, either.”



The underlying concern of Schilling’s comment is that in this age of all news, all the time, nobody wants to make a mistake. What’s more, no one wants their mistake to live in perpetuity.

Shawn Hill, a young pitcher for the Washington Nationals, asked about the Giants’ coming visit in August, told a reporter for The Washington Times that he would not want the honor of facing Bonds in a record-breaking situation.

“No, thanks,” he said. “That’s how I’ll be remembered in baseball: I gave it up to Bonds? I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t think many people want to.”

Last Friday, when the Yankees faced San Francisco, reliever Scott Proctor challenged Bonds. Bonds hit home run No. 749. Two days later, Roger Clemens came on in relief and faced Bonds, but never challenged him, walking him on five pitches. Perhaps at a certain point in one’s career, the competitive spirit gives way to vanity.

“If you’re a pitcher of Hall of Fame caliber, you’re supposed to be challenging guys,” Downing said. “Otherwise, don’t pitch. You go out there and do the very best you can; don’t take it personally, because this guy has already hit seven hundred and something home runs; it’s not like he’s singling you out. You just happen to be the guy who got the ball that night.”

All Downing had to do was look at the names of pitchers who had given up home runs to Aaron: Sandy Koufax, 7; Bob Gibson, 8; Juan Marichal, 8; Don Drysdale, 17. Please.

Bonds has hit home runs against 442 pitchers.

“You’re a major league ballplayer,” Downing said. “You uphold the integrity of your own performance. Don’t let your career be defined by one moment.”

Downing’s career was not.

He broke into major league baseball with the Yankees in 1961 and generally is regarded as the Yankees’ first African-American starting pitcher. Once called the black Sandy Koufax, Downing played 17 seasons and finished with a record of 123-107 and a 3.22 earned run average. He was an All-Star in 1967, led the American League in strikeouts in 1964 and led the National League in shutouts in 1971.



The popular thinking among critics is that the steroids cloud over Bonds and over baseball will obscure the magnitude of the feat he is about to accomplish. Baseball historians know better, and the critics had better get a clearer view. This is a monumental mountain that Bonds has climbed; if all it took was a pill, the mountain would have been climbed by hundreds.

“You can talk all you want about some kind of performance enhancers, or whatever,” said Downing, who has remained in close touch with Aaron. “There’s nothing that’s going to help you hit the baseball better, other than probably glasses.”

Downing added: “This is far more complex than people want to admit. Nobody wants to look into the hard work, the perseverance, the sacrifices and also the planning both these hitters have made in order to get to this moment.”

In 1974, Downing played a major role in one of baseball’s defining moments. More than three decades later, baseball anticipates another moment, and a handful of major league pitchers will have the privilege of playing a role in the drama. Under normal circumstances, giving up a home run is generally not considered a privilege. This is different.

“Don’t look on it as a moment of failure,” Downing said. “It’s not a moment of failure; it’s one instant in your career. You have to move on from there.”

Some pitchers will shy away from the moment. Who will have the courage to be Al Downing?

E-mail: wcr@nytimes.com

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Link

Web Site Hit Counters
High Speed Internet Services