May 23, 2013
Barry Bonds, Baseball and the Redemption of America
Posted on Jan 17, 2013
By Alan Minsky
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.
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 famous.
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 fans.
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 surgeries.
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 investigative journalism.
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