The Mess We've Made

Mike EaganSenior Analyst IApril 25, 2006

IconAnd now for something completely different, an article about Barry Bonds and steroids. While I know there's not much sense in beating a dead horse, much less a very dead and already-pulverized one, there's something that needs to be said:

You are all hypocrites. (Now that I'm on your good side, do read on.)
But don't feel too bad about your hypocrisy folks, because the good news (I guess) is that you are not alone. As the Mitchell Inquisition concludes its first month investigating steroid allegations in baseball, we can be assured of only two things: one, George Mitchell will have another odd job to place on his resume alongside senator, peace-broker, Disney chairman and chimney sweep; and two, there will be no shortage of persons deserving of blame for the steroidization of Our National Pastime.
At the top of everyone's list seems to be B. Lamar Bonds, defiler of all that is holy.  Never a front-runner for baseball's Mr. Congeniality in the first place, Bonds has in the last two months become arguably the most hated American athlete of all time, with the possible exception of that other "Juice" who drove a white Ford Bronco and wore Bruno Magli loafers. The question, of course, is one of cause: how did the greatest player of our generation — a figure who would normally be lauded in ballparks around the country — come to be so utterly reviled by the overwhelming majority of the national sporting public?

For many observers, the answer is simple: "It's the steroids, stupid."  To them, Bonds is a cheater and, like all cheaters, he deserves our unconditional scorn as a matter of principle. Throw out his stats, throw out his records, and for God's sake, keep him out of Cooperstown.

The reaility of the situation, though, is hardly so simple. The facts indicate that baseball's steroid epidemic began long before Bonds even sniffed a syringe, and that drug use within the game has been too rampant in the last decade to attach any single face to the problem. Yet, still it's Bonds — and Bonds alone — who has become America's favorite whipping boy.

To be sure, Bonds is hardly a victim here; he can only blame himself for the position in which he finds himself today. Even if you've deluded yourself into believing that Bonds never ingested anything more than Flintstones Vitamins, you've got to agree that keeping company with steroid distributors is bad policy, no matter who you are and how many home runs you've hit.

Nevertheless, even the guilty can be unfairly scapegoated, and that's exactly what has happened to Bonds. And so the question remains: why him?

Shadows Cast

For one thing, Bonds is the one culprit we know most about. His alleged steroid use was detailed with painstaking thoroughness in Game of Shadows, a book written by two San Francisco Chronicle reporters who have covered the BALCO scandal from its very beginning. No one — not even Bonds's lawyers — has come forth to question the fundamental credibility of their evidence.

As a result, we now know more about Bonds's periodic injections of cow steroids than we'd probably care to. But we don't know a single thing about the habits of any of the other players (compromising over half of the league, by some extreme estimates) who chose the same path.  What gives?
One part of the answer is that the BALCO investigation was centered in the Bay Area, and that the Bonds angle was an easy and obvious approach for two local reporters. Geography may have also played another, more subtle role in the targeting of Bonds, insofar as the populace of San Francisco is characterized more by cultured sports sensibility than rabid fanaticism. It's reasonable to assume that the Chronicle writers enjoyed more leeway in pursuing the story than their colleagues in more diehard fan bases like St. Louis or Chicago would have. McGwire and Sosa might thank their lucky stars one day that they never had the Woodward and Bernstein of BALCO-gate on their tracks.    

Bonds, of course, had no such luck. That said, there would seem to be explanations beyond mere happenstance that explain the groundswell of disgust directed in Barry's direction.

Bonds v. The Media

Barry Bonds is not a nice person. How do we know this? Because for nearly the entirety of his twenty years in the big leagues, the media has told us so. From the early days of his career with the Pirates, Bonds has attracted more or less constant scrutiny. When his brash attitude, unapologetic arrogance, and turbulent domestic life started hitting the sports page, Barry more or less shut himself off from the press, betraying a prejudicial disdain that stemmed from his father's playing days.

The rub is that Bonds never gave the media a chance to treat him like a "normal" superstar and embrace him as a national hero. Again, Bonds — as stubborn as he is — has only himself to blame here. He could have taken the path of the quotable, phony, two-faced media darling (see: Sosa, S.), but he chose not to.  As it stands now, Bonds' obvious character flaws and history of media antagonism have put a target on his back that even Dick Cheney couldn't miss.

So, some argue, there you have it. Cranky star abuses media, media gets the goods  on cranky star, and then media gets what it loves most: sweet, sweet revenge. After all, reporters are people too, prone to the same bias and self-interest as the rest of us. Case closed, right?

Not exactly. The Barry-versus-the-press explanation is far too simplistic. There have always been bad apples in baseball — players with attitudes and egos that didn't exactly jive with consistent media criticism. But even the worst of the rotten fruit (Albert Belle, Kenny Rogers, etc.) failed to attract the kind of vituperative assaults that Bonds is getting from some writers these days, not to mention fans in opposing ballparks. So, again: why is No. 25 such an exclusive target?

The Era

There is one important and ultimately telling reason why Bonds has assumed the role of Public Enemy Number One, a reason that has as much to do with us as it does with Barry. Of all the players — clean or otherwise — who played before, during and after the Steroid Era, he was the best. And it's not even close.

Through most of the 1990s, baseball's most enduring debate centered on whether Bonds or Ken Griffey, Jr. was the best player in the game. As spectacular five-tool athletes, both men defined the "Pre-Steroid" Era. Then came McGwire and Sosa and the summer of 1998, complete with the dramatic pursuit of Roger Maris's single season home run record. Suddenly, the five-tool player was a thing of the past as the muscle-bound slugger became baseball's salvation. And while it would be wrong to say that McGwire and Sosa's performances came out of absolutely nowhere per se, it's difficult to argue that all those long balls were borne of the same God-given talent that Bonds and Griffey possessed.

So when controversy reared its head after Androstendione was spotted in McGwire's locker during the '98 season, we all knew it wasn't really about Andro. Whether we liked it or not, the 'roid-raging elephant was in the room. And this, of course, was when the commissioner, owners, media, and fans decided to stick their heads deep in the sand: "Hmm, maybe the ball is juiced again...yeah, that's the ticket!"

From that point on, anyone who even watched the game of baseball became an enabler of steroid use. Yes, that means you. Fans ate up what baseball dished out — more offense, more homers, more players looking like they could be future governors of California. We all had our lingering suspicions, but for the most part we took what baseball gave us without so much as a second glance. Anyone who claims to be shocked by the revelations of rampant steroid use around the league is either delusional or outright lying.

In the end, the willingness of the media and fans to turn a blind eye to a growing problem succeeded only in encouraging players to shoot up. In the uber-competitive world of professional sports, where careers can end in a matter of seconds, athletes are compelled to maximize their window of peak production. As clean players watched more and more of their colleagues getting scrutiny-free results from steroid use, many decided that their professional livelihoods depended on keeping up with the pack. It was a perverse version of a level playing field, perhaps, but it was undoubtedly exacerbated by the game's culture of naiveté. 
We know which path Bonds chose. Game of Shadows confirms what common sense has suggested all along: Barry couldn't stand to see the likes of McGwire and Sosa co-opting the game's limelight. Ever the confident type, Bonds knew himself to be naturally superior to the chiseled flavors of the month, and he did what he felt he had to do to cement his place in baseball's pantheon of stars. The results? A new single season home run record in 2001, one of the best ever all-around offensive seasons in 2002, and an obscene four year span (2001 through 2004) in which the Big Man hit .349 and averaged 52 homers a season.

Okay Barry, point taken.

The problem, of course, was that the numbers were too good. As record after record fell by the wayside, the attention on Bonds grew to the point of absurdity ("Reporting live from Barry Bonds's jockstrap, Pedro Gomez, ESPN."). Naturally, the interest sparked curiosity over the "how" of Bonds' achievements, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Bottom Line

No one will dispute that the allegations against Bonds raise a host of troubling issues, for the game itself and for Barry's individual legacy.  What's beyond question, though, is the fact that Bonds hardly acted alone during the Steroid Era, and therein lies the problem.  While many argue that the only way to make things right would be to wipe Bonds's records and achievements from the books, that approach only gives rise to a whole host of difficult, resultant questions.
Once you start the process of revisiting Bonds's records, where does it stop — until an entire generation of statistics are revised and re-revised?  Is it equitable to make an example of one man, simply because he had the misfortune of attracting the most attention?  What threshold of evidence would be enough for another player to merit the same punishment?  Are team achievements (for example, the Oakland A's championship during the "Bash Brothers" days of Canseco and McGwire) up for debate?

The last point may seem a bit absurd, but such is nature the slippery slope that the record book-revisionists would have us embark upon.
Another popular notion is barring Bonds from the Hall of Fame on principle alone.  In this way, ultimately, the media may have the last laugh in this sad affair.  But given that many have targeted Bonds so vehemently because of his superhuman talents, it seems hypocritical to deny him what has always been his destiny: a place shoulder-to-shoulder alongside baseball's immortals.
Yes, Barry Bonds is a colossal jerk. Yes, he took performance-enhancing substances, and yes, they helped him hit 73 home runs in 2001 and more than 700 over the course of his career. But to turn the man into a pariah for what he's accomplished is detrimental to everyone ± the fans, the media, and baseball itself — in the long run.

It's time for the American public to come to grips with its own complicity in the Steroid Era. When we pillory Bonds, we deny an inescapable truth: that we're all of us at fault here, for failing to acknowledge and thereby tacitly condoning what we all suspected to be going on in clubhouses around the league.
Baseball — the game and its fans — made a deal with the devil at the end of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, and as Bonds's uncomfortable climb to 755 should remind all of us, the bastard with the hooves and horns has a tendency to collect on old debts.

For better or for worse, it looks like we're going to have to learn how to live with him.