Sept. 8, 1998: Sitting in a muggy press box at old Busch Stadium, watching Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa swing for Roger Maris’ record in front of a breathless audience, and imagining I could read Barry Bonds’ mind:
What a farce. If nobody is going to say what these guys are really doing, I’m shooting up next year.
May 30, 2001: Watching Bonds in batting practice, preparing to finish the first two months of the season with 28 homers, well on his way to a new single-season record of 73, and quietly asking the big question around the dugout.
He’s juicing, isn’t he?
No one said yes. One person said, “Where he’s hitting them, steroids can’t help you.’’ And I thought: “Where he’s hitting them, only steroids can help you.’’
Another person said that Bonds had so much talent, he could do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, on a baseball field. This was a savvy person, who knew that drugs had invaded the game, but didn’t know the extent and didn’t think Bonds needed them to blow up record books. He believed that McGwire and Sosa had revved up Bonds’ competitive instincts and pushed him to work harder in the weight room. That person would later say he felt really naïve.
Jan. 9, 2013: Hearing the Hall of Fame voting results announced, verifying that the greatest hitter in history would be kept out of Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility. Wondering again what Bonds was thinking and hoping that a piece of him shared the thought held 12 years before by that naïve observer.
It wasn’t necessary.
Bonds had Cooperstown credentials before his connections to the BALCO lab and all its secret potions, before his skull and slugging numbers mysteriously expanded. He didn’t need to juice to be great.
When it was announced that he had received only 36.2 percent of the Hall of Fame votes, I felt some regret and sadness. A little of it was for him, a lot more was for the mess that radiated from the summer of 1998.
Back then, I didn’t do anything to stop it. Neither did Bonds. I couldn’t write anything, beyond noting baseball’s failure to test, without more evidence. Bonds couldn’t say anything without sounding bitter. I suspect we both felt helpless at the time.
In the most unflattering interpretation, Bonds started juicing out of petty jealousy. I tend to think he also did it because he saw his father’s game and business overrun by impostors, players who borrowed the tools and excesses of bodybuilding and football to turn baseball into a freak show. He couldn’t fight them, so he joined and surpassed them.
Over 16 years of covering Bonds on the field and in court, I heard a lot of people say that he would behave as badly as anyone let him. As the son of a major league ballplayer and a prodigious athletic talent in his own right, he had been indulged and coddled by people who wanted something in return. He expected reverential treatment, toadying even, yet often respected those who withheld it.
He dished out awful treatment to reporters because they took it. It didn’t matter how rude he was to them one night. If he beckoned the next, they came over to record whatever he had to say. They needed him. It made them weak and permissive. He hated that.
In 1998, MLB and the media were indulging McGwire and Sosa, permitting them to do as they pleased because it filled their parks and notebooks, and most of all, because no one had started handing out subpoenas and search warrants yet. That was the province of the French, who started busting cyclists in their Tour that summer. On Wednesday, Hall of Fame voters slammed the door on that indulgence, perhaps too late, perhaps to the detriment of a museum that preserves the history of the game. But there was never going to be a happy ending to all of this.
If Bonds had been inducted, the vote would have insulted the people who got caught in the undertow of the BALCO case, tried to do the right thing and, at least initially, paid a bigger price than Bonds.
Stan Conte, the longtime Giants trainer, resigned after the feds subpoenaed him to testify in Bonds’ perjury and obstruction trial. Federal law would not allow Conte to assert confidentiality privileges, in effect turning him into a potential government spy if he continued working with Bonds. To avoid that quagmire, Conte left the team. The Dodgers quickly hired him, but he had built a life in the Bay Area, rearing his kids there.
Bonds’ decision to dope ruined more than record books. His decision to prevaricate on the witness stand, despite a grant of immunity, forced bystanders to hire lawyers and waste valuable time in court. Unlike Lance Armstrong, Bonds did not set out to destroy adversaries. The feds helped create this collateral damage. Again, the word “unnecessary’’ hovers over the whole affair.
Do the side effects of the BALCO investigation mean Bonds should have been denied the Hall of Fame? No, but it certainly mitigates dismay over his fate and the sorry, confused state of Cooperstown.
In the end, the snub of both Bonds and Roger Clemens could help stem the radiation from 1998. Seeing them rejected, in the same week that Oprah Winfrey announced she’d be trying to bare Lance Armstrong’s soul, has to tell future athletes that the secrets of hormonal enhancement won’t stay safely underground anymore.
Is that the purpose of the Hall of Fame? Maybe not, but the desecration of its traditions seem more tolerable in this light.
The one piece of unmitigated sense in this ballot lies in Clemens’ sharing Bonds’ fate. For a long time, it troubled me that Bonds had become the face of steroids in baseball, if not all American sports.
I remember covering a game in Colorado in 2007, and visiting fans in the left-field bleachers who dressed as syringes or pumped-up body builders and came to taunt Bonds. One young man wore a yellow Livestrong bracelet. I asked how he could believe in Armstrong and bash Bonds. He didn’t even fall back on the cancer-survival story line. He said that the cyclist had never improved as dramatically as the slugger, which was comically false.
I’m sure Bonds never guessed that I half-defended him when I went into the stands to talk to critical fans. He did see me out there once and asked later what I was doing. I didn’t go into the details.
I don’t begrudge him a place in the Hall if he gets in sometime in the next 14 years of writers-list eligibility. In the same way that many baseball fans are weary of steroids, I am bored by the Cooperstown conundrum. The debates descended to fatuous moral relativism and endless deconstructions of the meaning of cheating and the character clause. Why Gaylord Perry and not Clemens? Why a racist Ty Cobb and not Bonds? Why bar steroid users when greenies-consumers had already been inducted?
I’d trade a plaque in there for full disclosure about usage, including health monitoring in perpetuity. Bonds looked great the last time I saw him, fit and lean. I don’t know if his skull had returned to its pre-2000 size. I wish I did. Compared to that, debates about the Hall of Fame seem so unnecessary.
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Note: I have a vote for the Hall of Fame but have not used it in years. The arrival of the 2013 ballot and the steroid referendum became deterrents. But I already felt unqualified to judge such things and did not believe in journalists making such decisions.