Bailing on Bonds

On deck against the Chicago Cubs March 17, 2006.

The latest Bonds-on-steroids outcry smacks of opportunism and hypocrisy. Of all the interested parties, the only one seemingly concerned whether Barry's muscles are rented or paid for, is the media. To make matters worse, the most recent indictment of Bonds is the direct result of the media's own (two SF Chronicle reporters) capitalizing on the Bonds polemic strictly for monetary gain, embraced by the self-serving and pious baseball press.

There’s no doubt the authors of the book that has rekindled the Bonds-as-cheater discussion have much to gain from the new frenzy. There’s a reason court witnesses with an agenda are generally considered unreliable. Those with legitimate claims who go to the authorities are called ‘whistle-blowers,’ while those who trumpet their allegations in the media are called ‘opportunists.’ In fact, the book, Game of Shadows, which unsurprisingly features a photo of Bonds on the cover, speaks of the player as part of a larger storyline, a small piece in “the systematic use of a wide array of illegal drugs by other major leaguers, NFL players and track and field athletes,” according to Sports Illustrated.

All you need to know about the recent Bonds furor can be gleaned in the 10-page excerpt reprinted in Sports Illustrated last week. It’s all there; the conversations, the BALCO raid, the grand jury testimony of Bonds and others. It’s nothing new, and if you care you might ask yourself why the Chronicle (the one who pays these authors’ salaries when they’re not writing books) didn’t get the rights to the book excerpt. After all, the authors had no prior relationship with Sports Illustrated save for the fact they’re aware of SI’s huge influence on book sales.

Where is the revelation that these reporters, whose book release date coincides with spring training and baseball fever despite having little to do with baseball, are simply out to make a buck?

But the book itself could not generate all this hand wringing and exposure without help. After all, the commissioner of baseball hasn’t said he will investigate the allegations in the book simply because the book exists—if that were impetus enough he would have done something when Jose Canseco’s book hit the shelves a year ago. No, the cross had to be borne by a party willing to carry it forth unequivocally. But who? It’s evident the commissioner of baseball could care less about steroids. The only reason there’s a drug policy at all is the result of congressional threats. And when Bud Selig was forced to establish a course of action he instituted a drug testing program the laughingstock of athletes the world over. The players certainly aren’t for rehashing the issue again. Says Roger Clemens, "I worry more about the man's health than I do about him hitting home runs or whatever this witch hunt we're on." The ownership and management of the Giants aren’t for another kick at the Bonds-can; they’re happy to pollute McCovey Cove with as much horsehide as Barry can muster. The players union is against it for obvious reasons. And the fans are not only against this new inquisition, they’re insulted by it. “I think it’s disgusting,” said Jason Brindle of the Bay Area, at Scottsdale Stadium for the weekend of Giants spring training games. “It’s about it being early in the season and selling papers, and it’s sad.”

So that leaves the media. The latest book on drugs in sport is a convenient jumping-off point for the punditocracy to fan the flames for their own benefit. And it’s the wholehearted subjectivity of this same media’s response to past drug indiscretions that makes their current outrage suspect. The media talking heads claim that if a guy is cheating, well then, we have to know about it and mete out the appropriate punishment, for the sanctity of the game. Oh really?

Where was the media-initiated scrutiny concerning Mark McGwire in 1998? MLB trotted out the Maris family to hand over the homerun title and the media applauded in lockstep. Everyone in the game and the media knew what was going on. McGwire was as big as a house, supremely larger than he had been several years earlier. But of course that’s not enough. The summer McGwire looped number 62 over the left field fence at Busch Stadium, Jose Canseco, who seems now to be the Nostradamus of nefarious drug use, says he joked in 1998 that, “So many guys went rushing to hide their vials in the locker room when the media showed up that it was like watching roaches scurrying for cover after the lights go on.” It’s impossible that the media was oblivious to the widespread use of drugs in the game. In addition, McGwire’s ’98 bash-buddy Sammy Sosa’s own body transformation makes Bonds’ look wholly unremarkable, and so anyone who claims that baseball and the media weren’t aware of steroids in the 90’s is simply out of the loop.

And the response in the largest media market in the world in 2004 when Jason Giambi was basically busted with steroids in his hand? Harrumph.

So we know who’s behind this latest shakedown, but why now? Leaving out the issue of Bonds’ abrasive personality, which would indict the media on too simplistic of terms, we turn to the notion that baseball is about numbers, and the self-appointed watchdogs of baseball, the media and baseball writers, claim they have an obligation to ensure the sanctity of the game and those numbers. After all, baseball is the only sport where you should be able to compare players from different generations using their stats. And of course, the granddaddy of all records is the career homerun title, which is under assault by, you guessed it.

So those pundits, who haven’t found it necessary to make an issue of drug use in baseball over the past decade (or two) as they were basking in the glow of fence-clearing bombs, have suddenly found religion and begun the drumbeat for censure, suspension, retirement or any of the other pointless responses to these latest accusations against Bonds. What seems to be blatantly obvious to anyone willing to be honest is that it’s okay for baseball players to use performance enhancing drugs, as long as they don’t break any records. Actually, it’s okay to break records, just not the Big One.   

However, this argument too fails. Numbers in baseball have always been subjective. When Roger Maris broke Ruth’s single season homerun record those overseeing the game determined that since Maris accomplished the feat playing eight more games, his 61 trippers deserved an asterisk. What is not widely known is that Ruth actually had more at-bats than Maris.

Yankee Phil Rizzuto retired from baseball in 1956 and in every Hall of Fame ballot that followed was overlooked for election into the Hall. In 1994, the Veterans Committee elected Rizzuto into the Hall of Fame. Did he somehow get better in the 38 years since he retired? Obviously not. Those in charge of deciphering the numbers subjectively and arbitrarily ignored them. The numbers are the numbers, except when they’re not.     

What’s amazing is that the fans are ahead of the pundits on this one. While certainly Bonds may have used drugs to get ahead, the fans have looked down the road and realized that nothing can be done about it at this point, and the drama generated by the media is blatantly self-serving and not good for the game in the least. They know that designer Human Growth Hormone is undetectable without a blood test and baseball will never mandate sticking a needle into a player’s arm as long as there’s a union. The fans realize those thrown to the urine-testing wolves are players who can neither afford the good stuff nor have access to it—in other words, the minor leaguers. A sample of those suspended for violating the drug policy implemented in 2005 reveals an overwhelming majority of minor league players. The fans understand that to vilify Bonds and demean his accomplishments without definitive proof of cheating is to throw the modern record book into question and dynamite the foundation upon which baseball as a pastime and an identity rests. Strangely, the sanctimonious talking heads and media personalities who make a living from the game are the last to recognize their folly and have embarked on a crusade which will only serve to wipe out the very thing for which they claim to fight.   



Drew Nederpelt has written for the NY Press, and about steroids in baseball for Yahoo!Sports and Scout.com, and is a principal in literary agency Metropol Literary, based in New York City.

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