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Barry Bonds was a champion in two sports: baseball and steroid abuse. But does the easy label of “cheater” do the man justice?
Let me tell you something. In the century and a half of organised baseball, the only player to reap 400 home runs and 400 stolen bases is Barry Bonds. Normative baseball yore gives you either power or speed, and never the twain shall meet, but Bonds refuted this logic. The mind, even an enlightened one, immediately slips to the dismissive suffix of “steroids”, but that unique achievement occurred prior to the opinion splitting, performance-enhancing-drug-abetted Godzilla that Bonds would come to be – and would come to forever be known.
So did Barry Bonds tear down his own legacy?
To some, he was a maverick; to others, a truculent child. Prior to his PED abuse, he was already a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame. Three MVP’s, eight Golden Gloves. So, why?
At the centre of the maze labelled “Barry” is the quest for general acceptance. He sought this in Pittsburgh, when he played second fiddle to teammates of lesser caliber who were lauded above him. With the infamous single season home run chase of 1998 – when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa competed both in chemists and the ability to squack balls over the fence, whilst carrying the United States in rampant, beautiful naïveté to chase down Roger Maris’ single season home run record – Barry was ignored.
So, to prove himself in the public eye, Barry Bonds became his antagonists, to beat his antagonists (read: roided up home run hitters – Ed). He stepped into a phone booth, and zap: come the start of the 1999 season, he emerged with a new mindset. And a new body. Following the four months off, the old Barry was dead; if the public wants home runs, they’ll get home runs, and thusly, Barry Bonds was going to show them how it’s done, properly.
The decision he made not only cost him his history (now ineligible for the HOF) but baseball history’s too. Bonds was rewriting it, carving away at the marbled halls of ancient names, to his own across them.
Gazing solely upon his crimes and what has been lost causes one to overlook his motivations. He did it because we pushed him to it. The audience wanted more, so, he gave it to us. His main crime is taking it too far.
For a bit of context, baseball and the establishment who run it, are vanguards of history. Change comes slow – bitterly slow – and thusly when a beloved record is broken, the baseball world reacts negatively. Two previous examples of this circle around Babe Ruth, and those who eclipsed his treasured records.
In 1960, Roger Maris chased down Ruth’s record for the amount of home runs hit in a single season, wading through a sea of journalistic ire and popular attention riding high above the baseline of subtextual cynicism. Maris, hair falling out, last nerves stepped upon, lashed his historic bomb over the right-field fence in a move which should have carried him past Ruth, and into immortality. But who do you remember more: Babe Ruth or Roger Maris? It’s not a white washing of history, but it’s more of a misdirection of the spotlight.
The other, more vicious example was in Henry “Hank” Aaron’s pursuit of Ruth’s all-time record of 714, which he eclipsed on an electric, balmy night in Atlanta – but not before he was bound to his house for six months, amid a sea of press interference and the thousandfold anonymous racist letters delivered to his home, advising, amongst other things, that (and I’m simplifying this horrendously…) his skin made him ineligible. Aaron, earnestly classy all the way, lifted above such crushing abuse to finish with 755.
The point being, with great accomplishment, comes great schism, a grating acceptance which, through the passage of time, transmutes the hate into love.
Such is yet to be seen with Bonds, and I’m unsure it ever will.
In the marked year of 2001, Bonds eclipsed the record set in 1998 by the aforementioned McGwire, notching 73, Bonds finally striving to his desired (and in his mind, entirely legitimate) place in the public eye as the baseball messiah. In the face of the horrors of 9/11, the love was momentarily Bonds’. However, as the wounds from 9/11 started to heal and military might overseas replaced baseball as the national salve, the tryst with Bonds started to sober in morning light. Again, he found himself playing a familiar role. The bad guy.
Nevertheless, Bonds continued to chase his goal. The next target was Aaron’s lifetime home run number of 755. However, standing between him and that was the federal grand jury. Embroiled in the 2003 investigation of BALCO, a company accused of supplying notable athletes anabolic steroids (including Marion Jones), he perfervidly denied the charges and kept on hitting.
What followed was the most cynical, turgid and numb celebration of anything seen in sport. The march to unwanted history. When that important ball sailed over the fence in 2006, lost in a rolling sea of noise and furious action, the deed was done. A record fell, and a hero was immortalised, congratulations passed through constricted lips; number 756 would forever be remembered via a doleful shake of the head.
The general dismissal of Bonds’ achievement was best evidenced by the congratulations of the man he surpassed, Hank Aaron, who chose to make himself unavailable to congratulate Barry firsthand, instead leaving pre-recorded well-wishes.
Thusly, we come to 2016. The spectre of Bonds looms large, shadowing over the orange stereotype that is the springtime game. While time has passed, it has also stood still, as the consensus remains steadfast: Barry Bonds is a cheater.
When Dee Gordon was this year banned for PED use, the sabre of accusation was again swung toward Bonds. Why? Because Bonds is the hitting coach for the team Gordon plays for, the Miami Marlins, ergo Bonds must have sorted him the ‘roids hookup. Once a cheat…
The avarice is best felt through the actions of the establishment. In this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, Bonds polled a paltry 44 percent (incidentally, fellow PED antagonists Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa polled 12.3 percent and seven percent, respectively). Given the man’s achievements before, and too during the PED era, that is a deliberate backhand with a rotting carp.
Yes, Barry cheated, but he cheated better than everyone else. But that is classic Barry. He answers solely to Barry. Gazing solely upon his crimes and what has been lost causes one to overlook his motivations. He did it because we pushed him to it. The audience wanted more, so, he gave it to us.
His main crime is taking it too far.
He merely used the prevailing winds of the day to cast his clipper beyond everyone else. It is for charting the seas that no-one else dared, that he will forever be the exiled king of the home run.