A few thoughts about Barry Bonds

If we’re being perfectly honest, I hadn’t planned on writing about Barry Bonds’ presence at Monday’s opener any more than I already had; I was going to mention it in passing, clap politely for Bonds when he was announced, and then go nuts for Andrew McCutchen. People are really fired up about this, though, and it’s one of those things that I think tends to break down along age lines. I’ve had my opinion about Bonds change quite a bit over the last few years, and I’ve got some time in Baltimore’s airport this morning, so why not talk a little bit more about it.

For a long time, I hated Barry Bonds. I don’t think you’d have to search too deeply into the ancient archives of WHYGAVS 1.0 on Blogspot to find some incredibly negative things written about him. I always told myself that the reason that I hated him was because he was a cheater, because his head was huge and he was breaking records that he didn’t quote-unquote deserve to break and that he he had obviously changed as a player from the guy that I murkily remembered patrolling left field for the Pirates in the early 90s. That was probably partially true; I remember reading the Ken Caminiti Sports Illustrated story about steroids in baseball and being outraged. The thought that steroids had so pervasively invaded baseball was insane and offensive to me as an idealistic high schooler. Bonds was certainly a poster boy for people that felt that way about steroids at the time.

Right around the time that Bonds broke the home run record (which is, with all honesty, a baseball moment that I will always remember; I was visiting my aunt in South Carolina with my family shortly after moving to Chapel Hill, we were up late watching TV when Bonds hit his 756th home run, and I stayed up for most of the night furiously writing posts for WHYGAVS and FanHouse) my opinion of him started to change. By 2007 it was starting to become clear that Bonds was just one of many (many many many) baseball players on steroids, and the magnitude of his accomplishment from 2000-2007 was staggering and singular. What I think that I had failed to realize at the time was that the magnitude of Bonds’ accomplishments from 1990-1999 was very nearly equally staggering (he had a 1.076 OPS and a 179 OPS+ in the 90s). Late Career Power Hitter Barry Bonds wasn’t the product of a mediocre player that juiced himself into relevance (look, I wasn’t going to name names, but Sammy Sosa); it was the product of a once-in-a-generation baseball talent that pushed himself past what had previously been thought to be the peak of baseball perfection.

I’m not terribly interested in going down a slip-n-slide of moral relativism here. Lots of baseball players took steroids in the 1990s and early 2000s. It’s easy to say that they shouldn’t have done it, but for the longest time there was no testing and there were no repercussions. It does, when you take time to think about it, seem strange that replacing an elbow ligament with a hip ligament to prolong a career is celebrated, but altering hormone levels to help muscle development is the worst possible sin a player could commit. Regardless of that discussion, I think it’s crazy to hold one player out as a figurehead for an entire era of cheating. Barry Bonds got the best results from steroids because he was the best player that took them.

In a weird way, I almost admire the story about Bonds getting angry in 1998 while Sosa and Mark McGwire soaked up the adulation of the public for their home run race. McGwire was the ultimate one-dimensional slugger and Sosa was a decent-but-unspectacular corner outfielder prior to 1998. Neither player was Barry Bonds, and Bonds (and most other players) knew that they’d done something to push themselves to the heights they were reaching. As the story goes, Bonds got so upset by the attention that these non-Bonds players received for using chemistry to boost their non-Bonds talent into the stratosphere, that he swore he would do anything to prove that he was better than them. That’s an incredibly self-centered attitude, of course, and Bonds’s self-centeredness is always one of the biggest knocks against him, but the desire to be the best and the “I’ll prove everybody wrong” attitude is something that we value highly in a lot of other athletes. On one hand, it’s easy to argue that if Ken Griffey Jr. had started juicing in 1998 and gotten the same results that we might react differently to him. On the other, it’s just as easy to say that only Bonds could possibly get the results that he got because nobody was driven in quite the same way that he was.

Once I started considering these things in 2007, it occurred to me that I didn’t hate Bonds for using steroids; I hated him because he couldn’t throw Sid Bream out at home plate, and then he left Pittsburgh for forever, putting the team into a terrible purgatory that they didn’t break out of until last year. Holding grudges like this is one of the fun things about sports, but I also knew in 2007 that Cam Bonifay and Kevin McClatchy and Dave Littlefield had much, much, much more to do with the state of the Pirates than Barry Bonds. Knowing that made my grudge feel a little bit petty to me; the honest truth is that as much as Andy Van Slyke was my favorite player, Bonds was the iconic player on those early 1990s Pirates. It’s hard to tell people over and over again that the reason that those Pirate teams were the reason I fell in love with baseball in the first place, but to deny the role that Bonds played in it (this is the iconic early 1990s Pirate moment right here; not anything that anybody else did — somewhere in an alternate universe the Pirates won the 1992 World Series and Barry Bonds never left Pittsburgh and Bonds with his arms up in celebration before the bat even drops to his feet is a statue outside of that universe’s version of PNC Park).

That brings us to Bonds’s presence on the field tomorrow. Baseball, more than any other American sport, is lore-driven. Individual accomplishments, like Andrew McCutchen’s MVP Award, matter do matter as individual accomplishments, but they also matter as straight-lines through history from past MVPs to current ones. The reason that the 20 year losing streak hurt so much was that every Pirate fan my age remembered watching Bonds and Van Slyke and we heard stories about Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente and Dave Parker, but we had none of that to call our own. That’s not true anymore.

The reality, though, is that Bonds is a point on that straight line through history. He was a magnificent asshole and a magnificent baseball player. I would much rather acknowledge that point than erase it or pretend like it doesn’t exist. Barry Bonds or no Barry Bonds, the presentation of the MVP Trophy tomorrow will be about drawing that line to Andrew McCutchen. I won’t tell anyone what they should do during tomorrow’s pre-game ceremony, because we all relate to baseball differently and it’s not my place to dictate how other people should relate to baseball. What I’ll tell you is what I’m going to do:  I’ll clap for Barry Bonds tomorrow for what he represents to the Pirates, but I’ll lose my voice cheering for Andrew McCutchen. That’s what these ceremonies are supposed to be about, after all.

Image credit: Flickr — Eric Molina

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.