I don’t know where to go with this any more, nor do I know what else to say.
But it’s no surprise that Barry Bonds took something to make him bigger and stronger and better. It’s no surprise Jason Giambi took human growth hormones and steroids. And it’s no surprise this is allegedly the biggest story in sports since big stories were invented.
It’s a big story because we are all hypocrites. People cheat. We know that, and still we deny it. So when we find out that what we both know and deny is true, we have to react with shock and amazement. We can’t help it. We’re wired to react that way.
So Barry Bonds may have cheated? That’s a story? Like we didn’t know?
Give me a break. Finding out that Bonds may have taken banned substances — even if you want to buy into his excuse that he didn’t know he was doing anything wrong — is a surprise on the level of discovering that the sun rises in the east, that two-year-olds like sweets, that fox terriers bark at strangers and that it’s a bad idea to tell a woman she’s got a fat backside.
You can’t even talk about taking away his records or diminishing them. He did what he was allowed to do. No one can get punished for that. If you take away his MVPs and home runs, then take away Don Sutton’s and Gaylord Perry’s Hall of Fame plaques. Take way Norm Cash’s batting title. Take away Mike Scott’s perfect game. They all cheated, just as surely as Bonds and Giambi did, as surely as Ken Caminiti did. As surely as more players that you want to know about did.
What Bonds and these others did was deeply rooted in the game. Pete Rose and most players of his generation couldn’t take batting practice without first downing a handful of “greenies” — amphetamines. Willie Mays kept a bottle of “red juice” in his locker — the same stuff as greenies, but in a liquid form. We can’t say Hank Aaron was clean, because we don’t know what stimulants he took, if any. We can’t vouch for anyone’s purity.
That’s the reality, folks. And if Bonds is now revealed as a cheater, where is the element of surprise? We’ve known he wasn’t natural for half a decade or more. But we kept watching him and writing about him and calling him the greatest thing since pine tar.
So did he go from great to a fraud? Or did we go from incredibly naïve to equally judgmental?
We have no right to condemn Bonds. Not after we marveled at his talent. Not after we declared him one of the best of all time. And especially not after he’s admitted to doing things that baseball never — until last year — said he couldn’t do.
This, friends, is not a story. Barry Bonds, we learn, took things that made him bigger and stronger. He continues to deny culpability, saying he didn’t know what he was taking were illegal steroids.
All he’s saying now — or said to a grand jury — it that he followed the advice of a coach, didn’t ask exactly what he was ingesting and rubbing on his body and got bigger than he could get naturally. And he didn’t think it was illegal.
What balderdash. It’s like aiming a gun at someone, pulling the trigger, watching that person fall, then protesting that you didn’t know the gun was loaded.
The denials are meaningless. But, so, too, are the charges. Bonds took “cream” and “clear.” Then he hit a whole lot of home runs and won so many MVP’s you got the feeling he was playing a different game than everyone else.
You can call it cheating. But baseball called it legal. There was no law against taking every drug in the CVS warehouse, no law against doing whatever you could to get stronger and better. There is still virtually no law; you get tested once a year on a date you either know exactly or are alerted to.
If you can’t dodge that test, you’re dumber than a driver who sees a cop sitting on the side of the road a half mile ahead and still blows past him at the speed limit plus 20.
It’s not just baseball, it’s life. If you’re running for president and you can get the Supreme Court to help you to a win, you do it. Or if it takes cemeteries in Chicago and Jersey City to vote en masse for you, you accept the votes.
I’m not saying it’s fair. It just is.
If there were a drug that could make us write like Mark Twain — my hero — or H. L Mencken, whose name is as foreign to most kids in this business as Iron Man McGinnity’s is to baseball players, don’t kid yourselves. We’d all be taking it.
A lot of writers of my generation grew up when Gonzo journalism and Hunter S. Thompson ruled. We took the same drugs and tried to write the same way. We couldn’t, because Thompson was a great writer before his first hit or toke or snort or whatever he was doing. We weren’t going to catch him, no matter how stupid we tried to make ourselves through liberal application of controlled substances.
If you were a little older, Red Smith was the standard, and Red never took anything stronger that vodka and tonic. I’ve poured down a lot of vodka’s and tonic — no fruit — because that’s the way Red drank it, and also because there might be a vitamin in that slice of lime, and you don’t want one of those to enter your system. But despite this, I can’t write three words as good as any three Red put down.
The point is if you’re good, you’re good. Nothing you take is going to make you bad. It might kill you early, but it won’t take away your talent. And if there is something you can take to make you better, the great ones are still going to be great and the good ones are still going to be willing to mortgage their souls to be in the same area code as their betters.
Barry Bonds is a great baseball player. Last year, he hit 45 home runs and struck out 41 times. I don’t know what he did or took to help the balls fly out of the park. But I do know there is no drug that can keep you from striking out. If Bonds had played in Ruth’s era, he’d have hit more home runs than he hits now.
That’s a fact, because in Ruth’s day, they didn’t put you on base two out of every five times you came to the plate. They didn’t walk you intentionally nearly 100 times a year. They didn’t have relief pitchers who could get God out four out of five times.
What they had was starting pitchers getting tired who threw the ball over the plate and made you beat them. They had pitchers who didn’t nibble in the second inning. Ruth hit all those home runs because he got a lot of pitches to hit. Bonds hit his despite having no pitches to hit.
But here’s something few people talk about, and it has as much to do with Bonds’ success as any drug he may have taken, wittingly or not. It’s that piece of armor on his elbow. Bonds and other hitters can hang over the plate and dig in with no fear of getting hit, because the armor stops it from hurting. And, if a pitcher throws too far inside, the pitcher can get thrown out of the game.
So if you want Bonds or anyone else to play fair, forget the drugs. Tell him he can’t wear that pad on his arm and elbow. Then tell the pitchers to go ahead and throw high and tight, the same way Don Drysdale did, without fear of ejection and/or suspension. All the ‘roids in the world won’t protect your elbow, and they won’t make it easier to hit the dirt to keep from getting hit.
Baseball could do a lot of things. One is to have a meaningful policy on drugs and cheating. Another is to make batters stand up there without body armor. A third is to give pitchers the right to throw inside.
Adopt any of those policies, and I’ll care about Bonds again. But don’t bore me with sanctimonious drivel about abuses everyone knew existed. Bonds has done what he’s done under the rules of the game. If the game doesn’t like it, it can change the rules. Otherwise, everyone should just shut up.
Dec. 3: Barry Bonds' attorney, Michael Rains, addresses the media about reports that his client used steroids provided by Burlingame laboratory BALCO.
Baseball's steroid scandal