Over the past year, the sports world has been obsessed with Major League Baseball’s steroid investigation. After years of ignoring the fact that players were taking illegal performance enhancers, a federal probe into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) has forced the league to deal with its most embarrassing scandal in nearly 100 years. At the center of this controversy is San Francisco Giants all-star outfielder Barry Bonds.
Although dozens of players have been explicitly named in the scandal, Bonds has remained at the center of public discussion. Despite Jose Canseco’s incriminating public confessions and Raphael Palmeiro’s humiliating “outing” as a liar, Bonds has been forced to bear the brunt of the American public’s critical attention. After a grand jury investigation, countless hours of media commentary, as well as Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams tell-all book, Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports (Gotham, 2006), Bonds has been transformed into a poster boy for all that is wrong with professional baseball.
To be sure, the media’s extraordinary focus on Bonds is largely due to his perennial status as the game’s best player, as well as his annual assault on some of baseball’s most sacred records. Therefore, it is no surprise that the attack on Bonds has intensified as he prepares to pass Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron for the career home run title. Additionally, Bonds’ arrogance, aloofness with fans and media, and selfishness with teammates have made him one of the most reviled stars in professional sports and an easy target. Even the black community, which is notoriously loyal to its heroes long after the heroes have deserted the community, has been curiously indifferent to Bonds’ plight.
Is Bonds guilty of steroid usage? Of course he is. Still, like the equally guilty OJ Simpson, a thorough analysis of his situation cannot be exhausted at the level of individual guilt or innocence. Rather, we must closely examine the context in which the controversy emerges in order to make clear determinations. In this instance, a careful reading of the situation suggests that the attacks on Bonds are largely unwarranted and shaped by shallow understandings of the circumstances.
“He’s a Cheater!”
One of the strongest statements made against Bonds is that he is a cheater. This is simply untrue. If we are to believe the accounts of Fainaru-Wada and Williams, Bonds’ steroid use lasted from 1998 to 2002. Although steroids have been illegal in the US since 1991, they did not make Major League Baseball’s banned substance list until the end of the 2002 season. Unlike track stars like Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones, whose culpability is linked to Olympic Committee’s stringent anti-doping policy, Bonds did not break any of baseball’s ostensibly sacred rules. Instead, Bonds used performance enhancing products that were, at the time, as acceptable as the laser eye surgeries that many players undergo in order to hone their vision, or the pain relief injections that allow them to play through pain.
Some have argued that despite the lack of explicit prohibition, Bonds’ alleged steroid use must be considered cheating because it provided him with a competitive advantage that dishonors the spirit of baseball’s rules of fair play. This argument, however, is severely flawed since Bonds was one of the last players in baseball to begin taking steroids. In fact, according to most reliable accounts, Bonds’ decision to take steroids was largely an attempt to level a drug-riddled playing field that privileged a generation of good but considerably less talented players who had been “cheating” for years.
Before Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s career-making homerun chase, a still steroid-free Bonds ranked among baseball’s all time elite. In 1998, the same year that catapulted Sosa and McGwire into the realm of superstardom, a suddenly anonymous Bonds became (and remains) the only player in the history of baseball to register 400 career homeruns and 400 stolen bases. At that point in his career, Bonds had won eight Golden Glove and three National League Most Valuable Player awards. Additionally, he was ranked number 34 on the Sporting News “100 Greatest Players of All Time” list, based on career performance up to 1997. If anything, despite his staggering numbers, Bonds was playing at a competitive disadvantage during the period preceding his alleged steroid use.
A Culture of Cheating
Critics often claim that the activities of Bonds and others have disgraced the sport by perpetuating and normalizing the practice of cheating. However, the notion that Bonds’ steroid consumption violated a tacit code of ethics within baseball is both naïve and ahistorical. From the infamous 1919 Chicago Black Sox World Series fix to Pete Rose’s gambling problems to the Danny Almonte age fraud scandal in the Little League World Series, baseball has embraced and celebrated a culture of cheating.
Like American society itself, baseball is governed by a win-at-all costs mentality that doesn’t discourage cheating—only getting caught. More than any other sport, baseball prides itself on various forms of shortcutting that violate the spirit and letter of baseball’s laws. Numerous base runners have been slowed down by water-soaked base paths provided by loyal grounds keepers. Countless baseballs have been refrigerated by teams in an effort to undermine the effectiveness of power hitters. In fact, baseball lore is chock-full of romantic stories about sandpapered baseballs, pine tarred gloves, corked baseball bats, and intercepted signs.
Such chicanery isn’t merely limited to baseball’s lumpenproletariat. In fact, many of baseball’s elite have been implicated in some form of cheating or another. Hall of Fame pitchers Don Sutton and Gaylord Perry [who later wrote a book, Me and the Spitter: An Autobiographical Confession (Saturday Review Press, 1974), that detailed his cheating exploits] were notorious users of the “spitball”, a baseball doctored by sandpaper and/or petroleum jelly in order facilitate the breaking process. Ty Cobb, one of the greatest players in the history of the game, sharpened his spikes in order to intimidate fielders and increase his stolen bases. Mickey Mantle, another baseball immortal, arranged for Denny McLain to throw him an easy pitch so that he could pass Jimmie Foxx on the all-time home run list. Cooperstown veteran Ralph Kiner admittedly used amphetamines throughout his playing career. In fact, decades before the “steroid era” of the 1990s and early 2000s, it is generally believed that most of baseball’s top-notch players were taking amphetamines in order to boost their productivity.
While Major League Baseball has always turned a blind eye toward cheating, regarding it as a harmless vice, the league has taken a more active role in enabling the steroid era. After losing a huge sector of its fan base partially due to the increased popularity the NBA among American youth and largely due to the series of baseball work stoppages between 1972 and 1995 baseball was in desperate need of the national attention provided by Sosa and McGwire’s pursuit of Roger Maris’s homerun record. Despite myriad evidence suggesting that players were juicing, the league refused to implement an official policy on steroids until 2002, after numerous threats from the United States Congress. In fact, as Fainaru-Wada and Williams reveal, the league discouraged the media from acknowledging McGwire’s use of Androgen for fear of losing the fans who were finally returning to the sport. Given these factors, much of the morally charged outcry against Bonds should be redirected toward the league itself.
Baseball’s Record Books
Countless fans, players, and pundits have suggested that Bonds’ inevitable leapfrog over Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron should be marked with an asterisk or completely erased from baseball history, given the current circumstances. The guiding principle behind this position is that Bonds’ steroid consumption, along with that of his generational cohort, undermines the statistical integrity of the record book. In addition to being wrongheaded for the reasons already mentioned, such a position fallaciously presumes that baseball’s record books could ever be unblemished and objective windows into baseball’s past.
More than any other sport, baseball has relied on its record books to adjudicate arguments about the best players and teams in history. Using various statistical indicators of skill such as batting average, earned run average, and on-base percentage, baseball’s cognoscenti frequently attempt to compare players across multiple generations. Steroids, they argue, contaminate the process, as there is no way to determine how the players of yesteryear would have performed if they had access to today’s wonder drugs. While this argument is certainly reasonable, it represents a selective invocation of historicity that ignores countless other contextual differences that players confront across multiple generations.
In addition to steroids, players of today have access to a host of technology that promotes higher levels of performance. State-of-the-art fitness equipment, nutritional breakthroughs, new surgical techniques, and the use of the airplane are merely a few factors that make it easier to hit a ball, recover from pain, and concentrate on playing. How well would Babe Ruth have played if he had access and desire to engage in hardcore weight training? While some would argue that Ruth would rise to the necessary challenge, one could also point to his questionable work ethic and conclude that he would not be able to compete with today’s players.
By fetishizing the game’s statistics, baseball players are also able to ignore an otherwise apparent reality. Simply put, modern athletes are more gifted than their predecessors. Imagine how well Bonds, even the pre-steroid version, would perform against overweight pitchers throwing 60mph fastballs. It’s likely that he’d be approaching 900 home runs at this point in his career. Of course, such generational disparities aren’t restricted to baseball. After all, Hall of Fame NBA center George Mikan would likely be an extremely tall accountant if he had been born in the second half of the twentieth century.
The difference is, most NBA experts are not foolish enough to compare Mikan to Kareem Abdul Jabbar or Shaquille O’Neal based on raw numbers. Instead, they examine the impact of individual players within their own generational context. For baseball, the reality is that Bonds was by far the most dominant player in a generation rife with steroid use. We cannot punish him for being born in this historical moment any more than we can castigate Babe Ruth for not having to face Negro League pitchers due to American racism. While we should certainly critique the system that created baseball’s latest crisis, we must simultaneously acknowledge the athletic life and legacy of the man who made the most of his circumstance.