Barry Bonds, Baseball and the Redemption of America


On Jan. 9, we learned that the two greatest baseball players of their generation, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, would not be inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. Bonds and Clemens’ failure to win enshrinement on the prestigious “first ballot” has nothing to do with their achievements, but reflects the dark cloud of suspicion about their assumed steroid use. It’s a telling moment, not just for the national pastime, but also for our society at large.

Although many fans understandably wish to enjoy sports without thinking about politics, economics and social issues, that’s simply not possible for an industry that commands billions of dollars and the rapt passions of tens of millions of Americans every day. Indeed, the Bonds saga speaks directly to matters of justice, ethics, historical memory, the role of media and spectacle at the beginning of the 21st century, and, of course, the priorities of business. As such, this contemporary tragedy reflects an America that seems adrift, morally challenged, in decline and with a profound loss of faith in established institutions.

Contrary to popular opinion, Bonds is not the villain in this drama. Rather, I see him for what he is: one of the greatest baseball players of all time, who performed on the stage provided by the society of his time.

No one claims that Bonds used steroids before the 1998 season (the summer of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa), when he may have concluded, with very good reason, that without taking drugs he was at a competitive disadvantage. At that juncture, the entire baseball establishment was embracing two lesser talents, formerly thin but now ripped like comic book caricatures, as the game’s greatest sluggers and saviors. 

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America was complicit in that travesty, and its members ought not punish Bonds and other athletes by denying their rightful places in the Hall of Fame. They should instead petition Cooperstown (site of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum) to build a permanent high-profile exhibit that openly documents the steroid era. Anything less would be an injustice to the players and irresponsible to history and future prospects of the game.

Barry Bonds’ career splits neatly into four phases: First, the early years through 1993, when he established himself as baseball’s premier superstar, winning an unprecedented three MVPs in four years; next, the post-strike steroid era (1994-1998), during which he watched other players catch and even surpass his level of productivity; third, the years of his assumed steroid use (1999-2004), in which he strung together the greatest four-year stretch ever by a hitter in the history of the game; and, lastly, the coda to his career (2005-2007) when he faced unrelenting allegations of steroid use and broke Henry Aaron’s all-time Major League Baseball home run record.

Bonds was an immense talent, hitting for average and power with blinding speed and exceptional defensive skills. But he was more than that. He had an uncanny, disciplined batting eye. Bonds rarely chased pitches out of the strike zone and accumulated a huge number of walks. Opposing pitchers dreaded Bonds, who could crush the ball if you threw him a strike and wreak havoc on the base paths if you walked him. Every year, Bonds was one of the leaders in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage, the two most important indices of offensive prowess.

In the 1980s, a group of baseball analysts called SABRmetricians was coming to prominence. They used mathematics to determine which hitters were truly the most productive. By the early ’90s, it was clear to them that Bonds was head and shoulders above his peers.

Bonds did not use steroids early in his career, even though they were becoming more prominent in the game. The sluggers on the dynastic Oakland Athletics of the late ’80s and early ’90s, the “Bash Brothers,” were allegedly juicing, as were stars on other teams. Still, steroids didn’t entirely distort the game yet as the most successful teams of the early ’90s continued to prioritize speed as much as power, with Bonds rapidly surpassing the A’s gigantic Jose Canseco as the game’s biggest star.

Then came the 1994 players strike. Suddenly the sport, which had been prospering through the ’80s into the ’90s, was in a traumatic crisis, arguably its greatest since the 1919 Black Sox betting scandal. Famously, baseball bounced back stronger than ever in the 1920s thanks to Babe Ruth’s revolutionizing home runs. The long ball would come to the rescue again, this time with chemical assistance.

As baseball struggled to regain its popularity through the mid-’90s, more and more young sluggers emerged, offensive power numbers increased, and biceps grew while the game’s establishment chose not to notice. Bonds remained a perennial All-Star. Only Ken Griffey Jr. approached him as an all-around talent, but Bonds’ home run totals were eclipsed by the new breed of sluggers. A SABRmetrician would have explained that Bonds remained the game’s best player, but with the media paying ever more attention to home run totals, his star seemed to be on the wane. He failed to win an MVP from 1994 through 1998. Three of the National League winners in those years are now known (or strongly suspected) to have been steroid users.

To my ears, the sports media’s unquestioning celebration of Mark and Sammy eerily parallels the behavior of financial reporters of that era when the tech bubble was inflating, a performance they would repeat the following decade with the housing bubble. Not only did the media fail to uncover the truth in these instances, they actively cheered the illusion and the cheating. Why care about a company’s inventory? What matters is its stock value. Who needs a down payment? Housing equity will continue to increase indefinitely. McGwire and Sosa were the Ruth and Maris of our time. American heroes, bigger and growing stronger. Home runs and markets: The sky’s the limit.

The orgy of self-congratulation and willful blindness that characterized the sports press in 1998 recalls another familiar trope of contemporary American media—the patriotic hyperbole of the buildup to war. The ESPN montages opening “SportsCenter,” the constant, almost erotic replays of Big Mac’s latest towering blast that you couldn’t escape from in ’98, have their echo in the computer generated graphics of CNN and Fox News’ promos of the latest “inevitable” war, the glorious moment when America cranks up its killing machine to slaughter evil. The eagle soars with the F-16s, the crowd in a frenzy, Sosa with his lovable signature gesture, America defending all that’s right, the national pastime saved—no time to question. Especially not “who benefits?”

Years later, the truth leaks out, long after the real, almost invisible beneficiaries have pocketed their gains. Not much is made of the exposure of what was really going on—it’s all brushed under the carpet. Yes, we know the Bush administration lied and thousands died for it, but that’s all past; and yes we know McGwire and Sosa were cranked up on ‘roids. But the fans came back, the profits soared.

In each such case there were dissenters, challenging the lie—or, in the case of McGwire-Sosa, bringing skepticism to bear. But these voices didn’t reach the mainstream.

In 1998, Barry Bonds played in a game in which significantly inferior players had surpassed him by effectively cheating. Not only were McGwire and Sosa showered with public acclaim, but at least for this one year, they surpassed his offensive productivity. Adding insult to injury, Bonds’ Giants were eliminated by Sosa’s Cubs in a one-game playoff in ’98. 

Bonds had worked tirelessly his entire career to be the best player possible; now he was shunning an obvious way to improve further, one that his rivals were embracing. We can sit around and tell ourselves that Bonds should have done the right thing and stayed clean, as he had until then. But let’s be honest: Barry Bonds was not hired to be a midrange star. He was paid to be an elite superstar. Anything less was failure.

Bonds had performed at a level above all other players in the game over the previous decade. Even with the steroid inflated seasons of his peers, the nation’s leading SABRmetrician, Bill James, not only ranked Bonds as the best player of the decade after the ’99 season, he noted that his performance so towered above all others that the second-ranked player in the decade, Craig Biggio, was closer to the 10th best than to Bonds.

And yet Bonds had to realize what the SABRmetricians’ numbers also showed: Early in the decade, he was head and shoulders above every other player but in recent years, steroids had propelled players up to and beyond his level of offensive production.

Also, Bonds was 34, and likely had only a few more years left in the game. Bonds didn’t have the luxury of waiting out the tidal wave of cheating to re-emerge as the game’s elite player. Anyway, no one was being exposed at that time and the number of players using was growing, as were their stats. But what certainly was the coup de grace, what sent the message clear as day, was the canonization of McGwire and Sosa. These two juicers, with their super-human bodies, were the toast not just of baseball culture, but all of American pop culture, transmitted across the globe. Outside of a few rote platitudes from the commissioner’s office when the question of steroids was meekly raised, all evidence at the time shouted that this glorification of the new long-ball era would continue indefinitely. It was a new day and there was only one way to compete with the elite.

What happened over the next six years is simple. Barry Bonds had been roughly 15 to 25 percent more productive than any other player of his generation in the years before the steroids epidemic, and he proved he was similarly 15 to 25 percent better than anyone else in the brave new world. Of course, 15 to 25 percent better than juicers such as McGwire, Sosa, American League MVP Juan Gonzalez and Alex Rodriguez meant performance on a level beyond anything ever seen in the history of the game.

Why are sports so popular? The competitions are thrilling, the athletic performances dazzling, we witness displays of character and courage, and, these days, big money sports are state-of-the-art spectacle. Still, there’s another thing, which speaks to our sense of justice: In an unfair world, sports have rules. Otherwise, the competition is rotten.

By 1998, baseball no longer had a level playing field. Indeed, the most heralded players were the most successful cheaters. A slugger had to accept playing at a disadvantage or take the dive into steroid use. Ken Griffey Jr. apparently chose the righteous path. He was younger than Bonds and within a few years was no longer his primary competition as the game’s best.

The steroids era represents an altogether different quandary than the issue of gambling. If a player or manager bets on baseball (especially, but not only when betting against his own team), the competition is corrupted. Taking steroids is cheating, since there’s overwhelming evidence that they improve performance (and since they come with serious health risks, it would be unethical to accept them as part of a player’s standard training)—thus they also corrupt the game. But when the use of steroids becomes endemic in the game, as it had by ’98, then the moral culpability of individual players who start taking steroids after the use is widespread is much more ambiguous.

When you judge the case of Barry Bonds, as the baseball writers of America are tasked to do with their Hall of Fame votes, you are lying to yourself unless you recognize that by 1998, Bonds—as an established elite slugger—was playing at a competitive disadvantage. When, as he is alleged to have done, he hired trainer Greg Anderson to administer performance enhancing drugs before the ’99 season, he was effectively leveling the playing field for himself.

The sports press posits a false duality: Do you vote for Hall of Fame candidates based solely on their on-field accomplishments, or do you consider character issues such as accusations of cheating? The answer, of course, is neither. This either-or approach gets it all wrong. The only correct answer is that candidates must be considered in the historical context in which they performed, with both their achievements and character assessed in light of that context.

Does Bonds deserve to be in Cooperstown? Yes. He cannot be blamed for the fallen state of the game. But the Hall of Fame, as the premier guardian of baseball’s history, has to make clear to its visitors what happened to the game in the ’90s. By 1998, the sport had been corrupted.

One of the mysteries of the steroid era is why virtually no one came forward to expose the epidemic. The fraternity of baseball players is tightknit. Secrets are kept, and one can only imagine how tough life would be for a snitch. But near-complete silence from everyone? Think about it. If you weren’t juicing, you were playing the game by the rules while others cheated. Still, silence. The sport itself was being tarnished. Nothing said.

During the ’90s, the term “winner-take-all society” entered common parlance. An astonishing growth in income disparity occurred across the decade. MLB players made bank, thanks in large part to their union, but most had limited prospects off the diamond, and none in which they could match their baseball salaries. Who would be willing to risk becoming a pariah, throwing it all away?

The home run boom was bringing the fans back, and with them, revenue. The owners weren’t going to burst that bubble, and now the commissioner himself was an owner (of the Brewers).

At the same time that baseball was recovering from the post-strike slump, traditional media faced unprecedented competition and an increase in corporate ownership and conglomeration, with an emphasis on showing a profit. Economic insecurity breeds conformity. The public ate up stories about baseball’s resurgence and the home run chase, and sports journalists were happy to provide the feel good coverage of the steroid era. A similar phenomenon happened when the tide turned and stories of heroism were replaced with stories of scandal, the public still reading and watching and clicking with rapt attention. Thus the same people who failed to expose—and, in fact, helped fuel—the steroid boom in baseball have now hypocritically staked out the high ground, voting down Bonds and Clemens and the lesser stars they made famous.

How should baseball historians, including journalists, treat Bonds’ record-smashing seasons from 2001 through 2004? My suggestion is to put them in their proper historical context and accept what they were: the greatest offensive display in the history of the game. Day in, day out, Bonds was nothing short of awesome. Ted Williams and Babe Ruth, the two sluggers SABRmetricians would hold up as the greatest before Bonds, never had a comparable run.

Of course, citing numbers doesn’t do justice to the raw power, the disciplined finesse, of Bonds in the batter’s box, and the thrill his every at-bat provided fans.

Baseball has been played by millions of people over the past century and a half. The art of hitting was perfected by an oversized guy in off-white, black and orange. Beauty in tragedy. It’s a museum piece.

Will we ever be able to look at the footage of Bonds from these years and marvel at his skill? I hope so. He was astonishing at the plate. His approach was utterly unique—the only slugger ever to choke up on the bat. Hitting a baseball is a craft, and it would be a sin against the game not to encourage young batters to study his technique.

Baseball’s National League is the oldest non-regional professional sports league in the world. The sport of baseball is a great asset for historians, providing a well-documented window all the way back to the early industrial period. Just as the stories and feats of Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and the Cincinnati Red Stockings of the 1860s give us insight into their respective eras—so do Bonds and Clemens. How foolish of us to think we can hide them away. We should look at them as future historians will and learn something about the society of their times.

After the 2004 season, Bonds’ bubble burst. Only 53 home runs away from breaking the all-time record, he spent almost the entire 2005 season on the sidelines with a severe knee injury that required multiple surgeries.

Then, before the 2006 season began, two reporters from his hometown paper published explosive incriminating evidence (collected in their book “Game of Shadows”) claiming to document his use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs. Although it smacked of selective justice, the authors were finally doing what had needed to be done for some time: serious investigative journalism.

Still, a bad taste lingered in the mouth, as an African-American star became the target of an unprecedented witch hunt that a white star like McGwire never had to face. Quickly, Bonds became as unpopular as O.J. Simpson. The national press piled on a player who it believed never showed adequate respect. It seemed an old story: a surly white star was dubbed a competitor; a prickly black guy was public enemy No. 1.

Bonds’ unpopularity with the press and his race were likely contributing factors as to why he was singled out and so unrelentingly investigated. Of course it didn’t hurt that he was also close to breaking perhaps the best-known record in baseball. Still, the chorus of hatred that descended upon him played a role in ending the steroid fueled long-ball era.

Bonds held center stage like never before during his final two seasons, as he proceeded to catch and surpass Aaron’s home run record. American sports had never seen anything like it. Bonds was met with an avalanche of boos in every ballpark outside of San Francisco, where he was embraced by an equally fervent love (Bonds is correctly viewed as the man who saved baseball in San Francisco, as the Giants would likely have departed if not for his return to his father’s team in 1994—a tale that would have been pulling on the heartstrings of every American were it true of someone other than Barry).

The circus surrounding Bonds was surreal, and miraculously in the midst of the chaos he maintained his concentration. His detractors cited his decline from a few years earlier, and conveniently neglected that he was producing by far the greatest pair of seasons ever by a batter over 40. They also failed to acknowledge that he was now certainly steroid free. In 2007, at the age of 43, Bonds led the National League in slugging percentage and on-base percentage, which, by that time (thanks to SABRmetrics) was recognized as the best and simplest way to assess productivity. His output would have, undoubtedly, been even greater had he been able to skip playing left field on his tired legs and been afforded the opportunity to perform as a designated hitter in the American League. But no one signed Bonds the following year. It was as absurd as it was predictable: Any other player producing at that level would have been signed for a couple of more years. He ended his career effectively blacklisted.

Does Bonds deserve to be fully excused for his role in the steroid era? No. If we assume he took steroids, then it’s clear that his two most celebrated entries in the record book, most home runs in a season and in a career, wouldn’t be there. So, these achievements have to be placed in proper context.

SABRmetricians will put players into context, but for a different reason, in order to compare them across generations. Bill James argues the best way to do this is to assess them against their peers, seeing which of the greats has the largest gap over his contemporaries. By that standard, Bonds will always rank near the top of the greatest players ever. But Bonds’ story is about more than numbers.

That is where the Hall of Fame comes in. Bonds should be inducted, but the museum there should also make him a prominent part of a special display where there’s no glory in being the focus of attention.

Indeed, I can’t think of any better service the Hall of Fame could do for the ongoing welfare of the game than to establish a permanent major exhibit on baseball’s steroid era. Cooperstown is a fun place, but it is also home to some serious work by historians. Thus, this new exhibition should go along with a research project that not only produces a responsible chronicle of the era, but also tracks the current use of steroids in sports as well as the latest research into the dangers of performance enhancing drugs. It’s a tremendous opportunity for a hallowed institution to perform a serious social service, provide insight where the mainstream sports press fails to and help protect baseball’s future.

At the end of his career, Bonds faced an unprecedented, multimillion dollar federal investigation, which left him without the familiar, albeit maudlin, path for seeking mercy in which the disgraced athlete comes (partially) clean and asks the public for forgiveness. This option was basically taken off the table for Bonds (and for Clemens), since he’s tied in knots by perjury and obstruction of justice charges.

That these high-profile cases might engender some broader soul searching never gains momentum. And yet can anyone really challenge the notion that baseball’s steroids era is not just a few bad apples, but rather one episode in an endless string of episodes befitting a society willing to sacrifice the welfare of individuals, the integrity of supposedly sacred institutions, even the virtues of fairness and decency—all in pursuit of short-term gain? Nope. Safer not to go there.

Is it overreaching to claim such significance for the fate of a bunch of ballplayers? You would be a fool to think so. Sports provides a platform on which many Americans debate the meaning of life. What is right and what is wrong is determined in heated exchanges on talk radio, in bars, and on couches in dens and living rooms across the land. It is fact, not hyperbole, that every top tier football, basketball and baseball game (there are thousands) receives much more scrutiny than almost any congressional bill.

Much like the celebrity gossip that also dominates mass media dialogues, sports are a privileged sphere where people wrestle with ethical questions. However, even in the potentially democratizing era of Twitter, sports discourse remains overwhelmingly determined by dominant voices in pre-Internet media (TV and print)—no doubt in part because sports feeds off of live spectacles that require billion dollar infrastructures. Even more than in the show business realm where a blogger like Perez Hilton can, to a degree, be an agenda setter, the consensus on every sports controversy never remotely challenges the established code, let alone the money behind the curtain.

Talk about a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” How else can so much have been said about the worrisome state of baseball and yet an unethical mediocrity like Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig, willing to declare the sport thriving while overseeing two of its greatest infamies (the 1994 strike and steroids), manages to rule the national pastime unchallenged for more than two decades?

There’s no denying that spectacle sports have a grip on the imagination of hundreds of millions of Americans, that sports are a huge slice of our shared culture, and everyone who remotely cares harbors heartfelt opinions on them. The changes that occur in sports resonate. Sure, they largely reflect the trends and trajectories of the broader society, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility that sports can occasionally invert that relationship and convey alternatives.

Baseball remains in crisis after the steroid era. Only the Red Sox breaking of the curse of the Bambino rivals the McGwire-Sosa-Bonds episodes as memorable recent history. Television viewership is down, as is passion for the game. The only possible way for the sport to recapture the heart of the country is for it to embrace a return to human scale.

Baseball’s great charm is that it’s a democratic sport. All the players get their turn in the spotlight. Even more significantly for the current crisis, unlike basketball and football, anyone with a conventional physique has a chance to excel—no need to be sky high or massive. It shares this trait with the most popular sport in the world, soccer. However, in contrast to soccer, which is prospering tremendously as a 21st century spectacle, baseball is mired in a slump.

As is often the case with the national pastime, its circumstance parallels the general state of things. For the first 15 years of the post-Cold War era, during which two massive financial bubbles defined the American economy, baseball was in the steroids boom. The beneficiaries of that time, in both cases, were the titans—especially the cheaters among them. Now, as with the economy, the game must find a way to once again be for everyone.

The barriers in both cases are significant. It is no secret among the general population that the small minority that prospered wildly during the bubbles remains the current beneficiaries of the economic order, while average households struggle mightily to make ends meet. It also is no secret that the 1 percent’s wealth comes largely from investments that revolve around transnational capital, such that contemporary wealth generation no longer benefits the general population in the manner it did through all previous eras in American history. In this regard, the greatest political economic issue of our day is whether American society can possibly be reorganized so that once again it’s working for the large body of the American people.
As for the sport itself, the challenge ahead is also difficult. A pastoral relic from the early years of the Industrial Revolution, baseball was not designed to maximize easy thrills. The bigger, faster, stronger steroid era understandably attracted new fans, because it was a variation of baseball that fit in the hyperactive world of 21st century spectacle—baseball for millennials. But the ad saturated world that this generation was born into is now burning up. Can a game that is slower, more human and in sync with nature capture our imaginations?

One thing is certain: For baseball to reclaim its place as a cherished American institution, reflective of society’s striving for democracy, it must retrench with a full-fledged commitment to fairness. In my opinion, that means a zero tolerance policy for steroid use, implemented with the same cut-and-dried clarity as the prohibition on gambling.You can sense the American public turning back to middle-class, democratic values, even as the moneyed interests resist. The people of the country, and the world, just may be ready again to embrace a summer game played by young men in whom they can see their own reflections. To get there, baseball has to have an honest confrontation with its recent past to recognize the still active forces that led it so far astray.

One of the common responses to both Bonds and Clemens is to shrug and say “it’s a shame, they were so great already, they would have made the hall if they never touched the stuff.” Bonds, they say, would have been baseball’s first 500-500 man. Knowledgeable fans would have known to include him in any discussion of the greatest ever. Instead, we have Bonds as the least lovable member of the fraternity of baseball villains, never to be redeemed by sentimental Americana like Shoeless Joe in “Field of Dreams.”

Contemporary American mass media culture seems incapable of processing a complex saga such as that of Bonds or Clemens. Instead, a painless airbrushing of history occurs and nothing is learned. When faced with the tale, people are asked to deflect the tragedy there. Tragedy, one of the most brilliant forms of world literature, makes emotional demands on the audience beyond anything our mainstream institutions can countenance. Tragedy teaches difficult, painful lessons. That doesn’t market test very well these days.

Baseball, as former Commissioner Bart Giamatti used to say, is “designed to break your heart,” beginning each year with the hope of spring and abandoning you in the icy grip of fall. Giamatti was a Red Sox fan. Any fool outside of New York City could tell you the Yankees were hated, and no teams are more loved than the lowly Cubs and the BoSox. Generations of Midwesterners and New Englanders learned painful lessons from the very human failings of their heroes. In the steroids era, it’s the national pastime itself that collapsed. So, what lessons will the nation learn? Or will it choose to feel no pain? Can baseball prosper without an honest confrontation? Can America?

Alan Minsky is a Truthdig contributor and the author of two books on baseball: “Home Run Kings” and “A Game for All Races.” Meleiza Figueroa provided research assistance.

 

Leave a comment