Rehabilitating Barry


It’s a sad situation when the tabloids are on higher moral ground than the mainstream press, but that’s what Barry Bonds has driven us to. Watching Fox’s coverage of the All-Star game in San Francisco with a smiling Bonds escorting his godfather, Willie Mays, around AT&T Park, and listening to Joe Buck chide Hank Aaron for not being in attendance while Tim McCarver hedged on the issue of Bonds and steroids . . . Well, one yearned for the overwrought but refreshingly uncompromised headlines in the New York Post last year, when Bonds tied Babe Ruth for second place on the all-time list at 714. The Post‘s Sunday cover featured a series of needles arranged to form the number 714 under a headline that read “Hey, Babe: Move Over for the ‘Shambino.'” The inside was just as good, with stories headlined “Say it taint so!” and “Sultan of Syringe.”

No doubt the Post was playing to a virulent strain of New York chauvinism last year, just as Alex Rodriguez is now being swiftly transformed by the local press from an idol with feet of clay to the coming Messiah because he is roughly 160 home runs ahead of Bonds’s career pace and should be skyrocketing past him in about six or seven seasons. But that’s a long time to wait—and while we do, it’s good to know that not everyone is caught up in the recent wave of feel-good Barry Bonds revisionism.

Such as the 92 percent of fans surveyed in a May 18 USA Today/Gallup poll who didn’t think Bonds was “the greatest slugger ever” even if he surpassed Aaron. Or the 77 percent of respondents in a recent poll who said they didn’t want Bonds to break Aaron’s record. Or fans all over the country whose anti-Bonds banners and displays are being banned from major league ballparks. This has gotten little national attention, despite a front-page story in, of all places, the July 1 San Francisco Chronicle titled “Silencing Angry Fans.” According to a letter from the Arizona Diamondbacks to one angry fan, “We have been asked by Major League Baseball to carefully screen the signs that are brought into the ballpark by our fans.”

The Barry Bonds controversy is the most written-about and divisive sports topic thus far in the young century. So much excess baggage has been piled onto it that a massive cleanup is required before the basic point can even be addressed. Let’s toss the biggest red herring out the window right now. The issue is not whether Barry Bonds was a Hall of Famer before performance-enhancing drugs; no one says he wasn’t.

Rather, the issue is this: Is Barry Bonds a cheat and a liar? And an overwhelming body of evidence says yes. Let’s dispense with the notion that there’s no evidence that Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs. According to leaked grand-jury testimony, Bonds admitted to the use of BALCO substances and claimed that he didn’t know they were performance-enhancing. Right. This sort of defense can only have credence in a city where you can get off for murdering somebody because you ate too many Twinkies.

Let’s also dispense with the idea that whatever Bonds used didn’t enhance his performance. In 1999, a 34-year-old Bonds, weighing around 200 pounds, hit .262 with 34 home runs. Then, in defiance of all known natural law, he put on about 25 pounds of rock-hard muscle and proceeded to become, over the next five years, arguably the greatest hitter in baseball history. No such late-career surge has ever been seen in baseball, or anywhere else in professional sports.

All this is of little consequence, of course, if you’re not a baseball fan. As John Heilemann wrote in defense of Bonds’s steroid use last year (April 17) in New York magazine, “All the talk in baseball about the sacredness of its records is little more than another tactic in the long-running campaign waged by its overseers to mystify the game. To treat baseball as if it were something more hallowed than mere entertainment.” In other words, there is no such thing as cheating and lying—merely entertainment. But real fans are the ones who are entertained because they believe that what happens on the field does have integrity.

Barry Bonds, on the other hand, was a pampered middle-class brat who grew up in a world of privilege and was merely jealous of the attention accorded other home-run hitters. He has polluted the historical record for all time.