On the John
Originally completed June 10, 2007
Ten really good swings. That’s how far away we are from Barry Bonds becoming Major League Baseball’s career home run leader. Seems like just yesterday Bonds was on his way to the Hall of Fame on the strength of his 445 career home runs, 460 stolen bases, 1430 walks, eight Gold Gloves, seven Silver Sluggers, and three MVP awards. That was 1999, the year after McGwire and Sosa became national heroes with their home run chase, the year before Bonds himself pushed his career into nearly unfathomable levels of excellence.
Indeed, had Barry Bonds retired following the 1999 season, he would have been a first ballot Hall of Famer, definitely among the greatest left fielders in MLB’s storied history. Of that there is no debate.
No, the debate begins in 2000, the season in which Bonds hit a career-best 46 home runs. A year later, he hit an MLB-record 73 home runs. And a year after that, he won his first career batting title, his .370 average perching him a full 32 points better than second place.
Based on everything we know about the aging process, the effect of steroids on a ballplayer (bat speed, power, and injury recovery), and testimonial evidence, it is safe to assume that Bonds used steroids at some point in the late 90s.
Which begs the questions: Yeah? So?
Over the past two years, I’ve written three columns about steroids in baseball, and in each one I’ve argued that they are bad for the game. I still think that. But the current backlash against them has little to do with any moral or ethical reasons, and everything to do with the number 755, as well as Bonds’ rather prickly personality.
From a likeability standpoint, Bonds is the antithesis of Hank Aaron. Everything about his quest for 756 feels wrong. We want to be uplifted, like we were with Aaron in ’74 or McGwire and Sosa in ’98. Instead we feel put upon and betrayed: our beloved home run record is sleeping with the biggest jerk in the neighborhood, and neither seems to care that we are left home weeping.
I have always felt that the steroid user is analogous to the person who uses real money in a game of Monopoly. They are ruining the purity of the game…but even without steroids, how pure can our games be when the major motivator is money instead of competition?
Part of my problem with steroids is that they reward the athlete who is willing to sacrifice his future health for current success. But don’t we love Curt Schilling for pitching Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS despite the fact that he was risking permanent damage to his injured ankle? What about the athlete who is willing to ignore his familial responsibilities in order to dedicate himself to his sport? If other athletes are not willing to make these sacrifices, they are at a disadvantage. How is that different from steroid use?
Well, one would say, steroids are a form of cheating. But what about guys who steal signs or scuff balls? What about basketball players who flop to draw fouls or offensive tackles who figure out how to hold without getting flagged?
Ultimately, it all comes back to the importance that we, the baseball fans of America, place on the home run. It is in many ways the very essence of what we love most about sport. It is strength, power, speed, and hand-eye coordination, combined with a surprise rush of excitement and a natural beauty rarely found so compact in the premier feats of other sports. The home run represents the kind of unlimited physical possibilities that only top-notch athletics can give us. In turn, the records that they produce are held sacred.
How else does one explain the lack of outrage towards Bonds’ other achievements? He has thrice surpassed Ruth’s single-season mark of 170 walks, putting the record pretty much out of reach with the totally absurd 232. That was 2004, the same year that Bonds passed Rickey Henderson for most walks in a career. If Bonds’ walk totals increased because he had become an unstoppable force at the plate, (which is the case), and if much of his newfound unstoppability came from steroid use (which is widely assumed), then it stands to reason that his walk totals are in large part a result of steroids. Yet where was the public outcry for those records? Where were the Sports Illustrated cover stories? Where were the best-selling books and senate hearings and calls for asterisks?
To be sure, I wish steroids would be knocked out of our games completely. But I also wish that we were less forgiving towards athletes who break the law….that players showed more loyalty towards fans and that owners showed more loyalty towards players….that fundamentals and sportsmanship and maximum effort were valued as highly as contracts and endzone dances and statistics.
And maybe that’s what bothers us the most about steroids: the fact that like Bonds, they are more an easy target than an ultimate evil, a reminder that the games and the teams we love so dear have been so easily corrupted and subverted by money, and that we as fans are as responsible as anyone. After all, we are the ones who continue to buy tickets, regardless of our teams’ conduct on and off the field.
There is a lot wrong with professional sports today. We all know that. And if you are of the opinion that Barry Bonds passing Hank Aaron is among them, then you will likely be angered some time over the next two months when number 756 sails out of whatever ballpark it began in. But before you steam up with anger and disillusionment or whatever it may be and declare steroids and Barry Bonds to be the Great Scourges upon our sports, perhaps you will take some time to consider all of the non-steroided circumstances that helped Bonds hit the first 755.
Copyright 2007, jm silverstein