Ten years ago tonight, the sequoia of Major League Baseball records fell and the damnation of it was not that nobody heard it; it was that so few people cared.
For all of his great skill, the most unimaginable achievement in the career of Barry Bonds is not that he broke the all-time home run record, but that he debased it.
Commissioner Bud Selig didn’t bother watching Barry Bonds hit home run number 756 on Aug. 7, 2007. He was too busy, as the devilish scriptwriting gods of baseball would have it, prepping for his meeting with Sen. George Mitchell, his appointed special counsel investigating steroids in baseball. At least it saved Selig from repeating the awkwardness of being on hand when Bonds tied Hank Aaron at 755; Selig, true to his feelings, kept his hands stuffed in his pockets rather than cheer.
Less than a million households watched Bonds break the record, whereas 14.9 million households watched Aaron pass Babe Ruth in 1974. (Obvious caveats: Bonds hit his home run at 11:51 p.m. EDT while Aaron, in the pre-cable days, hit his at 9:07 p.m. The point is that Aaron’s record blast was a national happening; Bonds’ was a national disillusionment.)
An examination by Pew Research Center of 106 stories the next day found that beyond the names of Bonds, Aaron and Mike Bacsik, the Nationals pitcher who yielded the record homer, the most common words were “steroids” and “performance-enhancing drugs.” Both appeared 215 times.
Headline writers, as if engaged in a New Yorker cartoon caption writing contest, did the best they could do find the best joke in Bonds’ achievement.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “Bonds Blasts No. 756*.”
New York Post: “No. 756 Just Junk Bonds.”
San Francisco Chronicle: “Alone at the Top: Surpassing Aaron’s record, San Francisco Giants slugger hammers home run as fans debate true champion.”
Debate? You bet your syringe, yes. By not just using performance-enhancing drugs, but, according to reporting by the Chronicle and evidence introduced by prosecutors in court, but also by using them copiously and to freakish body- and performance-altering lengths, Bonds turned a simple math problem into a debate.
When is 755 greater than 762? (I admit, such is the lack of integrity and folklore to the number that I had to look up Bonds’ final total.) If you believe in fair play, and not leaving baseball to a competition of who has the better chemist, you know the answer.
Ten years have changed nothing. There has never been a moment of honesty from Bonds about how the record was achieved. His trainer, Greg Anderson, went to jail twice rather than answer questions about the drugs Bonds used. Strangely, sportswriters offer defenses of Bonds that he and Anderson have never mustered. The lamest defenses by Bonds’ supporters are that “everybody was using steroids” back then, and that “you still have to hit a baseball.”
At trial, government attorneys argued that the drug lab known as BALCO gave Bonds the designer steroid THG, known as “the clear” because it was so cutting edge no urine drug test could pick it up, and a testosterone-based ointment called “the cream.” Olympic sprinter Tim Montgomery testified that “the clear” was bottled in used flaxseed containers.
Prosecutors confronted Bonds with evidence claiming he not only used “the clear” and “the cream,” but also human growth hormone, Depo-Testosterone, insulin and a female fertility drug that can be used to mask drug use and counter the unpleasant, embarrassing side effects of steroids.
Bonds claimed only to have used steroids unknowingly, claiming he thought he was taking flaxseed oil and an arthritic balm.
Bogus, claimed Patrick Arnold, the very drug chemist who invented “the clear.” In 2007 Arnold told Bob Costas on HBO, when asked if it were plausible that Bonds thought he was using flaxseed oil, “No. No, not in the least. ‘The clear’ was THG dissolved in the same stuff that’s used for that nontoxic antifreeze. Tasted horrible. I guess it’s possible that Barry had never tasted flaxseed oil and said, ‘Well, I guess this is flaxseed oil.’ But it’s pretty hard to believe.”
Such is Bonds’ infamy that he has had five cracks at the Hall of Fame and he’s still not in, gaining between 35% and, most recently, 54% of a vote among baseball writers in which 75% is needed for enshrinement. Loosely put, Bonds has five more years to get 94 writers to change their minds from no to yes, or almost half of those who don’t support him.
(Those numbers are for representative purposes only. The electorate is fluid, not fixed, as writers come on and off the voting roll. The recent thought is that as younger writers replace older writers, Bonds is more likely to pick up their votes. This is likely true for a number of reasons, including the fact that many new voters never covered the steroid era.)
Almost three decades after the disgrace of sprinter Ben Johnson in the Olympics, the lack of sophistication about steroids is mind-boggling. People talk about them like they are a generic drug, like aspirin. The range of drugs, uses, regimens and effects are diverse and complicated. What Bonds did was take performance-enhancers to state-of-the-art and undetectable levels. It was hard, calculated work for him to perpetuate and protect a full-blown scam.
Through age 33, Bonds hit 15% fewer home runs than contemporary Ken Griffey Jr. at the same age (481-411). But from age 34 on, Bonds not only out-homered the oft-injured Griffey by more than double, 351-149, he also out-homered every other man who ever played Major League Baseball by the freakish margin of 28%. Aaron (274) is a distant second to Bonds in home runs at such an advanced age.
If you don’t think PEDs are called “performance-enhancers” for a reason, or that they don't have effects on others on the playing field, or that they don't come with ethical complications, just read the special report I wrote in 2012, “To Cheat or Not to Cheat.”
In the afterward to Game of Shadows, the definitive book on the BALCO scandal, authors Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wade cataloged the transmogrification of Bonds. His jersey size grew from 42 to 52, his hat size from 7 1/8 to 7 ¼ and his shoe size from 10 ½ to 13. Bonds gained at least 55 pounds since his days in Pittsburgh.
Maybe someday in the next five years Bonds gets elected to the Hall of Fame. Enough writers who weren’t there might think everybody was dirty (wildly wrong and no justification), that Bonds has “waited long enough” (as if disrespecting the game is a loaf of bread with a shelf life) or dismiss steroids entirely because if you are hell-bent on analytics they mess with your accounting (they live outside analytics because they enhance performance but because of the ranges of the drugs and human physiology and skill, you can’t have a one-size-fits all algorithm to say by how much.)
But the Hall of Fame vote is not a proxy on the legitimacy of the record. It is its own Petri dish of a weird narrative.
Bonds’ lot is cast, as it is for Lance Armstrong, regardless of what happens with the Hall of Fame vote: He is a record holder without claim to what matters most in legacies—authenticity. He has been synonymous with steroids at least since the Chronicle broke the BALCO scandal in 2004, and it will be in the first line of his obituary.
The countdown to the record home run was four years of misery. He was a tainted man who treated people awfully. “Rude, insular and grouchy,” Rick Reilly wrote in SI after the 2002 World Series. “And that’s on his birthday.” Reilly quoted a clubhouse attendant at Angel Stadium then saying Bonds stiffed the crew. “He didn’t tip. Nothing,” the clubbie said.
As Bonds first drew closer to Ruth, I observed in Philadelphia an example of this poison he created around the game. There were signs such as “Hey, Barry. Move Your Head. We Can’t See,” and “Seeing Barry Hit 715: Worthless.” I wrote how the countdown was “worse than joyless, what with Bonds treated so rudely and being a mope himself.”
After Bonds hit 756, fashion designer Marc Ecko bought the baseball and asked people what he should do with it. The “winning” response from 10 million people was to brand it with an asterisk and give it to the Hall of Fame.
So chapped was Bonds about the asterisk on the ball that he told MSNBC in 2007 he promised he will not go to his Hall of Fame induction if he is elected.
“I won’t go,” he said. “I won’t be part of it. You can call me, but I won’t be there.”
The reaction was telling about Bonds on two levels. Number one, to believe that Bonds won’t actually show up is to take the man at his word. How has that worked out?
Number two, how could he possibly be so upset about a silly marking on a souvenir baseball as to boycott his own induction ceremony?
“I don’t think you can put an asterisk in the game of baseball,” Bonds said, “and I don’t think that the Hall of Fame can accept an asterisk. You cannot give people the freedom, the right to alter history.”
Bonds did allow himself room to “reconsider his stance.” But with that gut reaction, Bonds exposed the nerve that pains him the most. It’s all about his scarlet glyph: the asterisk.
Make no mistake, Bonds is the record holder and he might even take it to his grave. The number of home runs he hit is immutable.
But he is 100% wrong about the asterisk. It is not an official one, but it is there, the tariff for ill-gotten gains. The people, despite his self-centeredness, really do have a say in history.
As Bonds approached the record, the stands of visiting ballparks were filled with people wearing T-shirts with a giant asterisk on them. The year after Bonds broke the record, the United States Olympic Committee and the Ad Council launched an anti-steroid campaign. It was titled, “Don’t be an Asterisk.”
The asterisk is a dainty enough typographical symbol, more of a wink than a shout, but to Bonds it is incredibly powerful. Asterisk derives from the Greek for “little star,” possibly by a proofreader who needed something to mark duplicate lines in the poems of – ready for this? – Homer. Another theory is that the Sumerians invented it to stand in for their word for “god,” which is, no kidding, “dingir.”
Here we are, 10 years later, and Bonds still has the record for homers and dingers, but he can’t enjoy the full authenticity that Ruth and Aaron had. He is one of the great players to ever play this game, even when his fabulous skills weren’t fabulous enough for him. He needed more, and, through chemistry, he got it. Nobody can take it all away from him, including that little star he so despises.