Before I read Sports Illustrated’s recently published excerpt from Game of Shadows, the new book about Barry Bonds and performance-enhancing substances, I thought the soon-to-be Home Run King was a supremely talented, utterly self-absorbed, clubhouse-cancer-causing jerk.
Now I think he’s a talented, self-absorbed, carcinogenic jerk I can empathize with.
In minute, thoroughly researched detail, Game of Shadows chronicles how, through his trainer, Bonds morphed into a muscular Michelin man through an unnatural progression of steroids and human growth hormone. It tells of his almost laughable grand jury testimony in which the slugger claimed that, despite evidence showing records of injections by his trainer, he had no idea what he was putting into his body. But, most interestingly, the book tells us why Barry did it.
In 1997, Bonds watched enviously as two players with less talent, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, broke Roger Maris’ 36-year-old home run record. The two were credited with almost double-handedly saving baseball, which had languished in popularity after interminable labor disputes. If people noticed that McGwire and Sosa had swollen into ball-crushing behemoths, no one seemed to care.
Baseball’s rulers, grateful that the game finally seemed to matter again to fans, certainly didn’t care. Unlike other sports, they didn’t test players for steroids. As long as hitters were compiling gaudy statistics, Bud Selig and his brain trust were happy to follow a tacit policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Against that backdrop, Bonds would have been a dope to miss the sign that Commissioner Bud was flashing. And Bonds is no dope. The sign read (more or less): “Being a five-tool player is nice, but if you want to be a superstar, you must hit home runs prodigiously. Do what you must to become a home run hitter, and we won’t be particular about how you get there.”
As the book tells it, Bonds followed the sign to a tee. To his already fanatical weight-lifting regimen, he and his trainer added a pharmacological one. Bonds, the authors say, even went beyond the recommended dosages and frequencies for his drugs and literally turned himself into a superhuman.
But there was a crucial difference between Bonds and McGwire and Sosa. When Barry shattered their single-season home run marks, he found scant fan excitement outside of San Francisco. Even though many anointed him as history’s greatest hitter, Bonds did not receive a hero’s welcome.
In fact, Selig began dreading the prospect of performing the official congratulatory honors if Bonds surpasses Hank Aaron’s career home run mark, which for Barry is less than 50 big flies away. When Bonds turned up injured last year and hinted that he might retire, you could almost hear the sigh of relief from the commissioner’s office.
Perhaps we regard Bonds differently because, unlike Sammy and Mark, he comes off as utterly selfish. Maybe it’s because hitting more than 60 homers a season has become so routine that Bonds’ record no longer means much to us. But more than anything, I suspect, it’s because we know in our hearts that they all cheated—Bonds and Sosa and Mark and the lot of them—and we’re out of the denial phase, the “say it ain’t so, Joe” phase, and into the quiet recognition that we’ve been suckered by a lie.
Just when we should have been gearing up for a celebration, the way we did when Aaron got close to 714, we saw Jose Canseco’s tell-all book about steroids. We saw Rafael Palmeiro test positive after lying to Congress. We heard a denial from McGwire so lame and weaselly that he could be a natural in politics. Once steroid testing started, we saw Sosa’s power fade so dramatically that no team would have him.
Maybe in the end we weren’t shocked enough to boil with anger, but we were disaffected enough to do a slow burn. We began to realize just how much damage the steroid injectors had done. Part of baseball’s enduring appeal is that its statistics remain relevant from one generation to the next. Steroids have skewed the statistics. Can any of baseball’s marks from the past 10 years be trusted?
Bonds bears the brunt of our diverted disaffection because, like Pete Rose, he stubbornly won’t admit a truth that we all know. But after reading his story, I put even more blame on the steroid users who came before him, especially those we lionized.
Some say we should place asterisks in the record books when noting the now tainted accomplishments of this era. I have a different idea. Expunge from the record book altogether the names of anyone shown to have used performance-enhancing substances. It’s a heavy and appropriate price, and yet it lets one of the guiltiest go free. Barry and Jose and Mark and Raffy and Sammy and the rest allegedly walked through a door that someone left wide open for them—someone who didn’t care enough to impose rules for testing and penalties that might have saved the game’s integrity from steroids.
Joe Jackson became the scapegoat for gambling on the World Series instead of owner Charlie Comiskey, without whose greed and broken promises the fix of 1919 would not have happened. Bonds may become the symbolic scapegoat, too. I hope not. I hope history will show that the man most responsible for the most shameful baseball scandal since Shoeless Joe was Clueless Bud.
How It Looks From the La-Z-Boy
Before Thomas Jefferson appropriated them for the Declaration of Independence, George Mason of Virginia penned the words that all men are created equal. Now the basketball team at the university named for Mason seems to have taken those words to heart.
In the span of little over a week, the poorly regarded Patriots—one of the last teams admitted to the NCAA dance—smacked Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut. They became only the second 11th seed to reach the Final Four, and perhaps the most unlikely survivor since Penn in 1979 or Providence in 1987. In the process, they symbolically struck a blow for all the little guys against the power conferences, who always whine that more of their well-financed teams should comprise the field of 64.
Can they possibly beat two more corporate programs this weekend and claim it all? I sure hope so. With all due respect to fans of Florida, LSU and UCLA, George Mason is the American team at Lake Placid. Y’all are the Russians. I’m rooting for the Patriots.
LSU over UCLAGeorge Mason over Florida Championship: George Mason over LSU. Why not?