Barry Bonds, Baseball and the Redemption of America
By Alan Minsky
Jan 17, 2013
On Jan. 9, we learned that the two greatest baseball
players of their generation, Barry Bonds and Roger
Clemens, would not be inducted into the baseball Hall
of Fame in their first year of eligibility. Bonds and
Clemens' failure to win enshrinement on the prestigious
"first ballot" has nothing to do with their
achievements, but reflects the dark cloud of suspicion
about their assumed steroid use. It's a telling moment,
not just for the national pastime, but also for our
society at large.
Although many fans understandably wish to enjoy sports
without thinking about politics, economics and social
issues, that's simply not possible for an industry that
commands billions of dollars and the rapt passions of
tens of millions of Americans every day. Indeed, the
Bonds saga speaks directly to matters of justice,
ethics, historical memory, the role of media and
spectacle at the beginning of the 21st century, and, of
course, the priorities of business. As such, this
contemporary tragedy reflects an America that seems
adrift, morally challenged, in decline and with a
profound loss of faith in established institutions.
Contrary to popular opinion, Bonds is not the villain
in this drama. Rather, I see him for what he is: one of
the greatest baseball players of all time, who
performed on the stage provided by the society of his
No one claims that Bonds used steroids before the 1998
season (the summer of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa),
when he may have concluded, with very good reason, that
without taking drugs he was at a competitive
disadvantage. At that juncture, the entire baseball
establishment was embracing two lesser talents,
formerly thin but now ripped like comic book
caricatures, as the game's greatest sluggers and
The Baseball Writers' Association of America was
complicit in that travesty, and its members ought not
punish Bonds and other athletes by denying their
rightful places in the Hall of Fame. They should
instead petition Cooperstown (site of the National
Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum) to build a permanent
high-profile exhibit that openly documents the steroid
era. Anything less would be an injustice to the players
and irresponsible to history and future prospects of
Barry Bonds' career splits neatly into four phases:
First, the early years through 1993, when he
established himself as baseball's premier superstar,
winning an unprecedented three MVPs in four years;
next, the post-strike steroid era (1994-1998), during
which he watched other players catch and even surpass
his level of productivity; third, the years of his
assumed steroid use (1999-2004), in which he strung
together the greatest four-year stretch ever by a
hitter in the history of the game; and, lastly, the
coda to his career (2005-2007) when he faced
unrelenting allegations of steroid use and broke Henry
Aaron's all-time Major League Baseball home run record.
Bonds was an immense talent, hitting for average and
power with blinding speed and exceptional defensive
skills. But he was more than that. He had an uncanny,
disciplined batting eye. Bonds rarely chased pitches
out of the strike zone and accumulated a huge number of
walks. Opposing pitchers dreaded Bonds, who could crush
the ball if you threw him a strike and wreak havoc on
the base paths if you walked him. Every year, Bonds was
one of the leaders in both on-base percentage and
slugging percentage, the two most important indices of
In the 1980s, a group of baseball analysts called
SABRmetricians was coming to prominence. They used
mathematics to determine which hitters were truly the
most productive. By the early '90s, it was clear to
them that Bonds was head and shoulders above his peers.
Bonds did not use steroids early in his career, even
though they were becoming more prominent in the game.
The sluggers on the dynastic Oakland Athletics of the
late '80s and early '90s, the "Bash Brothers," were
allegedly juicing, as were stars on other teams. Still,
steroids didn't entirely distort the game yet as the
most successful teams of the early '90s continued to
prioritize speed as much as power, with Bonds rapidly
surpassing the A's gigantic Jose Canseco as the game's
Then came the 1994 players strike. Suddenly the sport,
which had been prospering through the '80s into the
'90s, was in a traumatic crisis, arguably its greatest
since the 1919 Black Sox betting scandal. Famously,
baseball bounced back stronger than ever in the 1920s
thanks to Babe Ruth's revolutionizing home runs. The
long ball would come to the rescue again, this time
with chemical assistance.
As baseball struggled to regain its popularity through
the mid-'90s, more and more young sluggers emerged,
offensive power numbers increased, and biceps grew
while the game's establishment chose not to notice.
Bonds remained a perennial All-Star. Only Ken Griffey
Jr. approached him as an all-around talent, but Bonds'
home run totals were eclipsed by the new breed of
sluggers. A SABRmetrician would have explained that
Bonds remained the game's best player, but with the
media paying ever more attention to home run totals,
his star seemed to be on the wane. He failed to win an
MVP from 1994 through 1998. Three of the National
League winners in those years are now known (or
strongly suspected) to have been steroid users.
To my ears, the sports media's unquestioning
celebration of Mark and Sammy eerily parallels the
behavior of financial reporters of that era when the
tech bubble was inflating, a performance they would
repeat the following decade with the housing bubble.
Not only did the media fail to uncover the truth in
these instances, they actively cheered the illusion and
the cheating. Why care about a company's inventory?
What matters is its stock value. Who needs a down
payment? Housing equity will continue to increase
indefinitely. McGwire and Sosa were the Ruth and Maris
of our time. American heroes, bigger and growing
stronger. Home runs and markets: The sky's the limit.
The orgy of self-congratulation and willful blindness
that characterized the sports press in 1998 recalls
another familiar trope of contemporary American
media-the patriotic hyperbole of the buildup to war.
The ESPN montages opening "SportsCenter," the constant,
almost erotic replays of Big Mac's latest towering
blast that you couldn't escape from in '98, have their
echo in the computer generated graphics of CNN and Fox
News' promos of the latest "inevitable" war, the
glorious moment when America cranks up its killing
machine to slaughter evil. The eagle soars with the
F-16s, the crowd in a frenzy, Sosa with his lovable
signature gesture, America defending all that's right,
the national pastime saved-no time to question.
Especially not "who benefits?"
Years later, the truth leaks out, long after the real,
almost invisible beneficiaries have pocketed their
gains. Not much is made of the exposure of what was
really going on-it's all brushed under the carpet. Yes,
we know the Bush administration lied and thousands died
for it, but that's all past; and yes we know McGwire
and Sosa were cranked up on `roids. But the fans came
back, the profits soared.
In each such case there were dissenters, challenging
the lie-or, in the case of McGwire-Sosa, bringing
skepticism to bear. But these voices didn't reach the
In 1998, Barry Bonds played in a game in which
significantly inferior players had surpassed him by
effectively cheating. Not only were McGwire and Sosa
showered with public acclaim, but at least for this one
year, they surpassed his offensive productivity. Adding
insult to injury, Bonds' Giants were eliminated by
Sosa's Cubs in a one-game playoff in '98.
Bonds had worked tirelessly his entire career to be the
best player possible; now he was shunning an obvious
way to improve further, one that his rivals were
embracing. We can sit around and tell ourselves that
Bonds should have done the right thing and stayed
clean, as he had until then. But let's be honest: Barry
Bonds was not hired to be a midrange star. He was paid
to be an elite superstar. Anything less was failure.
Bonds had performed at a level above all other players
in the game over the previous decade. Even with the
steroid inflated seasons of his peers, the nation's
leading SABRmetrician, Bill James, not only ranked
Bonds as the best player of the decade after the '99
season, he noted that his performance so towered above
all others that the second-ranked player in the decade,
Craig Biggio, was closer to the 10th best than to
And yet Bonds had to realize what the SABRmetricians'
numbers also showed: Early in the decade, he was head
and shoulders above every other player but in recent
years, steroids had propelled players up to and beyond
his level of offensive production.
Also, Bonds was 34, and likely had only a few more
years left in the game. Bonds didn't have the luxury of
waiting out the tidal wave of cheating to re-emerge as
the game's elite player. Anyway, no one was being
exposed at that time and the number of players using
was growing, as were their stats. But what certainly
was the coup de grace, what sent the message clear as
day, was the canonization of McGwire and Sosa. These
two juicers, with their super-human bodies, were the
toast not just of baseball culture, but all of American
pop culture, transmitted across the globe. Outside of a
few rote platitudes from the commissioner's office when
the question of steroids was meekly raised, all
evidence at the time shouted that this glorification of
the new long-ball era would continue indefinitely. It
was a new day and there was only one way to compete
with the elite.
What happened over the next six years is simple. Barry
Bonds had been roughly 15 to 25 percent more productive
than any other player of his generation in the years
before the steroids epidemic, and he proved he was
similarly 15 to 25 percent better than anyone else in
the brave new world. Of course, 15 to 25 percent better
than juicers such as McGwire, Sosa, American League MVP
Juan Gonzalez and Alex Rodriguez meant performance on a
level beyond anything ever seen in the history of the
Why are sports so popular? The competitions are
thrilling, the athletic performances dazzling, we
witness displays of character and courage, and, these
days, big money sports are state-of-the-art spectacle.
Still, there's another thing, which speaks to our sense
of justice: In an unfair world, sports have rules.
Otherwise, the competition is rotten.
By 1998, baseball no longer had a level playing field.
Indeed, the most heralded players were the most
successful cheaters. A slugger had to accept playing at
a disadvantage or take the dive into steroid use. Ken
Griffey Jr. apparently chose the righteous path. He was
younger than Bonds and within a few years was no longer
his primary competition as the game's best.
The steroids era represents an altogether different
quandary than the issue of gambling. If a player or
manager bets on baseball (especially, but not only when
betting against his own team), the competition is
corrupted. Taking steroids is cheating, since there's
overwhelming evidence that they improve performance
(and since they come with serious health risks, it
would be unethical to accept them as part of a player's
standard training)-thus they also corrupt the game. But
when the use of steroids becomes endemic in the game,
as it had by '98, then the moral culpability of
individual players who start taking steroids after the
use is widespread is much more ambiguous.
When you judge the case of Barry Bonds, as the baseball
writers of America are tasked to do with their Hall of
Fame votes, you are lying to yourself unless you
recognize that by 1998, Bonds-as an established elite
slugger-was playing at a competitive disadvantage.
When, as he is alleged to have done, he hired trainer
Greg Anderson to administer performance enhancing drugs
before the '99 season, he was effectively leveling the
playing field for himself.
The sports press posits a false duality: Do you vote
for Hall of Fame candidates based solely on their on-
field accomplishments, or do you consider character
issues such as accusations of cheating? The answer, of
course, is neither. This either-or approach gets it all
wrong. The only correct answer is that candidates must
be considered in the historical context in which they
performed, with both their achievements and character
assessed in light of that context.
Does Bonds deserve to be in Cooperstown? Yes. He cannot
be blamed for the fallen state of the game. But the
Hall of Fame, as the premier guardian of baseball's
history, has to make clear to its visitors what
happened to the game in the '90s. By 1998, the sport
had been corrupted.
One of the mysteries of the steroid era is why
virtually no one came forward to expose the epidemic.
The fraternity of baseball players is tightknit.
Secrets are kept, and one can only imagine how tough
life would be for a snitch. But near-complete silence
from everyone? Think about it. If you weren't juicing,
you were playing the game by the rules while others
cheated. Still, silence. The sport itself was being
tarnished. Nothing said.
During the '90s, the term "winner-take-all society"
entered common parlance. An astonishing growth in
income disparity occurred across the decade. MLB
players made bank, thanks in large part to their union,
but most had limited prospects off the diamond, and
none in which they could match their baseball salaries.
Who would be willing to risk becoming a pariah,
throwing it all away?
The home run boom was bringing the fans back, and with
them, revenue. The owners weren't going to burst that
bubble, and now the commissioner himself was an owner
(of the Brewers).
At the same time that baseball was recovering from the
post-strike slump, traditional media faced
unprecedented competition and an increase in corporate
ownership and conglomeration, with an emphasis on
showing a profit. Economic insecurity breeds
conformity. The public ate up stories about baseball's
resurgence and the home run chase, and sports
journalists were happy to provide the feel good
coverage of the steroid era. A similar phenomenon
happened when the tide turned and stories of heroism
were replaced with stories of scandal, the public still
reading and watching and clicking with rapt attention.
Thus the same people who failed to expose-and, in fact,
helped fuel-the steroid boom in baseball have now
hypocritically staked out the high ground, voting down
Bonds and Clemens and the lesser stars they made
How should baseball historians, including journalists,
treat Bonds' record-smashing seasons from 2001 through
2004? My suggestion is to put them in their proper
historical context and accept what they were: the
greatest offensive display in the history of the game.
Day in, day out, Bonds was nothing short of awesome.
Ted Williams and Babe Ruth, the two sluggers
SABRmetricians would hold up as the greatest before
Bonds, never had a comparable run.
Of course, citing numbers doesn't do justice to the raw
power, the disciplined finesse, of Bonds in the
batter's box, and the thrill his every at-bat provided
Baseball has been played by millions of people over the
past century and a half. The art of hitting was
perfected by an oversized guy in off-white, black and
orange. Beauty in tragedy. It's a museum piece.
Will we ever be able to look at the footage of Bonds
from these years and marvel at his skill? I hope so. He
was astonishing at the plate. His approach was utterly
unique-the only slugger ever to choke up on the bat.
Hitting a baseball is a craft, and it would be a sin
against the game not to encourage young batters to
study his technique.
Baseball's National League is the oldest non-regional
professional sports league in the world. The sport of
baseball is a great asset for historians, providing a
well-documented window all the way back to the early
industrial period. Just as the stories and feats of
Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and the Cincinnati Red
Stockings of the 1860s give us insight into their
respective eras-so do Bonds and Clemens. How foolish of
us to think we can hide them away. We should look at
them as future historians will and learn something
about the society of their times.
After the 2004 season, Bonds' bubble burst. Only 53
home runs away from breaking the all-time record, he
spent almost the entire 2005 season on the sidelines
with a severe knee injury that required multiple
Then, before the 2006 season began, two reporters from
his hometown paper published explosive incriminating
evidence (collected in their book "Game of Shadows")
claiming to document his use of steroids and other
performance enhancing drugs. Although it smacked of
selective justice, the authors were finally doing what
had needed to be done for some time: serious
Still, a bad taste lingered in the mouth, as an
African-American star became the target of an
unprecedented witch hunt that a white star like McGwire
never had to face. Quickly, Bonds became as unpopular
as O.J. Simpson. The national press piled on a player
who it believed never showed adequate respect. It
seemed an old story: a surly white star was dubbed a
competitor; a prickly black guy was public enemy No. 1.
Bonds' unpopularity with the press and his race were
likely contributing factors as to why he was singled
out and so unrelentingly investigated. Of course it
didn't hurt that he was also close to breaking perhaps
the best-known record in baseball. Still, the chorus of
hatred that descended upon him played a role in ending
the steroid fueled long-ball era.
Bonds held center stage like never before during his
final two seasons, as he proceeded to catch and surpass
Aaron's home run record. American sports had never seen
anything like it. Bonds was met with an avalanche of
boos in every ballpark outside of San Francisco, where
he was embraced by an equally fervent love (Bonds is
correctly viewed as the man who saved baseball in San
Francisco, as the Giants would likely have departed if
not for his return to his father's team in 1994--a tale
that would have been pulling on the heartstrings of
every American were it true of someone other than
The circus surrounding Bonds was surreal, and
miraculously in the midst of the chaos he maintained
his concentration. His detractors cited his decline
from a few years earlier, and conveniently neglected
that he was producing by far the greatest pair of
seasons ever by a batter over 40. They also failed to
acknowledge that he was now certainly steroid free. In
2007, at the age of 43, Bonds led the National League
in slugging percentage and on-base percentage, which,
by that time (thanks to SABRmetrics) was recognized as
the best and simplest way to assess productivity. His
output would have, undoubtedly, been even greater had
he been able to skip playing left field on his tired
legs and been afforded the opportunity to perform as a
designated hitter in the American League. But no one
signed Bonds the following year. It was as absurd as it
was predictable: Any other player producing at that
level would have been signed for a couple of more
years. He ended his career effectively blacklisted.
Does Bonds deserve to be fully excused for his role in
the steroid era? No. If we assume he took steroids,
then it's clear that his two most celebrated entries in
the record book, most home runs in a season and in a
career, wouldn't be there. So, these achievements have
to be placed in proper context.
SABRmetricians will put players into context, but for a
different reason, in order to compare them across
generations. Bill James argues the best way to do this
is to assess them against their peers, seeing which of
the greats has the largest gap over his contemporaries.
By that standard, Bonds will always rank near the top
of the greatest players ever. But Bonds' story is about
more than numbers.
That is where the Hall of Fame comes in. Bonds should
be inducted, but the museum there should also make him
a prominent part of a special display where there's no
glory in being the focus of attention.
Indeed, I can't think of any better service the Hall of
Fame could do for the ongoing welfare of the game than
to establish a permanent major exhibit on baseball's
steroid era. Cooperstown is a fun place, but it is also
home to some serious work by historians. Thus, this new
exhibition should go along with a research project that
not only produces a responsible chronicle of the era,
but also tracks the current use of steroids in sports
as well as the latest research into the dangers of
performance enhancing drugs. It's a tremendous
opportunity for a hallowed institution to perform a
serious social service, provide insight where the
mainstream sports press fails to and help protect
At the end of his career, Bonds faced an unprecedented,
multimillion dollar federal investigation, which left
him without the familiar, albeit maudlin, path for
seeking mercy in which the disgraced athlete comes
(partially) clean and asks the public for forgiveness.
This option was basically taken off the table for Bonds
(and for Clemens), since he's tied in knots by perjury
and obstruction of justice charges.
That these high-profile cases might engender some
broader soul searching never gains momentum. And yet
can anyone really challenge the notion that baseball's
steroids era is not just a few bad apples, but rather
one episode in an endless string of episodes befitting
a society willing to sacrifice the welfare of
individuals, the integrity of supposedly sacred
institutions, even the virtues of fairness and
decency-all in pursuit of short-term gain? Nope. Safer
not to go there.
Is it overreaching to claim such significance for the
fate of a bunch of ballplayers? You would be a fool to
think so. Sports provides a platform on which many
Americans debate the meaning of life. What is right and
what is wrong is determined in heated exchanges on talk
radio, in bars, and on couches in dens and living rooms
across the land. It is fact, not hyperbole, that every
top tier football, basketball and baseball game (there
are thousands) receives much more scrutiny than almost
any congressional bill.
Much like the celebrity gossip that also dominates mass
media dialogues, sports are a privileged sphere where
people wrestle with ethical questions. However, even in
the potentially democratizing era of Twitter, sports
discourse remains overwhelmingly determined by dominant
voices in pre-Internet media (TV and print)-no doubt in
part because sports feeds off of live spectacles that
require billion dollar infrastructures. Even more than
in the show business realm where a blogger like Perez
Hilton can, to a degree, be an agenda setter, the
consensus on every sports controversy never remotely
challenges the established code, let alone the money
behind the curtain.
Talk about a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and
fury signifying nothing." How else can so much have
been said about the worrisome state of baseball and yet
an unethical mediocrity like Commissioner of Baseball
Bud Selig, willing to declare the sport thriving while
overseeing two of its greatest infamies (the 1994
strike and steroids), manages to rule the national
pastime unchallenged for more than two decades?
There's no denying that spectacle sports have a grip on
the imagination of hundreds of millions of Americans,
that sports are a huge slice of our shared culture, and
everyone who remotely cares harbors heartfelt opinions
on them. The changes that occur in sports resonate.
Sure, they largely reflect the trends and trajectories
of the broader society, but that doesn't preclude the
possibility that sports can occasionally invert that
relationship and convey alternatives.
Baseball remains in crisis after the steroid era. Only
the Red Sox breaking of the curse of the Bambino rivals
the McGwire-Sosa-Bonds episodes as memorable recent
history. Television viewership is down, as is passion
for the game. The only possible way for the sport to
recapture the heart of the country is for it to embrace
a return to human scale.
Baseball's great charm is that it's a democratic sport.
All the players get their turn in the spotlight. Even
more significantly for the current crisis, unlike
basketball and football, anyone with a conventional
physique has a chance to excel-no need to be sky high
or massive. It shares this trait with the most popular
sport in the world, soccer. However, in contrast to
soccer, which is prospering tremendously as a 21st
century spectacle, baseball is mired in a slump.
As is often the case with the national pastime, its
circumstance parallels the general state of things. For
the first 15 years of the post-Cold War era, during
which two massive financial bubbles defined the
American economy, baseball was in the steroids boom.
The beneficiaries of that time, in both cases, were the
titans-especially the cheaters among them. Now, as with
the economy, the game must find a way to once again be
The barriers in both cases are significant. It is no
secret among the general population that the small
minority that prospered wildly during the bubbles
remains the current beneficiaries of the economic
order, while average households struggle mightily to
make ends meet. It also is no secret that the 1
percent's wealth comes largely from investments that
revolve around transnational capital, such that
contemporary wealth generation no longer benefits the
general population in the manner it did through all
previous eras in American history. In this regard, the
greatest political economic issue of our day is whether
American society can possibly be reorganized so that
once again it's working for the large body of the
As for the sport itself, the challenge ahead is also
difficult. A pastoral relic from the early years of the
Industrial Revolution, baseball was not designed to
maximize easy thrills. The bigger, faster, stronger
steroid era understandably attracted new fans, because
it was a variation of baseball that fit in the
hyperactive world of 21st century spectacle-baseball
for millennials. But the ad saturated world that this
generation was born into is now burning up. Can a game
that is slower, more human and in sync with nature
capture our imaginations?
One thing is certain: For baseball to reclaim its place
as a cherished American institution, reflective of
society's striving for democracy, it must retrench with
a full-fledged commitment to fairness. In my opinion,
that means a zero tolerance policy for steroid use,
implemented with the same cut-and-dried clarity as the
prohibition on gambling.You can sense the American
public turning back to middle-class, democratic values,
even as the moneyed interests resist. The people of the
country, and the world, just may be ready again to
embrace a summer game played by young men in whom they
can see their own reflections. To get there, baseball
has to have an honest confrontation with its recent
past to recognize the still active forces that led it
so far astray.
One of the common responses to both Bonds and Clemens
is to shrug and say "it's a shame, they were so great
already, they would have made the hall if they never
touched the stuff." Bonds, they say, would have been
baseball's first 500-500 man. Knowledgeable fans would
have known to include him in any discussion of the
greatest ever. Instead, we have Bonds as the least
lovable member of the fraternity of baseball villains,
never to be redeemed by sentimental Americana like
Shoeless Joe in "Field of Dreams."
Contemporary American mass media culture seems
incapable of processing a complex saga such as that of
Bonds or Clemens. Instead, a painless airbrushing of
history occurs and nothing is learned. When faced with
the tale, people are asked to deflect the tragedy
there. Tragedy, one of the most brilliant forms of
world literature, makes emotional demands on the
audience beyond anything our mainstream institutions
can countenance. Tragedy teaches difficult, painful
lessons. That doesn't market test very well these days.
Baseball, as former Commissioner Bart Giamatti used to
say, is "designed to break your heart," beginning each
year with the hope of spring and abandoning you in the
icy grip of fall. Giamatti was a Red Sox fan. Any fool
outside of New York City could tell you the Yankees
were hated, and no teams are more loved than the lowly
Cubs and the BoSox. Generations of Midwesterners and
New Englanders learned painful lessons from the very
human failings of their heroes. In the steroids era,
it's the national pastime itself that collapsed. So,
what lessons will the nation learn? Or will it choose
to feel no pain? Can baseball prosper without an honest
confrontation? Can America?
Alan Minsky is a Truthdig contributor and the author of
two books on baseball: "Home Run Kings" and "A Game for
All Races." Meleiza Figueroa provided research
[Thanks to Alan Minsky for submitting this article to
Portside. -- moderator]
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