Barry Bonds and the Steroid Era: Revisited With Fresh Eyes
Last night, after I put my son to bed I sat down on my couch with a beer and my dog and began watching The Tenth Inning, the sequel to Ken Burns's Baseball.
A quick review is that the documentary is fantastic, and if you haven't seen it yet, find out what channel you're local PBS is on and check it out.
There was a lovely segment on my Red Sox finally winning the World Series (after 88 years) in 2004, but the segment that really caught my attention was on Barry Bonds' chase of Hammerin' Hank Aaron's career home run record.
We all now know about baseball's dirty little secret, the Steroid Era, and we know who most of the culprits were.
But of course, during the early days of the witch hunt, there was really only one name in baseball synonymous with steroids, and that was Barry Bonds.
Like I've said, we now know it went much deeper than just Bonds, but it was Bonds who reached for the sun.
Bonds was very much like Icarus, and flew too close, so of course he got burned.
During this era of baseball (which some people like to label a dark time), I was very much on the fence of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).
Being a former high school ball player, I knew just how difficult it was to hit a baseball. No matter how big and strong you were, if you didn't have the hand-eye coordination or the right swing, you weren't going to hit the ball out of the infield.
Of course that argument falls on deaf ears when it comes to baseball purists.
You know the type, whether they're at the game or at home they're keeping score on their own score card. You can mention any obscure player or statistic, and they'll tell you the history of it.
To these folk, PEDs are the ultimate sin.
These were the sports writers who were at Bonds' locker after every game asking the same question, "Did you use steroids?"
And as soon as the Balco story broke, they were like bloodhounds after a fox in the English country side.
With each home run Bonds drew one more step closer to the immortal Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, and everyone (except Giants fans) seem to hate him for it.
He would receive racist and threatening mail on a daily basis, as well as the most venomous slanders while playing the field at visiting stadiums.
He even commented on Dodger Stadium, claiming to love playing there, and that one must be really good for 56,000 people to shout "you suck."
Barry laughed as he said all this, but you could see it in his eyes that he didn't like any of it.
From his early days with the Pittsburgh Pirates, all the way to the end of his career in 2007 with the Giants, he was always a quiet player, that some labeled as surly and unfriendly with the media, and often he was.
But even when he would go on tangents and claim he didn't care what people thought of him, you could hear in his voice that he did. You could tell that he wanted to be liked much like his godfather Willie Mays, but didn't know how to do it.
And once the Balco scandal broke, he had no chance of ever becoming that type of player.
The scrutiny of Bonds became so great that once he was approaching Hank Aaron's record, Hammerin' Hank said he wouldn't attend the possible record-breaking games, and commissioner Bud Selig said he wasn't sure if he'd be there—and he wasn't.
Regardless of what baseball and its purist wanted, it was going to happen.
And unlike Mark McGwire's and Sammy Sosa's chase for Roger Maris' single-season record, which is also now held by Bonds, there was almost no fanfare.
Unless you lived in San Fransisco, you didn't care.
Fathers weren't waking their sons out of bed to witness history, and unlike other memorable sports moments, most people can't tell you where they were when it happened. I know I can't. Much like Arbor Day, it came and went and no one really noticed.
As I continued watching this account, three years removed, I couldn't help but feel sympathy for Bonds.
Every question from every reporter seemed like an attack on the man. Maybe he deserved it for using PEDs, but at the same time I can't help but wonder if Bonds was just some middle infielder not chasing Ruth and Aaron would he be getting this treatment?
Or, if he were a more lovable player with the attitude of say a Cal Ripken Jr. or Ken Griffey Jr., even with the Balco scandal, would he still be getting such flack?
Honestly, I think no.
Bonds was the perfect personification of what people didn't like about the steroid era of baseball.
Bonds kept to himself and would often become testy with reporters, especially after a loss, and he just made it easy to root against him. I dare think had he not been such a talented baseball player, he could have made a great career as a heel in pro wrestling.
Now that we seem to be on the upswing from the steroid era (only Jose Bautista has hit more that 50 home runs this season) I look on that era with a fresh view.
Baseball, more so than any other American sport, is forever changing.
Since Babe Ruth has played there has been several increases in the number of games played per season, there are West Coast teams now, night games, black, Latino, and Japanese players are now in the game, there have been advances in the way players train, and advances in equipment.
Every single one of those things listed have enhanced the game, and have made it more entertaining to watch.
And isn't that what baseball, and all sports for that matter, are? Entertainment?
Until all of the grand juries and Congressional hearings, I didn't hear Bud Selig complain about attendance or all the revenue made by all of the juiced home runs being hit.
In fact, the fans weren't even complaining.
There are those of us out there who are entertained by a pitching duel, but the vast majority of people out there want to see the long ball.
They want to see players like McGwire and Bonds hit the ball impossibly high and far, they want to see guys hit 50-60 home runs a year and they might pretend they care about steroids, but they honestly don't.
So what is it that I'm saying?
Are steroids good for baseball?
If you want to talk from a monetary and entertainment stand point, then probably. The more excitement and the more home runs people see, the more the casual observer is likely to come out to the ballpark.
But if you want to keep the game pure (as if it ever was once money got involved), then probably not.
But then again was baseball ever really pure?
Even in the Golden Era, you had gambling scandals like the Black Sox, one of the all-time greatest hitters, Ty Cobb, was a foul-mouthed racist who purposely sharpened his spikes and cleated players.
You had a league that purposely kept black players out, and Saint Ruth was also a womanizing, beer-swilling buffoon, that was more like Kenny Powers, than the lovable big man we make him out to be in all those black and white reels.
So, the steroid era seems like a black-eye in baseball now, but like all other eras when we're so many years removed from it, we'll forget about all that bad stuff and romanticize about good stuff that happened.
Like the 2004 Red Sox's unbelievable comeback over the Yankees, the amazing run by the Colorado Rookies to the 2007 World Series, the farewell of maybe baseball's greatest player Ken Griffey Jr.
Those are the things that will be remembered 20 years down the road, not the scandals.
Take steroids for what they are. You either care or you don't, me I'll admit I loved seeing all those balls fly out of the park, tradition or no tradition, it was fun to watch.
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