One of the saddest days for baseball purists will occur early in this upcoming season, to be followed by a second, even sadder, day later this year or early next season.
In the first, San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds, who has allegedly been cheating for years by taking massive amounts of performance-enhancing steroids, will hit his 715th home run to surpass the number achieved by Babe Ruth. And, in the second, he will cross home plate after his 756th round-tripper, beating out current home-run king Hank Aaron.
Bonds enters this season with 708 career home runs, including a single-season record 73 in 2001. Eclipsing Ruth is inevitable and will come quickly, and only a career-ending injury will prevent him from leaving Aaron in the dust.
Details of Bonds’s alleged steroid use are outlined in the soon-to-be-published book, Game of Shadows by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, excerpts of which have been printed in Sports Illustrated. The writers lay out a convincing case that Bonds turned himself into a home-run machine using a sophisticated doping regimen that involved taking drugs through pills, injections, drops under his tongue, and skin creams.
They maintain that Bonds was jealous of the attention showered on St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire when he hit a then-record 70 homers in 1998. Convinced that McGwire was using steroids while baseball turned a blind eye, Bonds is reported to have said, “They’re just letting him do it because he’s a white boy.”
Although the great national pastime has been short on heroes for years, save for Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles and a few others, Bonds’s ascension to the home-run heights is particularly distasteful. He has long been one of the surliest, most obnoxious athletes in professional sports, foul-mouthed, childish, and arrogant. He’s also a poor winner, constantly rubbing opposing pitchers’ faces in it by standing still at home plate and admiring each home-run ball as it sails over the fence.
And he’s no prince off the field. Game of Shadows quotes his mistress, Kimberly Bell, as saying she began saving her voicemail messages from Bonds after he threatened her life. She says that on one occasion when she was late meeting him for a tryst at a hotel he put his hands around her throat, put her against a wall and said, “If you ever (expletive) pull some (expletive) like that again I’ll kill you. Do you understand me?”
Will he pay a price for the credible cheating charges that have been made against him? Probably not. Bonds has proven to be the Bill Clinton of baseball, portraying himself as the victim of those out to get him and refusing to take responsibility for his actions. And, at least up until now, the Teflon coating has held firm.
I predict that, when Bonds becomes the all-time home-run champion, there will be no asterisk beside his name in the record book because of probable cheating. He will not be prevented from entering the Baseball Hall of Fame. And, when the Giants make their first appearance before a home crowd this season, Bonds will be greeted by a standing ovation.
We no longer live in the “Say it ain’t so, Joe” era of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and the Black Sox World Series scandal of 1919. We live in an era of, “So what? Everybody does it.”
Like Clinton, Bonds has had his enablers. Authors Fainaru-Wada and Williams report that Giants’s management ignored blatant signs of drug use, including Bonds’s association with a trainer known to be a dealer, so as not to upset their star player. Also ignored was Bonds’s working out at a gym known as a venue where steroids were readily available.
Former Giants manager Dusty Baker, long considered one of baseball’s good guys, says he noticed the physical changes in Bonds but didn’t pursue it. “I’m not a detective. What are you going to do as a manager?” Baker said. Hey, Dusty, when a guy with an average build suddenly starts looking like the Incredible Hulk, maybe you could ask, “Are you on steroids?”
Any observer would have had to be blind not to realize that Bonds was probably benefiting from something other than lifting weights at the gym. Apart from the obvious change in his physical appearance, he’s the only athlete I can think of whose performance actually improved as he got older, rather than tailing off.
If Bonds were just another cheater I wouldn’t be so exercised about the damning charges against him. But what is so galling is that this arrogant jerk, this latest disgrace to the great national pastime, is going into the record book as the greatest home-run hitter of all time. How sad.
–California-based Doug Gamble, a former writer for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, writes for various politicians and corporate executives.