Wednesday, August 8, 2007
Barry, you brought stuff like this on yourself.
When Barry Bonds connected on that Mike Bacsik fastball last night, raised his arms in elation and relief that he had finally done it and proceeded on his record-breaking jog around the bases, America's Pastime reached the point of no return. Well, at least for a few years, anyway. You-Know-Who will soon come knocking on Bonds' door, looking to recreate last night for himself, but until that time comes, baseball has reached a new era. An era in which Barry Lamar Bonds is the all-time home run king. Hammering Hank, the hero, has been unseated. And he's been unseated by an accused cheater. The Record is tainted. And a lot of people have a problem with that.
I don't. Is the record tainted because of Bonds' suspected steroid use? Well, from 1986-1998, ages 22-34 of Bonds' life, he hit a home run in every 16.1 at-bats. From ages 35 to now, he hit one in every 9.2 at-bats. Each individual can take that bit of information and do with it what they wish. I know some people who go by the "He's never been tested for anything" theory, but I, personally, look at that data - which illustrates a player nearly doubling his home run rate at a time in his career when most athletes fall off - and get more than a little suspicious. Call me crazy.
But I don't really care that baseball's most hallowed mark now has a giant asterisk next to it. Alex Rodriguez is going to come along and break this record in six years tops, and everyone will be happy again. If there's anything I'll regret from this mess, it's how Bonds - perhaps as gifted a player as baseball has seen since Wille Mays - has tarnished what could've been a golden legacy in the sport's history for no real reason. Unnecessarily and by his own foolish doing.
Barry's father, Bobby, was a three-time All-Star and Gold Glove outfielder from 1968-1981, primarily for the San Francisco Giants. Combining power and speed at the leadoff spot, Bobby was a 30-30 guy five times, flirted with becoming the first 40-40 guy twice (39 bombs and 43 stolen bases in '73, 37 and 41 in '77), and finished up with 332 jacks and 461 bags. His godfather is the great Willie Mays, widely hailed as the best all-around player ever. He had the genes and learned the game from two great players. Bonds couldn't miss.
And he didn't. Bonds began his career in Pittsburgh, where he won two MVP's in seven seasons. He then moved to San Francisco, where he added another MVP in his first season there, maintaining his speed, bumping his average and adding a little power as he hit his prime. He was also a Gold Glove left fielder, winning eight of them, the most ever at the position.
No red flags yet. And this is where the first part of Barry Bonds' career ends, after the 1998 season. Act 1: The Clean Years. 441 homers, 445 steals, a .290 average, eight gold glovers. Griffey had more power, Barry had more speed; overall, you'd probably have to give a slight edge to Barry as the best player of the nineties. An obvious Hall-of-Famer. Could've easily accepted his inevitable fate, the sometimes rapid, sometimes gradual decline that even the greatest athletes undergo. He still would have retired with almost 600 jacks, still the first ever 500-500 guy, one of the five most complete players that ever lived. End of story.
But, of course, that wasn't enough.
According to Jeff Pearlman's book, "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero," Bonds became jealous of the attention Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were receiving for their home run conquests, assumed that they were juicing up and decided to get on a cycle himself, to start using some "hardcore stuff." And when he did, allegedly folowing the 1998 season, he went, as Bob Costas described it - in full TV mode - this morning on "Mike and Mike," "from a truly great player to a superhuman player."
After an injury plagued 1999, in which he hit 34 homers in 102 games, Bonds hit a career-high 49 in 2000 - at age 36. Then a record 73 in 2001 - at 37. 46, 45, and 45 in 403, 390, and 373 at-bats, respectively, over the next three years. The extra homers padded his average, as he hit between .328 and .370 from '01-04, a period in which he won four consecutive MVP's. Prior to this stretch, Bonds had only hit above .312 once in 15 seasons. He became the most feared hitter ever, setting the single season walks record three seperate times - in 2001, 2002, and 2004. His slugging percentage went over .600 in 2004, for the first time in the game's history.
And suddenly, he had risen to a whole 'nother level: from obvious Hall-of-Famer, one of the very best players ever, to the best player ever. Seven-time Most Valuable Player, with all the other stuff on top of it. Better than Mays, better than Aaron, better than Ruth. The Greatest.
But soon, suspicion found it's way to Bonds, as the walls began to crumble around the game and a cloud of dust formed over "The Steroids Era." And Bonds became the posterchild of it. Another book, "Game of Shadows," was written detailing his rampant drug abuse. His hometown newspaper released his testimony to a federal grand jury in which he stated that he had unknowingly used undetectable steroids known as "the cream" and "the clear", given to him by his personal strength trainer, Greg Anderson, who spent four months in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute steroids and money laundering. Opinions were formed and a consensus was reached: Barry Bonds is a cheater.
And it didn't have to be that way. Bonds should have left this game without controversy, without jokes about the size of his forehead, without a reputation as a dirty player who ripped the prestige out of the home run record. It was in his hands. Sadly, at least to me, he chose the dark side.
And that, more than anything else, is what I'll think of first whenever I recall the night that Barry Bonds hit 756.