It’s Hall-of-Fame ballot season again. That wonderful time of year when the wind begins to nip at your nose and Christmas carols fill the air and the Baseball Writers Association of America comes together to decide who was naughty and who was nice during the Steroid Era. At the top of the list marked coal are two names that would otherwise go down on a short list of the greatest players to ever play the game if it were not for their use of performance-enhancing drugs- Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
No others players among the hundreds of players who have been connected to steroids have received as much finger-wagging and moralizing as these two players. They were both Hall-of-Fame caliber players without PED’s and then went on to reduce the record books to rumble with the drugs in their systems. Clemens won a record seven Cy Young Awards. All ten of the most comparable pitchers by the numbers are Hall-of-Famers. If from this unfiltered statistically perspective, he isn’t the greatest pitcher of all-time, he is undoubtedly in the top five. And then there is Bonds. There is no one comparable to Barry Bonds, because while Clemens might have won awards and put up great numbers, Bonds dismantled the records page by page.
Oh yeah, and in the process, he baseball from steroids. No joke, click-baiting.
You can be angry about that statement all you want, but the truth, if we are willing to acknowledge it, is that Barry Bonds is the sole reason that baseball, never an organization to move quickly on an issue, turned from ignoring the very idea that steroids might help players to ruthless investigations of its biggest stars with little regard for legality all in the span of about five seasons. If you are among those who believe performance-enchancing drugs were a scourge on the game, you owe Barry Bonds a debt of gratitude for ending the Steroid Era. He is the one who saved baseball and he was probably the person who could have.
Bonds’s thrashing of the record books and of opposing pitchers is impossible to summarize in any meaningful way. Even less than ten years after the fact, his career transcends rational understanding; it is pure mythology. Barry Bonds fun facts are a favorite recurring theme for a whole generation of sports-stat nerds and baseball iconoclasts.
Here is my favorite Barry Bonds fun fact: In the history of AT&T Park, there have been 71 “splash hits,” which the San Francisco Giants define as “Home runs hit by Giants that land in McCovey Cove on the fly without hitting the Arcade or Portwalk.” Of the 71 splash hits, 35 of those belong to Barry Bonds. He hit the first nine splash hits, splash hits number 14-25 and 29-34. Pablo Sandoval is second to Bonds in Splash hits with six, Brandon Belt is third with five. If Belt, who, unlike Sandoval, is still with the Giants, wanted to top Bonds for this title, he would need to play for 35 more seasons at his current splash hit rate to take the crown. Were he to double the rate at which he hits home runs into the bay, he would still need to play until he is 45 to match Bonds. Even if every home run he hits at home should find its way to McCovey Cove from now on, it will still take Belt a least six season to get within striking distance of Bonds and Bonds only played seven seasons in AT&T park and he did it starting at age 35.
The jagged and cynical among you might cry out that, of course, Bonds tops that list, he was ‘roided up like a Marvel Superhero and hitting more home runs than anyone else. Ever. By a lot. And that is all true. But that is still a ridiculous number. Go look at how far that Cove is from home. Watch how the winds always seem to be blowing in off the bay. Check it out. I’ll wait.
Back? Good. Even for a player on steroids, those hits are mind-blowing. Don’t try to tell me they aren’t…
…but back to the topic hand.
There is a fantastic fan-theory about the Dark Knight that first showed up on Reddit.The short summary is simply that the Joker is the true hero of The Dark Knight, actually “a man with a plan” who fixes the issues of corruption, racketeering and vigilantism in Gotham to bring peace to the city. This reading of the movie is mind-blowing and casts the entire movie, including Heath Ledger’s swan song performance in an entirely new light. It is also the perfect metaphor for late career-Barry Bonds, his war on the record books and baseball’s drug problem.
Why did Bonds pump himself full of HGH and Creams and Clears and EPO and a million other chemicals? The standard story, as related in Game of Shadows, is that Bonds watched the same home-run race that we all watched, the magical 1998 Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa battle for Roger Maris’s single-season record and was furious about it. He was furious because he hit .303/.438!/.609, with 37 home runs, 28 stolen bases and 122 RBI’s and won his eighth Gold Glove, only to finish eighth in MVP voting behind a juiced Sammy Sosa, who ran away with the Award and a juiced Mark McGwire, who shattered Maris’s record, hitting 70 home runs. He even finished behind Trevor Hoffman in the voting for godsake! His ego was bruised and he was going to get his revenge, full on Kill-Bill style, with the dismembered limbs of the record books scattered in his wake. He was going to get some of “his own shit.”
And the rampage was bloody and it was total. And the baseball world- a community that had been completely comfortable overlooking steroid use even when it was totally conspicuous – now had to face up the reality of the steroid problem. Maybe they could ignore the impact of steroids when two very likable players were chasing a cherished record that was nearly forty years old and had its own asterisk attached to it. When Barry Bonds, never the easiest player to like, made a mockery of that same record, breaking McGwire’s new benchmark just three seasons later, when he began to reach base more than half the time he came to the plate, when he terrified opposing managers enough to command 120 intentional walks in a single season, the gig had to be up.
In the Dark Knight, there is the wonderful line from Michael Caine’s Alfred, where explains the Joker to Bruce Wayne by pointing out that “some men just want to watch the world burn.” After 1998, Bonds’s approach to baseball was the approach of someone who wanted to watch the world burn. Sure, he took designer drugs to become a hulking behemoth, but he also did the insane amounts of training made possible by the drugs. He didn’t keep the secret to his newfound gigantism to himself either. He passed it on to others, including stars like Gary Sheffield and Jason Giambi if the reports from Game of Shadows and the Mitchell Report are accurate. And he didn’t just get bigger and stronger to hit more home runs, he changed his approach at the plate as well. He moved closer to the plate. He donned armor to protect his elbow, which now hung into the strikezone. He ignored any pitch that he wouldn’t be able to absolutely obliterate and he could now obliterate just about anything that could be possibly be called a strike. He didn’t just want to simply outshine Sosa and McGwire. He wanted to watch the world burn.
And it burned and burned fast. That is what changed baseball.