Like a lot of baseball fans, I think I've warmed just a bit to Barry Bonds' pursuit of baseball's all time home run record in the past few days. And like many of them, the catalyst was the intentionally cold, dispassionate face of Commissioner Bud Selig, sitting up in the luxury booth, almost glowering every time Bonds stepped to the plate. Yeah, I think that Barry got the record by juicing himself full of steroids, but if Selig isn't willing to step up and announce what Bonds' penalties will be, then he should quit trying to play to respond to criticism of his past failures in confronting steroid use and end up looking like that sour old butler from the movie, 'The Haunted Mansion'. Thankfully, Selig missed last night's game (because, as his office noted, he was preparing for a meeting with George Mitchell and the Steroids Committee,) and he had the class to call Bonds after the game and offer him his congratulations.
Let's also get another point straight-- steroids is now taken much more seriously as 'cheating' than it was just a few years ago when Bonds was apparently using them. In 1998, Mark McGwire was hailed as a 'hero' for breaking Roger Maris' record and he and the media brushed off allegations of steroid use. He was gushed over by that very same Bud Selig. When he retired five years ago he was still considered by most to be a sure-fire Hall of Famer.
Perceptions have changed since then. And Bonds has been part of the change. McGwire's record stood for only three years, before it was shattered by Bonds. But unlike McGwire, Bonds was surly, sometimes on bad terms with the press and besides that his name had come up in connection with a Federal investigation-- specifically that of BALCO, a San Francisco area lab that was accused of supplying steroids to a number of players for the Giants and Athletics, including Bonds. Bonds is rumored to have perjured himself in front of a federal grand jury investigating the BALCO case, so the possibility that he could be indicted on a felony charge and maybe even go to prison has loomed in the background (though luckily for him, one of the U.S. attorneys let go by Gonzalez was for northern California; though the political angle on it was that the catalyst for the firing was the investigation into corruption charges against Congressman John Doolittle (R-CA) the firing has also slowed down action on a number of other cases, most notably the case involving Bonds. The U.S. Senate two years ago began investigative hearings into steroid abuse in baseball, and McGwire, who was at that time still immensely popular, probably talked himself out of a shot at the Hall of Fame with his now infamous response to the Senate panel, 'I'm not here to talk about the past.' Why did he agree to testify then? So he could talk about the weather? And then McGwire's old 'bash brother' teammate in Oakland, Jose Canseco, published a book in which he described steroid use as rampant in baseball, pointing fingers at everyone from McGwire to George W. Bush (who was the owner of the Texas Rangers when Canseco played there and described a clubhouse practically swimming in steroids.)
So now it is being said of Bonds that he cheated his way to the record, and doesn't deserve it. Perhaps, but let's face it-- trying to get an edge, legally or not in baseball is as old as the game itself. Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry described in detail a few years ago how he doctored, scuffed and managed to spit on baseballs, in clear violation of the rules of the game. Pitcher Doc Ellis once took speed so he could throw faster, and whether he threw faster or not, he did end up throwing a no-hitter that day. Pitchers who use marijuana to help loosen up before a game have been too numerous to mention. Hall of Famer George Brett once had a home run disallowed for using too much pine tar on his bat; the call was later reversed by the commissioner's office, but one wonders if they'd have done the same if it was someone of a lesser stature than George Brett. Sammy Sosa, who gave McGwire a run for his money a few years ago and who has also been accused (without any real evidence) of using steroids, was caught using a doctored bat in a game three years ago. Remember that when Bonds is alleged to have used steroids, they were considered no higher a level of cheating than say, a scuffed ball or a corked bat, and if Canseco is to be believed then as many as half of all players on the field are using or have used steroids to 'improve' themselves. In such an environment, it's just as accurate to argue not that players who use performance-enhancing drugs have an advantage, but rather that players who don't are at a disadvantage.
One final point-- Bonds has always been a very good hitter. Taking steroids is a separate issue from that. I doubt if Arnold Schwarzeneggar could hit a home run, because hitting a home run takes a lot of concentration, good wrists, timing and other skills that have nothing to do with steroids. I'm not even sure that strength is all that high on the list-- I've seen a woman hit a softball hard enough that it was way out of the field, and would probably have left a major league park. The truth is that hitting is both an art and a science, and the assumption that one can just bulk up and suddenly home runs will come is just plain untrue.
Selig is also partly to blame. Some years ago, in the face of declining ticket sales, some changes were made to the game to juice up the offenses. Shorter fences, livelier balls, so much that even journeyman infielders can often hit twenty home runs in a season (what used to be considered a magic mark for power hitters.) So is it any wonder that the best home run hitters over the past decade have almost routinely rocketed past numbers that had stood unchallenged for decades?
So, while I agree that he did most likely get there while enjoying the dubious benefit of steroids, Barry Bonds does deserve the record. No asterisk.
And in other news-- Alex Rodriguez, who has never been accused of using steroids and who could very well have another decade left to play, hit number 500 the other night....