Every baseball reporter must eventually write about Barry Bonds. Such a task is thankless, requiring a sensitive touch with which to navigate the myriad fault lines. No athlete in history has divided opinion so sharply as Bonds. When dealing with his story, one must wade through ego and mythology and suspicion; records and accolades and achievement; ballparks and mansions and courtrooms. Barry Bonds smashed the two most sacred records within our sporting lexicon, yet his standing as baseball’s home run king is forever tarnished by persistent allegations of steroid abuse, bullying and megalomania. Accordingly, millions of people hate Bonds with a ferocious intensity. But I could never resist the magnetic pull of his record-chasing persona. It was irresistible. Therefore, Barry Bonds remains the most fascinating sports star I’ve ever witnessed.
In the early Millennium, professional sport was far less transparent than today. All over the nouveau riche sports world, athletes sought to gain an advantage by illegal means with epochal frequency. A string of damning books and expose investigations uncovered a murky world of steroid abuse throughout many major sports, largely emanating from the headquarters of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), a small California company led by Victor Conte. In Game of Shadows, a detailed investigation into the BALCO scandal, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams document how a clutch of world superstars came to rely upon a potent cocktail of illegal substances to find, maintain and exploit a competitive edge. Whilst the criminal investigations into athletes such as Marion Jones, Dwayne Chambers and Bill Romanowski began prior to the books release, Game of Shadows blew the lid off a secret underworld. It took the gritty details into a public arena in spectacular fashion, opening the eyes and igniting the rage of fans everywhere.
It’s strange for such a book to have a central protagonist, but Barry Bonds was undoubtedly the unique selling point. Here was a book claiming to have unearthed evidence showing definitively that the planet’s greatest baseball player was a fraud. Everybody bought a copy. The front cover shows Bonds and Jason Giambi, a further player implicated, chatting during a game. On the back cover, a blurb encapsulates the transformation in Bonds which was attributed to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Here is an excerpt: “The change in his physique was startling. His weight had increased from 210 pounds to perhaps 225, and almost all of the gain was rock-hard muscle. When he was with the Pirates, Bonds’ body had been lithe and wiry, a muscular version of a marathon runner. Now, he had the physique of an NFL linebacker, with broad shoulders, a wide chest and huge biceps. Among the Giants, players began referring to Bonds as ‘The Incredible Hulk.’”
A minority of fans began questioning the authenticity of Bonds’ play during the late 1990s. However, the BALCO scandal transformed quiet rumour into roaring suspicion. In 2003, Bonds’ personal trainer, Greg Anderson, was indicted by a federal grand jury and charged with supplying anabolic steroids to a number of athletes, including several baseball players. Naturally, Bonds’ relationship with Anderson and the capricious spike in his on-field performance led many to question his innocence.
However, the Giants outfielder pointed to a strict body-building regimen and radical change in diet as rationale for his transformation. In an initial grand jury testimony, Bonds admitted using supplements provided by Anderson, but contended that they were harmless flaxseed oil and a rubbing balm used for arthritis relief. In actuality, these substances were known within murky BALCO circles as The Cream and The Clear, steroids which worked in unison to hide abnormal hormone ratios and allow athletes to beat drugs tests. Essentially, these substances gave athletes a safety net and masked other illegal substances being used to gain an advantage. Bonds admitted taking these substances, but argued that he was unaware of their true identity, effect and ultimate illegality. Bonds maintained that he didn’t seek an outright playing advantage through detailed illegal means.
In 2006, federal investigators began probing Bonds’ original testimony to ascertain the possibility of a perjury case against the star, who was eventually charged on four such counts and one count of obstruction of justice in 2007. After a lengthy, complicated and messy legal process, Bonds was found guilty on the felony charge of obstructing justice in April 2011.
The conviction proved Bonds’ attempts to distort the truth, but the court of public opinion was even more scathing. In the eyes of a majority, Barry Bonds undoubtedly took steroids to help fuel his demolition of baseball’s most illustrious records. You cannot watch baseball for a considerable period without becoming exposed to it’s villains, reputations and narratives. The general improbability of hitting 73 home runs in one season, at the age of 36, without chemical enhancement has always been a major stumbling block in my thinking…..
….but it was also the very factor which drew me to Bonds, made me interested in him, made me root for him. As baseball-watching children, we love nothing more than home runs. It’s perhaps the most splendid sight in sport, representing the very zenith of physical accomplishment. Accordingly, the all-time career and single-season home run records are hallowed marks. Every generation has a player who dares to challenge those annals of history. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Hank Aaron, Roger Maris, the immortal Babe Ruth. All bestrode the earth as supreme sluggers hell-bent on smashing the records of their forebears. The media creates a frenzy when a player looks to have a shot at these records and, naturally, you fall in love with the aura of history about to be made. Such was the case with Barry Bonds and my generation.
I can still recall his famous stance at the plate, narrow and poised. His was a hulking presence, in physique and historical stature. A true Giant of the game, flexing the bat back and forth behind his head in the whirring of kinetic energy. By the time I started watching Bonds, he was a fairly static force, with chronic knee problems reducing the once-tremendous impact of his legs. At the plate, Bonds generated a majority of his power through searing hip flexibility and formidable upper-body strength, often unleashing almost lazily on a plump hanging slider and sending it arching towards McCovey Cove with a cutting smile and searing machismo. Bonds, more than any hitter I’ve ever seen, was in complete control of most plate appearances. During his prime years, the baseball hurtling his way must have resembled a slow-moving beach ball, because he saw it with unbelievable clarity and displayed an uncanny ability to read its spin, location and depth before swinging. At times, Barry Bonds would have to force himself to wait back on pitched balls, such was the clinical nature of his batting eye and razor-sharp reflexes. Of course, the latter may have been directly improved with the aid of illegal substances, but the former was pure, natural ability of the highest calibre.
That kind of natural ability would have earned Bonds universal admiration had he not become embroiled in the steroid fiasco. In many circles, those who accuse Bonds of substance abuse are quick to highlight his “pre-juice” career in Pittsburgh as that of a Hall of Famer. The chemical enhancement, they argue, took him from great to immortal, a status which Barry craved in the immediate aftermath of McGwire’s assault on history. He suddenly yearned to break records and earn respect.
One way or another, he certainly achieved those goals. Bonds was a 14-time All-Star, 8-time Gold Glove winner, 12-time Silver Slugger and 7-time MVP. He holds the all-time record for home runs in a season (73) and a career (762); has hit long balls against more pitchers (449) than any player in history; and produced thirteen consecutive seasons with at least 30 round-trippers. Bonds holds the single-season records for slugging percentage, on-base percentage, walks, and intentional walks. No player has walked, nor been walked intentionally, more than Bonds since the games inception. In fact, Bonds drew 2,558 career walks, meaning he was able to trot 230,222 feet, or 43.6 miles, down the first base line after looking at ball four. That is roughly the distance between San Francisco and San Jose.
Bonds received more intentional walks (688) in his career than Hall of Famer Jim Rice received conventional walks (670). Barry also hit more home runs off left-handed pitching (227) than Yankee darling Don Mattingly managed against all forms of pitching (222). The slugging behemoth is also the only player to have hit at least 500 home runs and steal 500 bases in a career, and is a member of the prodigious 40-40 club. Oh, and he became the oldest player ever to win a National League batting title in 2002.
Just like most things on Planet Bonds, this can be take in one of two ways: either the aforementioned records are monuments to a stupendous baseball great sharing a pantheon with Babe Ruth, or they amount to damning evidence of cheating by a player who hit “just” 494 home runs prior to his 35th birthday yet managed to defy the natural aging process to break baseball’s most rigorous record.
I will let you decide.
In addition to the inexorable rumours of substance abuse, Barry Bonds was disliked by fans and fellow players who branded him churlish, egotistical and aggressive. In Love Me, Hate Me, a phenomenal biography of Bonds crafted by Jeff Pearlman, it’s noted how “Bonds the ballplayer has always been obscured by Bonds the human being – an oft-guarded, oft-snarling, oft-difficult enigma of a man whose bursts of joy are overshadowed by lengthy periods of antagonism and anger.” During his career, Bonds amounted to a walking contradiction. He was often hostile towards autograph-seekers yet craved their attention; he acted obnoxiously towards the press yet yearned to write a legacy greater than any player in history; he would disrespect teammates with a laissez faire approach yet support charities and help sick children. In every way, Barry Bonds was a chameleon.
It’s important to penetrate the bravado when assessing his legacy. A look at Barry’s childhood uncovers strife just like many kids. The son of Bobby Bonds, a cavalier outfielder whose ungodly talent was eventually drowned in a sea booze, Barry was bestowed with pressure from a very early age. Bobby was an athletic legend throughout early childhood in Riverside, California, before eventually reaching the big leagues with San Francisco in 1968. A top prospect with all five tools, Bobby hit 332 home runs in a varied career which was initially sublime yet ultimately tragic. He hit 39 home runs in 1973, and regularly stole in excess of 40 bases. However, a record of three All-Star selections and three Gold Gloves represented scant return from such a prodigious talent.
Early in his professional career, Bobby Bonds began drinking heavily. In the minor leagues and as a hot-shot rookie, the effects of alcohol on performance can be masked. However, later in Bonds’ career, bouts with deep alcoholism became just as frequent as slumps at the plate. In Cleveland, Texas and Chicago, Bonds played-out a traumatic string before chain-smoking and binge-drinking his way out of baseball.
Regardless of the gruesome nadir which met Bobby Bonds, his surname was still highly-regarded within the world of professional sports. Here was a guy who, despite battling with vice and vulgarity, managed to produce some glittering offensive seasons in an era dominated by pitchers like Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson and Fergie Jenkins. The name ‘Bonds’ carried a certain weight, the full extent of which would be placed on the shoulders of Barry for the first twenty-five years of his life.
Barry was born to teenage parents on July 24, 1964. Eleven days later, Bobby signed professionally with the Giants, set on a trajectory of fame and eventual shame which would coincide painfully with his sons key development. Barry was known to all as “Bobby’s son,” which perhaps contributed to his infamous duality of character. Whilst the benefits of having such a name were accepted by Barry, who would swagger and receive preferential treatment, he resented being trapped in his fathers shadow and would often shelter himself from inevitable scrutiny by avoiding the matter. Accordingly, the trademark ambivalence of Barry Bonds was set from an early age: he would utilise his family identity for beneficial purposes, yet withdraw when such a burden began shrouding his own personality.
As a child, Barry spent a lot of time roaming the Giants clubhouse at old Candlestick Park. He would play-fight and horse around with the great Willie Mays, who became an honorary Godfather to Barry upon Bobby’s request. When surrounded by such royalty from an early age, it’s not difficult to see how Barry became furnished with an arrogant streak. However, he wasn’t exposed only to amazing feats of athletic prowess by Mays; Barry also learned of Mays’ growing bitterness towards teammates and media who were exploiting Mays’ status for their own gain. In such an environment, perhaps Barry determined never to trust anybody. He lived the rest of his life that way.
When he wasn’t sitting on the lap of future Hall of Famers, Barry was raised mainly by his mother in the elite climbs of San Carlos, California. A strained relationship with his father deteriorated as a drunken Bobby began to wear out his welcome in one major league city after another. One particular trade, from San Francisco to New York, traumatized young Barry, who was a supreme sports star by the age of 10. Sure, Dad was a Yankee. But he was also 3,000 miles away and only reachable by phone. The relationship began to quickly unravel.
Even if Bobby was a lousy father and flawed role model, he blessed his son with athletic genes which inspired awe from the earliest age. In Little League, Barry made flamboyant catches and displayed the kind of raw skill which rubbed people the wrong way. He let it be known that he was the son of Bobby Bonds, which naturally led to a lackadaisical attitude on the field. However, Barry could always deliver when most needed, with few promises of his immense talent going unmet.
The kind of preferential treatment afforded Bonds throughout collegiate ball fueled his ego but also brought great pressure. No matter how stupendous his latest home run, Barry remained in a shadow, striving to emulate his father. He yearned to showcase just how much better he was than the majority of players within his age group, and to beat the standards set by Bobby. The fact that Barry was still only a teenager, years shy of eligibility for professional baseball, caused untold frustration. He had Hall of Fame expectations whilst barely old enough to shave.
At Junipero Serra High School, Bonds was a law unto himself. Never one for over-indulgence academically, Bonds would tread water by copying the work of other students. As Pearlman explains, “long before he was accused of cheating baseball with steroids, Barry cheated at Serra, looking over the shoulders of smarter classmates during tests and copying the notes he failed to take.” However, at Serra, only athletic prowess mattered. A cast of sporting stars, highlighted by football immortal Tom Brady, enhanced its elite reputation. But even Serra had never witnessed anything like Barry Bonds. On numerous occasions, baseball coaches were forced to remove the star outfielder mid-game to avoid humiliating the other team.
Barry was awesome, and he knew it.
When the San Francisco Giants drafted Bonds in the second round of the 1982 Draft, he rejected their contract offer and elected to attend college. Obviously, only Arizona State University (ASU), could contain his exorbitant talent and even bigger ego. On campus, Barry took arrogance to whole new levels, with flashy sports cars and designer clothes. On the diamond, his performances were breath-taking. He launched huge home runs in the clutch and wreaked havoc on the bases. However, missed practice, broken curfews and chronic indifference led to resentment amongst other players, who eventually voted on his future with the team. Whilst an overwhelming majority of teammates wanted Bonds out, no coach could dismiss a talent so stupendous as to generate 45 home runs, 175 RBI and a .347 average in three years. Jim Brock wasn’t about to make that decision.
Ultimately, this pouting, stirring, sublime enigma became the most complete athlete in the 1985 Draft. A few teams were dissuaded by tales of Barry’s Baggage, but the searing talent shone through. The Pittsburgh Pirates selected Bonds sixth overall, hoping that he’d flourish into a cornerstone around whom to build out of squalor. In retrospect, it’s fun to comprehend just how five big league GM’s managed to overlook one of the greatest players ever to grace a diamond. Milwaukee, San Francisco, Texas, Cincinnati and Roland Hemond’s White Sox all skipped over Bonds, preferring players such as BJ Surhoff, Bobby Witt and Kurt Brown. Oh, hindsight is a wondrous thing.
Pittsburgh was mired in a ruinous decline by the time Bonds arrived in 1986. In the aftermath of a scurrilous drugs scandal linking several Pirates to a circus of cocaine and criminality, fan interest was down and attendance even more so. At the monolithic Three Rivers Stadium, a raw manager named Jim Leyland was tasked with blowing-up an aging team and rebuilding for a bright future. Bonds’ promotion after barely two full minor league seasons spoke not only to his supreme talent, but also to a Pirate ballclub in dire need of the publicity, relevance and energy which such a phenom could evoke. Barry Bonds pinch-hit for Jim Morrison against the Cubs at Wrigley Field on 20 April, 1986. Baseball is still trying to recover from the twenty-two year whirlwind which ensued.
In seven years with the Pirates, Bonds constructed the pillars which would support his reputation for excellence and absurdity. The wiry outfielder averaged 25 home runs, 35 steals, 79 RBI, and 31 doubles in Pittsburgh, compiling a .380 on-base percentage and more WAR (50.1) in just over 1,000 games than Bernie Williams, Ralph Kiner and Gene Tenace managed in their respective careers. Two of Bonds’ MVP Awards were won during his time by the Allegheny, as were three Gold Gloves. Bonds became part of a dynamic core, with guys like Doug Drabek, Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke, which carried Leyland’s team to three straight playoff appearances.
It was on that biggest stage that Bonds encountered great difficulty, batting .167, .148 and .261 as the Pirates stumbled in consecutive National League Championship Series’. In Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS, a weak throw by Bonds allowed laden-footed Sid Bream to score the winning run, thus sending Atlanta to the World Series. Everywhere, people wondered whether the great Barry Bonds was a choker.
He was called a lot worse during a fractious association with Pittsburgh. Bonds rubbed teammates the wrong way with brazen disrespect and flagrant egotism. Andy Van Slyke, in every way anathema to Bonds, became an enemy within the camp, the pair even coming to blows eventually. At times, even Leyland, a loyal Barry believer, became aghast at his cussing. Bonds developed a confrontational relationship with Pittsburgh’s press, as Pearlman recounts in Love Me, Hate Me. “Whenever Barry was the hero of a game, he knew the media would be waiting by his locker for some wisdom. So he hid. In the clubhouse kitchen. In the shower. He’d peek out, act like he was about to approach, then walk the other way. He’d read a newspaper with his feet up on a chair and dismissively wave his palm if a writer dared approach.” Such is the conundrum of Barry Bonds.
Even though Bonds brought fans back to Three Rivers, his correspondence with ownership was tense and hostile. Whilst Van Slyke and Drabek were rewarded with lucrative new contracts, Bonds was forced through the grimy process of arbitration. When the Pirates failed to comply with his contract expectations, Bonds alluded to racism. Those claims were not without substance. Ultimately, the relationship devolved to such a point that Bonds would sulk in the presence of team personnel. As free agency approached following the ’92 season, Bonds ruled-out a return to Pittsburgh, citing a cheap organisational mentality and the chronic mistreatment of star players. Truthful to his word, Bonds sought pastures new, finding a road towards immortality. It took the Pirates twenty-one years to rejoin the postseason party.
Barry wanted a huge payday. He hired a new agent and demanded six years and $40m+ from any interested teams. A host of clubs balked at such an asking price, whilst others simply wanted no part of a self-centred prima donna. The Yankees offered five years and $36m, but Bonds stood firm. Eventually, San Francisco came calling, with prospective owner Peter Magowan eager to build a new team around baseball’s biggest star. Bonds was paid as such; his six-year, $43m deal with the Giants breaking all records. In an emotional press conference to announce his deal with San Francisco, Barry provided a rare glimpse into his inner personality. “All I’ve ever wanted to do was share something with my father,” he told the assembled press. “This is the greatest moment in my entire life. Every time I step on that field, I know my godfather’s in centre field and my dad’s in right field.”
Deep down, Barry wanted to justify the lucrative contract and exceed the achievements of his famous family. Accordingly, he dedicated to a rigorous fitness regimen tailored to haul himself and the Giants to glory. In that order. Barry wanted to create the 50/50 club; he wanted a World Series ring; he wanted respect. Bonds worked damn hard upon arriving in San Francisco.
A 46-homer, 123-RBI debut season hauled the Giants from mediocrity to contention. The club managed to break 90 wins just once in the five years preceding Bonds’ arrival. In 1993, Bonds’ potent offensive display steered San Francisco to 103 victories. A .336 batting average and .458 on-base percentage helped Barry to a second successive MVP award, but the Giants were somehow out-gunned by the 104-win Braves. Nonetheless, Bonds gave San Francisco relevance and panache.
However, in future years, Bonds became increasingly frustrated as the Giants failed to build a winner around him as promised. If anything, the franchise went backwards. On the field, victories were hard to come-by. At the turnstile, fans became tired of Bonds’ moaning. He continued to hit homers and drive-in plenty of runs, but Barry wasn’t content playing on a team which averaged just 63 wins throughout a strike-ravaged period of mid-90s baseball. During this period, he joined Mays, Andre Dawson and his father in the 300/300 club, but often cut a demoralised figure. A resurgent 1997 yielded 90 victories, but the Giants were swatted away with consummate ease in the NLDS; Jim Leyland’s Florida Marlins sweeping San Fran as Bonds hit .250 with 0 home runs and 1 RBI.
Thus, Barry Bonds became an iconoclastic figure. Even as he produced regular season statistics to rival any player, Bonds received little acclaim. The media fell in-love with All-American darlings like Ken Griffey Jr, Mark McGwire and Mike Piazza. Executives and coaches praised the hustle of guys like Van Slyke, Jeff Kent and Craig Biggio. When major companies fished for endorsement deals, they focused on megastars such as Alex Rodriguez and even Deion Sanders. Nobody cared about Barry Bonds, just like he never cared about anybody else. The seismic mood swings and chronic self-aggrandizing burned many bridges.
In 1998, the sulky slugger became the first player in Major League Baseball history to hit at least 400 home runs and steal at least 400 bases. A remarkable achievement. Yet Barry chose a pretty awkward year in which to bloom. During the summer of ’98, even lurid accusations of sexual impropriety by the President failed to capture the imagination quite like the historic home run chase dominating America. McGwire, the redheaded hulk of St Louis, and Sosa, the fuzzy Dominican slugger of Wrigley, rekindled a nations love for baseball by repeatedly showcasing its most iconic act. They hit home runs at a titanic rate, pushing one another towards the sacred mark of 61 which Roger Maris so laboured to create. Ultimately, McGwire crushed 70 bombs, Sosa 65, as fans rushed back to ballparks in their droves.
The public even believed this powerful version of events for a few years. However, when slap hitters like Brady Anderson began hitting 50 or more home runs with profound ease, the grandstands became a place of rustled disquiet. In time, hitting 40 homers was relegated from historic achievement to mere formality, as steroids crept further into baseball clubhouses. When Ken Caminiti admitted his use of performance-enhancing substances in an infamous 2002 Sports Illustrated interview, eyes were opened and connections made. “It’s no secret what’s going on in baseball, opined Caminiti, whose mediocre home run output peaked at 40 with the Padres during an MVP season in 1996. “At least half the guys are using steroids. They talk about it. They joke about it with each other.” At this point, the baseball-viewing public was afforded an upsetting glimpse inside this dark fraternity. A pang of suspicion clouded the achievements of McGwire and Sosa. The former eventually admitted his steroid abuse, whilst the latter is reported to have tested positive during his career.
It’s important not to become too retrospective here. Prior to the scandals which now dot the history of modern baseball, attempts to rid the game of PEDs were cursory at best. A cautionary memo from Commissioner Fay Vincent as Jose Canseco began juicing; a further note from the in-coming Bud Selig as Caminiti and friends followed suit; posturing and politicking on all sides but no actual testing. The MLB Players Association had little historical interest in agreeing to the random drug testing of its members, but the whispers rolled into vociferous protests in 2003, threatening a public relations meltdown. Thus, sparse testing was rolled-out…without attached punishments. At this time, baseball viewed steroid abuse more as a lifestyle problem than a scurrilous illegality. Not until the BALCO boys entered court was heat applied. In the intermittent period, testing has become widespread, penalties have evolved, and players have been disciplined.
But in the cold winter of 1998/99, there was very little to deter a Major League player from exploiting performance-enhancing substances and receiving star treatment just like McGwire and Sosa. In particular, Barry Bonds was a jealous man. Whilst diplomatic in praising his record-breaking contemporaries, a fire raged deep inside Bonds. He was a religiously hard worker, lifting weight, practicing yoga and pushing himself every inch of the way towards greatness. Consequently, his feeling of anger towards the achievements of chemically-charged McGwire and Sosa was natural. It’s similar to how all baseball fans felt when the news broke: cheated, disgusted, rueful. But herein lies the difference between normal people and Barry Bonds, and here lies the juncture at which he seemingly made a grave mistake: whilst fans could only call talk radio shows to vent their anger, or vote with their feet and boycott games, Bonds saw a unique opportunity to rectify the situation, re-write the course of history and beat these pretenders, if only for spite. He wanted to be the icon, the hero, the face of baseball. Barry Bonds wanted to eclipse everybody, and prove definitively that he was greater than any player ever to play the game. Therefore, the home run records took on an almost mythical significance to the Giants outfielder. They were a proven vehicle to immortality. How he got there didn’t seem to matter.
In reference to steroid abusers, an overwhelming majority ask “why would you?” It’s largely rhetorical. But, in the case of Barry Bonds, I can understand the sequence of events which may have led to his using illegal means to strike an advantage. I do not condone it. In fact, I pity his crippling battles with envy. However, I can see how his rumoured substance abuse possibly came about.
Bonds arrived at Scottsdale Stadium for spring training in 1999 weighing 210 pounds, an increase from the 185-190 pound rage which he’d maintained throughout his early career. In the Giants’ clubhouse, suspicion rose, with teammates feeling that Bonds maintained an unnatural physique. A number of players say Bonds had rashes of acne, a notorious side-effect of steroid use, and questioned the near-ubiquitous presence of his personal trainer Greg Anderson around the clubhouse. The same Greg Anderson who in 2005 would plead guilty on charges of conspiring to distribute steroids, thus receiving three months in prison and a further three in home confinement.
When an elbow tendon injury sent Bonds to the DL midway through the 1999, people within baseball’s private circle became increasingly certain; such tendon injuries typically occur in areas where muscle is so over-charged with steroid that it cannot be contained by the unaffected tissue. Bonds played in only 102 games, yet still managed to hit 34 home runs.
The later release of Game of Shadows added further substance to this caricature of a juicing Bonds. Following an intensive two-year investigation during which co-authors Fainaru-Wada and Williams interviewed more than 200 people, gleamed knowledge from industry sources and gained access to sensitive grand jury documents, the accusations were duly unleashed. The authors describe how “Greg Anderson started Barry Bonds on Winstrol after the 1998 season. It was also known as Stanozolol, the old favourite of body-builders.” Furthermore, the co-authors hold that “Anderson put Bonds on Deca, the gym rats’ name for the injectable drug Deca-Durabolin.” In time, they believe Anderson linked-up with Victor Conte of BALCO, who “offered Bonds a new array of performance-enhancing drugs.” Similarly, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Bonds had used The Cream and The Clear, supplied by BALCO via Anderson. In one resounding quote which encapsulates the substance of Game of Shadows, the investigative journalists ‘reveal’ that “in addition to growth hormone and testosterone, doping calendars showed that Bonds used insulin, the diabetes drug, along with steroids.”
Similarly, a dossier of empirical evidence has been inculcated into the common baseball dialect, with many pointing to Bonds’ increased batting helmet size toward the end of a lengthy career. In Love Me, Hate Me, Pearlman offers an incisive assessment: “According to leading medical experts, there are two ways for the adult human skull to expand. The first is from acromegaly, a disorder made famous by wrestler Andre the Giant, that results in abnormal growth of the hands and feet. The second is from injections of human growth hormone. Bonds, whose head was normal size in 1993, now has a cranium the size of a large pumpkin. He does not suffer from acromegaly.”
It’s difficult to dismiss such detailed and vociferous accusations.
In the five-season period between 2000-2004, Barry Bonds should have began rolling towards a sleepy retirement, his skills declining as with the progressing autumn of a distinguished career. He turned thirty-five mid-way through the 2000 season; an age firmly wedged on the downward curve of baseball’s prime age spectrum. However, rather than riding out a few more years as a DH like many salty veterans, Bonds received a new lease on life. He began pumping the baseball with more authority, more regularity and more ease than at any other point during his career. At the age of natural baseball retirement, Barry Bonds was transformed into a vivacious ball of raw life. During this five-season period, Bonds approached forty years of age. But he also averaged 51 home runs, won four consecutive MVP awards, and broke every home run record imaginable. It was an abnormal performance at a peculiar time during a seedy era. It amounted to evidence.
If Bonds did use illegal substances, they were successful. From a desperate position of jealously, with time running out and his star waning, Bonds ultimately attained every record for which he yearned. In 2001, the hulking outfielder produced the most gruesome statistics in baseball history; his 73 home runs breaking McGwire’s single-season record and assuring yet another MVP award. The raw data describes a season like no other. Bonds drew 177 walks and honed an unearthly 1.379 OPS. He hit only one less home run (17) in the month of May than Juan Pierre currently has in a 14-year career. He hit the 500th home run of his career, an arching drive into McCovey Cove. He blasted through normality and created a whole new echelon of baseball performance. “This was not reality,” Pearlman concludes. “Baseball is a game of failure. Hit the ball three times, miss it seven – that’s the ratio the best players hope for. With age, it becomes even harder. Think Babe Ruth with the Boston Braves, Willie Mays with the New York Mets. But here was Bonds, ballooned up, toying with the most challenging of sports. The realm of reality? Reality was dead.”
Bonds’ march towards the single season home run crown evoked little hoopla outside San Francisco. Sure, the media chronicled his every move, fans turned out to watch and the chase became another deeply American occasion. But Bonds tying and eventually breaking McGwire’s record was not met with the same universal fascination afforded the Cardinals’ slugger three years prior. In fact, Bonds received death threats as the record came clear into view. All around, fans seemed fatigued, reeling in the aftermath of the great ’98 chase. It can be argued that baseball fans were hungover from home run overindulgence. It can also be argued that Barry Bonds was a cheating, spiteful jerk undeserving of such attention. A sense of inherent awkwardness pervaded.
There is no doubt that what Bonds achieved in 2001 was stupendous, awesome and fantastic to watch, but the authenticity of the means of such extreme production will forever be shrouded in doubt. The extent to which Bonds artificially and illegally enhanced the likelihood of such a phenomenal season was debated with ferocious intensity in the ensuing years, and will continue to be for decades to come. Barry Bonds hit the baseball further, harder and more often than any human being in history at a time of life usually reserved for decline. The conspiracy theorists formed a kangaroo court, which raised a deafening roar of conjecture.
With people banging the steroids drum louder than ever in his ear, Bonds continued to demolish all which was placed before him. In 2002, he became the oldest player ever to win a National League batting title; he set the single-season record for walks; and he broke the 61-year old OBP mark established by Ted Williams. Furthermore, he blasted past Frank Robinson for fourth place on the all-time home run list; clubbed the 600th round-tripper of his career; and hauled the Giants into an unlikely World Series. In said Fall Classic, Bonds dared not abate, gnawing on Anaheim pitching like a lion on meat. Nonetheless, even his 4 home runs, .471 average and .700 OBP could not prevent a gut-wrenching, seven-game defeat. Bonds was suitable distraught; the dream he shared with every child crumbling through the fingers in tantalizing agony.
He responded with yet another explosion, with two more MVP seasons, and with another blizzard of home runs. In June 2003, Bonds founded the ultra-exclusive 500 homer-500 steals club, a somewhat distorted accolade binding together his two ball-playing personas. A thunderous drive into the Cove finally tied Bonds with Mays at 660 career homers in 2004. A few months later, he collapsed on a flailing Jake Peavy slider in San Francisco and coaxed it over the left field wall, becoming just the third player of all-time to reach the sacrosanct 700 plateau. Only an injury-ravaged 2005 season, which limited Bonds to just 14 games, prolonged the inevitable and controversial trouncing of Babe Ruth’s Holy mark.
It also gave me a priceless opportunity to witness Barry Bonds.
When baseball first attached itself to my imagination in 2005, Barry was its figure most commanding of attention. He was the very first baseball player I ever knew, and he even made the news here in Britain. I vividly recall a Newsround feature describing the BALCO circus engulfing Bonds and our own Dwain Chambers, with the injured slugger resting on crutches during a prolonged rehabilitation. I was intrigued. In time, I stumbled upon the twice-weekly baseball broadcasts on Channel Five, where Bonds would light-up the night. For me, this was a true golden era of baseball, with heroes and stars who’ll never be forgotten. Every fan holds a special place in the heart for those baseball stars of formative childhood, but I stand firm in the belief that baseball had never before seen a more exciting period than that to which I dedicate this blog. Major League Baseball was unrivaled at this time, out on its own entirely devoid of competition. The NFL could not compete, nor the NBA. Even the Premier League paled in comparison, a rare situation for any Brit. It was a priceless, magical era.
For all of his ills, Barry Bonds was a major part of that. As a kid, I was enchanted by his homers into the Cove, his mammoth presence, his statistics. I found his 714th homer to tie the exalted Babe Ruth stupefying, his 715th strikingly evocative. I bought books exploring his achievements and biographies tracing his life. I even made a Bonds bookmark to accompany the literature. In later years, when I inexplicably fell into the throes of Dodgerdom, my fascination with the career of Barry Bonds was more than a little awkward, because secretly I adored the memories he gave the game in my formative years as a fan: the clutch hits, the mammoth home runs, the live look-ins for every at-bat as he approached the all-time home run record in sandy cities like San Diego and Los Angeles.
In this manner, Bonds continues to evoke every type of emotion in a fan. When he used to play before a crowd of 40,000, a maelstrom of conflicting sentiments would ripple through the grandstand. Hate. Love. Anger. Admiration. Jealousy. Inspiration. Respect. Pain. Pity. Joy. All within one crowd at any given time. The abuse was cacophonous in cities like Philadelphia, Boston and LA as Bonds approached the all-time homer record in 2007. Fans held asterisk signs, unfurled protest slogans and greeted every at-bat with virulent abuse. At this point, Game of Shadows had been released, federal jury indictments were just months away, and people ruled on the legacy of Barry Bonds. He was the scourge of modern baseball, the scapegoat of a hurtful era, the devil incarnate.
Yet I was rooting for him. In the grand scheme of social history, only a select clutch of people are able to say that they were alive to witness a new ballplayer ascending to the top of baseball’s all-time home run list. I’m one of them. I fell in love with that concept. To follow baseball is to become a romantic. It has a greater sense of history than other sport, and the enthralling pursuit of that next chapter is what brings us back for more. When Barry Bonds pounced all over a meek 84-mph Mike Bacsik fastball in the fifth inning of a game against the Padres at 8.51 pm PDT on 7 August, 2007, I was a twelve-year old boy consumed by the occasion. When Giants announcer Duane Kuiper exploded into his famed home run call (“…Bacsik deals…and BONDS! Hits one high! Hits it DEEEEEP! IT IS OUTTA’ HERE!…”), I was transfixed by the moment. When the dizzy spheroid came to rest in a frenzied carnage of cheering arms and legs beyond the right-centre field wall, some 435 feet away from its origin, I was moved by the emotion.
Even amid the hatred, the abuse and the constant scrutiny; the doubt, the politics and the sea of accusations; the bureaucracy, the legal wranglings and the media glare, Bonds kept walking to the plate. Even amid the injuries, the setbacks and the pain; the racism, the hurt and a messy divorce; the expectations to live-up to Mays, to honour his father and to out-perform Griffey, Bonds kept hitting. Even tasked with breaking McGwire and beating Sosa; surpassing Ruth and usurping Hank, Bonds continued to launch home runs at an unprecedented rate. In his mind, Barry had answered every question, beat every rival, conquered every foe. He stood unchallenged atop the baseball world.
But he lost a great deal more than he won. Bonds caused irreparable damage to so many people as to almost void his accomplishment. What about the kayaker who nearly drowned going after a Cove souvenir? The kid who fell in love with baseball fraudsters? The scrub denied a living by his artificially-prolonged career? The authors of prose extolling his virtues? What about the coaches he abused, the clubhouse attendants he belittled, the teammates he demeaned? How about the sullied reputation of Major League Baseball and its distorted record book? Henry Aaron? Babe Ruth? Roger Maris? What about all the millions of people who paid thousands of dollars to watch him perform? Just contemplate how these people felt by Bonds’ gargantuan deception.
This teetering equipoise is why we still maintain interest in Barry Bonds. He leaves an entirely befuddling legacy, resting on a mine of statistical accomplishment which has been denigrated by scandal. In recent years, I’ve made the mistake of thinking I miss stars like Barry Bonds in baseball, with the drama and histrionics and storylines. In actuality, he is part of the problem. It was he who cheated, lied and stole the most fabled records of this great game. Now, we’re never again likely to experience the sequestered thrill of a pure home run chase because the benchmark has been blasted way off into a stratosphere unreachable by natural force. Once, we cheered for Barry Bonds as he lit-up the world. Now, his only legacy is in making the future of baseball a decidedly joyless place.