I understand that most people are not willing to accept Barry Bonds as the hero of the Steroid Era. “Hero” is a problematic word in this case, as it is when talking about the Joker in The Dark Knight. One convincing Fan-theory aside, few people would call the murderous Joker a good guy, even if they were to accept the notion that his actions and not those of Batman or Harvey Dent bring on the end of corruption and mafia-rule in Gotham. And while we may be willing to accept flawed, even unlikable people as heroes in some circumstances, some nobility of character is required. The Joker may be the agent of positive changes and, perhaps, as the fan theory linked to above suggests, he may intend to affect that change from the start, but he obviously delights in violence and chaos and the means to his end are the means that best suit those passions. He remains a villain, even if he is also the hero. The same can be said of Barry Bonds.
What Bonds did when he set the baseball world on fire, he did to serve his own ego. He may have also intended to expose the hypocrisy he saw around him with respect to the steroid issue, but that was collateral damage for him. He couldn’t stand seeing others glorified in his place. If PED’s had the power to create legends like McGwire and Sosa out of lesser men, Bonds would show the world what they could do for the greatest player of the era. He didn’t waste any time attempting to be subtle about it. He got as big as possible as fast as possible and went to work breaking baseball. There were PED users “cheating” the game before Barry Bonds first phoned BALCO, but like the Joker, Bonds gave baseball a “better class of criminal.”
Bonds remains personally unlikable in so many ways, just as he was before he became the monster on the steroid era’s movie poster. His performance from 2000 to 2007, however, grows more enjoyable with time. The sheer audacity of what he did that gives the numbers and the clips an undeniable magnetism. He had so much swagger to him, it was as if a Jose Bautista-walk-off-homer-bat-flip were given human form. He imposed so much dread in opposing pitchers and managers by 2004 that they gave up trying to beat him entirely, issuing him 120 intentional walks times, for a prosperous .609 OBP for that season. It is impossible to look at the numbers on Bonds baseball-reference page and not think, for a split-second, that there must be some mistake, that glitch in the system has left those number there. Yet, they remain the truth of the matter.
Baseball needed that kind of truth to end its denial about steroids. It needed numbers that only belonged in video games. Numbers you would never believe possible. It took such extreme measures to force the reality of PED’s on the baseball media. Certainly, there were incentives for writers to go with the feel-good nature of stories like the 1998 home run race, but it wasn’t a massive conspiracy that kept the story from breaking. It was something more complicated. It is hard to understand now, in a sports environment that has become obsessed with PED use to an unhealthy degree, but baseball didn’t think there was much chance that steroids would ever become a problem. They just wouldn’t work, the assumed.
For as long as the game has been around, it has honored the narrative that baseball is different than other sports. That baseball is a game of skills, not size and strength. This makes it democratic and distinctly American, the narrative tells us. And there is some grain truth to the myth. Even today, we can’t pin down exactly what gives one pitcher a blistering 98 mph fastball and another pitcher, maybe even bigger and stronger, a far more pedestrian 92 mph heater. Giant men like David Ortiz and Mark Trumbo hit for prodigious power, but smaller guys like Mookie Betts and Andrew McCutchen go yard a few dozen times a season as well.
Without satisfying explanations for these inconsistencies on hand, humans created ones for themselves and Baseball Exceptionalism was born. Its dogma told the faithful that getting too muscular would kill your game, that weight-training couldn’t create a ballplayer. Even more than the records Bonds would break so mercilessly, these beliefs were the game’s ultimate sacred cow. After all, who wanted to believe that the tedious, inglorious systems of weight-training that made bodybuilders and powerlifters and football players had a place in the pure democracy of baseball? Sure, it was good to be strong. Babe Ruth was strong. Mickey Mantle was strong. Hank Aaron was strong. But they didn’t train for that strength, they eat hot dogs, drank beer and smoke cigars, the mythology of the game alleged. Being strong by birth or genetics was one thing, but trying to get there in the gym would ruin your swing, destroy your arm action, leave you slow and immobile. Go worship at the altar of Batting Practice or in the Church of the Long-Toss, my son.
There were a few lone voices in the crowd, of course. Thomas Boswell’s nailed his complaints to the door by talking about Jose Canseco in 1988. He would have to wait 17 years to be validated. Apart from inspiring the first known STEROID chant in a ballpark and costing Canseco a deal with Pepsi, Boswell’s revolt from the church of Baseball Exceptionalism didn’t have any effect at all. In 1995, Bob Nightengale broke the post-Boswell Silence with “ Steroids Become a Problem,” getting players like Tony Gywnn and Frank Thomas to speak out on the issue, but that call for action got no tangible results in terms of policy and barely even got the rest of the media interested in the possibility of an issue. It’s a well-written piece and has excellent sources inside the game expressing concern, but aside from a line about washed-up guys with renewed bat speed and power from then-Padres GM Randy Smith, it says nothing at all about the possible advantages for player’s taking steroids, leaving the excuses that make up Baseball Exceptionsim’s dogma as valid as ever, at least outside the clubhouses.
Inside the game, the myth was already dead. Teams were already hiring strength coaches and adding weight rooms. When baseball writers first confronted these change, they were mystified by them. To really understand just how powerful Baseball Exceptionalism was before Bonds, consider the 1997 article Pete Williams of USA Today wrote on Ken Caminiti and his “goody bag.” It is one of the first articles to talk about basic supplements like Creatine and amino-acids and the naivety towards the potential impact of strength training in baseball is downright adorable from our current perspective. He writes the following-
None of these pills and powders, to be sure, were responsible for Caminiti winning last year’s National League Most Valuable Player Award. But there is no question that supplements and weight training have changed the face of baseball.
At a time when numerous explanations have been offered for the game’s offensive surge in recent years — from juiced balls to the newer ballparks tailor-made for home runs, to the watered-down pitching theory — perhaps we’re missing the obvious reason.
“Today’s player is bigger, stronger and faster than ever before,” says Oakland A’s manager Art Howe. “You have second basemen and shortstops with power and just about every leadoff hitter in baseball has the power to hurt you.
“You can talk a lot about why this is all happening, but a lot of it has to do with the strength of the players.”
Being strong makes players hit for more power! Wha-Wha-What?!?! Gad-zoonks!
Who’d have thunk it?
It is shocking that as recently as 1997, the very idea of adding muscle to be better at baseball would need an article arguing for its merits but that’s where we were pre-Barry Bonds-record-book inferno. Perhaps more shocking to the modern mind is the way steroids are discussed Williams article. The whole thing begins with Caminiti, who would later be revealed to have used steroids during this period, discussing his bag of pills. It’s right there in the first sentence. “Ken Caminiti calls it his goody bag.” That’s where Williams starts and he quickly reveals that-
Caminiti unzips the bag and reveals bottles and zip-locked bags of pills, vitamins and nutritional supplements. He opens one packet and shoves a handful of capsules into his mouth viking-style, all but swallowing the plastic.
After watching a ballplayer shove down a series of unlabeled pills, Williams never even seems to ask if any of them might be steroids. If did ask, he doesn’t include the question and the denial in the piece. He references steroids nine times in the article, repeatedly comparing the results of creatine use to those of steroids and even has Brian Sabean, the GM of the Giants, saying-
“Steroid use “wouldn’t surprise me…If it gives somebody an edge, guys are going to use it. Look how it’s affected other sports. We’d really have our head in the sand if we thought it wasn’t here in baseball.”
-but even as he probes a possible alternative to steroids, Williams seems to be operating under the assumption that steroids illegality and health-risks are enough to stop ballplayers from using them. He devotes himself instead to wondering if creatine is a good thing or not. It is maddening to read this, considering future events, but it shows just exactly how innocent and ignorant the baseball world was about the very idea of strength training inside the game, let alone the steroids that would go hand-in-hand with such workouts.
This is not to harp on Williams at all. He is practically the only one even circling around the conversation. He is also writing this in 1997, before the McGwire-Sosa home run race, before Andro and before He-Man Bonds. The conversation in the media would only advance by baby steps until Bonds made a mockery of Baseball Exceptionalism, adding 40lbs of muscle and embarrassing the game and the people who cover it with his superhuman feats. Once the BALCO-built Bonds happens, things like Creatine can’t hijack the conversation. Just look at the change in tone in USA Today by 2002, when Bonds acknowledges using creatine and protein powder-
San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds says he’s used creatine supplements and protein pills, according to an interview to be aired Thursday night by Fox Sports Net.
Bonds’ acknowledgment he took the legal supplements comes as players face scrutiny over steroid use.
They finish the brief write-up with the note that “Bonds has denied using steroids”
In five years, the tone of the conversation moved from “maybe it’s good to be strong” and “hmm, creatine, eh?”, to “don’t try and tell us that amino acids are the reason you are now hitting balls into the bay like Ted Williams playing in a wiffle ball tournament.”
Steroids are complicated biochemistry and few and far-between are the men who became sportswriters while harboring a secret love of biochemistry. Beyond that, trying to explain complex biochemistry to the masses is a good way to get your articles a quick trip to the cutting room floor. Writing at Grantland, Bryan Curtis did an amazing job shedding light on the problem with the media and covering steroids pre-Bonds in his 2014 article, The Steroids Hunt, which was an invaluable resource for me in writing this section. He writes-
“Everybody says, ‘You knew. You knew,’” said Richard Justice, who was the national baseball writer at the Washington Post. “I didn’t even know what there was to know.” Indeed, unless a baseball writer had covered the NFL or Ben Johnson in Seoul, he had little medical knowledge of steroids. Major League Baseball encouraged such ignorance. The league had no steroid testing policy.
Baseball wasn’t going to acknowledge the steroid problem and the people covering the game either didn’t understand the problem, weren’t interested in investigating it or if, like Nightengale, they did want to discuss it, they couldn’t get anyone to care about it for very long. This was a world without Facebook and Twitter. This was the early days of the internet. People used Alta Vista back then. Back then, my cell phone only made and received phone calls and it barely even did that. Basically, we had just evolved as a species and we were getting the hang of the whole living on dry land thing. The accepted notion was that baseball was not about muscle and therefore not susceptible to steroids. You couldn’t address the idea of steroids unless someone changed the way nearly every fan and even most “experts” thought about the nature of the game.
Barry Bonds may have been the only player who could ever make that change happen. It wasn’t going to happen because of what some heroic, likable guy might do, even if it was record-setting. Baseball needed a villain. It needed someone people could hate to show them they were deluded and no one likes someone who does that to them. It also needed a player so talented that he could reshape himself to do whatever insane thing would make it impossible for people to look away and then go and do it and be hated for it. Someone had to scare baseball straight and heroes don’t scare people, only villains do. Baseball didn’t need The Dark Knight, it needed the Joker.
Coming Up Next: How Barry Bonds Saved Baseball from Steroids: Part 3- A Bad Joke, Dropped at the First Sign of Trouble.