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A new front broke out in the war over Barry Bonds this week as he surpassed Hank Aaron's career 755 homers -- and it broke out not in the MSM but on the Web. First Michael Witte, an illustrator who is also "a paid consultant to a major-league team on mechanics," announced on the unlikely editorandpublisher.com, the Web site of a media-industry publication, that in his opinion Bonds's protective elbow brace is a simple machine that helps Bonds hit the ball. Basically, Witte argued that, in addition to offering Bonds protection and allowing him to stand unusually close to the plate, its hinges keep Bonds's swing on a precise plane with no wasted motion, and that its locking mechanism at the end allows him to swing viciously into a pitch without the risk of hyperextending his elbow, thus translating tremendous power into his wrists and, by extension, the bat. Wiite wrote it "confers an extraordinarily unfair mechanical advantage," although he admitted it was based on secondhand sources: "I have studied his swing countless times on video and examined the mechanical gear closely through photographs."
That set off Will Carroll, a reporter for Baseball Prospectus best known for his well-researched Web column on injuries, "Under the Knife." (It was Carroll who broke the word about Mark Prior's latest arms woes -- at the time -- before last season during spring training.) Carroll actually talked with Mark Silva, the certified orthotist who designed Bonds's elbow guard, and while both generally pooh-poohed the idea of it working as a hitting aid, Carroll got sidetracked when Silva revealed that in making molds of Bonds's right arm for 12 years its dimensions had never changed. This runs counter to the other evidence on Bonds's increasing hat and shoe size -- suggesting abuse of steroids and human growth hormone -- presented in the updated paperback version of Game of Shadows. Two things: first, I know Carroll and respect his work and methods; second, the piece is for BP Premium subscribers only, and all I can say is I find it well worth the $5 a month.
That said, Witte came right back in another E&P article this week. He wrote that just because Silva designed it to be body armor doesn't mean it doesn't also function as a simple machine, citing video of Bonds's seemingly effortless record-tying 755th career homer.
What do we make of all this? First, all "body armor" needs to be inspected, with new regulations written and enforced. A football offensive lineman who wears a brace to keep his knee from hypextending is one thing. On the other hand, anyone who has ever swung a bat and hit a ball understands that a brace that keeps the swing on line and the elbow from hyperextending would add an advantage, however marginal. Second, whatever comes of this, it will pale next to Bonds's performance-enhancing drug use -- and the truth on that, pro or con, will eventually come out -- because it's traditional baseball cheating. Witte says it's worse than Sammy Sosa's corked bat, and maybe it is. But a baseball player is taught to get away with whatever he can. Good for the smart and innovative who can do it, for as long as they can do it. But altering one's very body in a way likely to be detrimental to long-term good health, that's a competitive advantage no "fair and square" athlete should be expected to keep pace with. Let's keep the Bonds debate on point: check out the brace, but more important find out once and for all whether he used performance-enhancing drugs.