Baseball: Fallen idol set to break home run record
No game reveres its heroes quite like baseball, but as Barry Bonds approaches a historic landmark the mood in America is one of anger and sadness rather than celebration. The reason? He epitomises the steroid scandals that have fundamentally undermined the sport in recent years. Rupert Cornwell reports
Thursday 12 July 2007
Call it, if you like, the apotheosis of an American anti-hero. On Tuesday night Barry Lamar Bonds, outfielder for the San Francisco Giants, played in baseball's 78th annual All-Star Game. The venue was his hometown field of AT&T Park, a jewel of sporting architecture set on the edge of the bay, in whose waters fans cluster in boats on game day hoping to catch - or dive after - one of Bonds' titanic home-run balls.
He did not manage this sort of splash during the All-Star Game. However, at least the crowd was behind him, cheering his name to the rafters when he was introduced in the starting line up. Anywhere else in the country he might have been booed. For Bonds is not only probably the greatest player of his generation, but beyond doubt its most divisive. Currently, he has 751 career home runs, 37 more than the legendary Babe Ruth. Within a few weeks, he will surely hit the five he needs to overtake Hank Aaron's 755, and claim America's most hallowed sports record for his own. Barring injury, that is - or a federal indictment for perjury or tax evasion.
That, in a nutshell, is the Barry Bonds conundrum. Is he a once-in-a-lifetime performer, or a steroid-fuelled cheat, with an outsized chip on both shoulders and an unmatched ability to bite the hand that feeds him?
Not surprisingly, Americans don't know what to think. Like every nation on earth, they want to love their sporting superstars. They took the dissolute, hellraising Ruth to their bosom. Like the rest of us, they were captivated by Muhammad Ali. Now the mantle of divinity is wrapped around Tiger Woods, much as it was draped over Joe DiMaggio half a century ago.
However, the objects of such veneration have to keep their part of the bargain. Human failings are permitted. But they must play by the rules and they must be nice guys.
Bonds alas falls short on both counts. He may be a phenomenal baseball player, who has been voted the National League's most valuable player an unprecedented seven times (the next closest is three), and already holds a clutch of batting records, including the single season homer mark of 73 in 2001. But as for loveability: forget it.
The problem is not just his relations with the media, whom he blames for many of his difficulties. "You wanted me to jump off the bridge, and I've finally jumped," he told the press pack back in early 2005 when the drugs allegations were at their peak. "You wanted to bring me down, you've finally done it. So now go pick a different person. I'm done." That was Bonds in full self-pitying mode, blaming his woes on everybody and everything but himself. On Tuesday he beamed in the unaccustomed adulation.
More often though, he comes across as surly and arrogant, self-centred and unco-operative. Sometimes he depicts himself as the latest famous black man who rose too far for the liking of a white-dominated society. But even if he had been a paragon of sweetness, life would have been problematic. Barry Bonds is also the emblem of the steroids scandal that has dogged baseball for a decade.
In a sense, the game has got what it deserved. For years it pretended that no drugs problem existed, even when a steroid precursor banned in many other sports was found in the locker of St Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire in the summer of 1998. That year, America was enthralled by the battle between McGwire and Sammy Sosa, of the Chicago Cubs, to break the existing single season record of 61 homers. In the event they both shattered it, with McGwire hitting 70 - the mark Bonds himself would top just three years later.
But despite mounting evidence these feats were chemically propelled, the lords of Major League Baseball looked the other way. The fans loved home runs, the reasoning went - so why upset them again, after the disastrous strike of 1994? But then came the Balco scandal, and the lords of baseball could put their heads in the sand no longer.
The Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, ostensibly a supplier of nutritional supplements, was to be found in a dingy strip mall, near San Francisco airport. These modest premises however were the hub of the biggest illegal drugs scandal in the history of US sport. For dozens of top athletes from track and field, American football and baseball it became apparent from late 2003, that the company provided an unmatched range of stimulants, from well-known steroids and human-growth hormone to the hitherto undetected designer steroid THG. Among the baseball players, it became clear beyond reasonable doubt, was Barry Bonds.
His statistics alone were suspect enough. Four of his best five seasons were 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004, all of them when Bonds was over 36, an age when even the mightiest slugger's powers would normally be waning. Bonds however seemed rejuvenated. He ascribed it to increased gym work and a new nutritions regime from his trainer, Greg Anderson. But, many noticed, his physique had changed. The lithe athlete had become a mountain of muscle, with tectonic plates for a chest, and forearms like cleavers. Even his head had seemed to grow.
To this day Bonds denies that he knowingly took steroids. He further points out he has never failed a baseball drugs test (not that, until last year at least, that obstacle ever amounted to much). But this defence was blown out of the water by Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, investigative reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle - first in a series of scoops on Balco for the paper and then in their 2006 book Game of Shadows, which has a fair claim to being the most devastating sports exposé ever written.
It is based on the supposedly secret transcripts of testimony to the Balco grand jury. These show that Bonds received a version of THG known as "the clear" and another steroid called "the cream". Bonds told the grand jury he thought they were, respectively, flaxseed oil and an anti-arthritis balm, but evidence from other witnesses, including his former girlfriend, leaves scant doubt he was on a steroids regime, and knew it.
Hence the perjury investigation. The tax investigation stems from income Bonds generated by signing baseballs and other memorabilia, which he did not report to the authorities. Bonds did briefly sue the authors. But he did not challenge the allegations. Instead he claimed Williams and Fainaru-Wada were guilty of an "unfair business practice," by making public grand jury testimony.
For baseball, a sport that reveres its statistics as no other, the revelations were devastating. The epic McGwire/Sosa home-run duel had been no more than a glorified lab test, as were many other statistics compiled in what had seemed baseball's most glorious offensive era. Many argued that all should be accompanied by an asterisk in the record books to denote them as such.
Thus the dilemma posed by Bonds' inexorable march to overtake Aaron, a slow motion, headline-making ride towards the ultimate train-wreck. Belatedly, and under fierce pressure from Congress, the MLB commissioner, Bud Selig, has tightened baseball's drug rules and even the powerful players' union has been shamed into going along with it.
But as Bonds has approached the record, discomfort has only grown. Selig himself refuses to say whether he will attend games when Bonds is poised to hit homer No 756. Others simply wish the man would go away. And what can life be like for Bonds himself, cherished by the fans in San Francisco, but a lonely, loudly abused outcast everywhere else? Back in September 2005, a few months after his orgy of self-pity in front of the baseball media, I saw the Bonds drama first hand. The Giants had a series in Washington during the closing stages of an injury-plagued season for their superstar outfielder. Finally, however, he was back in the line-up.
As he took the field boos rang out, and fans waved giant plastic syringes and placards with the word "Cheater". Bonds, however, had the perfect answer. In the fourth inning he swivelled on an inside pitch from the veteran Livan Hernandez and lashed it 460 feet into the top deck over right field - a spot where no other hitter had come close all year. Very slowly, his legs almost audibly creaking, he trotted round the bases. And were my eyes playing tricks or was he also making a one-digit gesture of contempt to his detractors? From the crowd there issued a mixture of boos and cheers: hostility to the man who had upset every rose-tinted illusion baseball had about itself - but also applause, however grudging, at the feat of a stunning athlete. Steroids may help. But even so, hitting a home run is among the most spectacular, and most difficult feats in any sport. Bonds, his fantastic eye and blinding bat-speed undiminished at almost 43, is about to perform that feat more frequently than anyone in big-league history.
The homer I witnessed was No 706, one more step on the climb to baseball's Everest. Now that and every other milestone are far below in the valley. Bonds joined the 500-homer club in 2001. His 600th came in August 2002, his 700th in September 2004. He hit his 715th to overtake Ruth in May 2006. Now only Aaron stands ahead.
And however much you might wish it, no one believes he will fail to reach the summit. That night in Washington, when Bonds entered the batting box, everything else - the inner demons, the enemies real and imagined, the scandals and the legal threats - just faded away. The only opponent was the small white ball hurtling at him from the pitcher's hand at 90-odd miles an hour. And that particular contest is one Barry Bonds tends to win.
America's greatest sluggers: How Bonds and Aaron compare
Full Name: Henry Louis Aaron
Born: 5 Feb 1934, Mobile, Alabama
Height: 6ft 2in
MLB debut: 13 April 1954
Final game: 3 Oct 1976
Home Runs: 755
At Bats: 12,364
Runs Batted In: 2,297
Batting average: .305
"I don't have any thoughts about Barry. I don't even know how to spell his name."
Full Name: Barry Lamar Bonds
Born: 24 July 1964, Riverside, California
Height: 6ft 2in
MLB debut: 30 May 1986
Home runs: 751
At Bats: 9,714
Runs Batted In: 1,972
"I like to be against the odds. I'm not afraid to be lonely at the top. With me, it's just the satisfaction of the game."
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