On Sunday, May 28, 2006, George Herman “Barry” Bonds officially passed George Herman “Babe” Ruth for the second most homeruns in Major League Baseball history. With widespread rumors of steroid use in mind, many baseball fans—and, indeed, many Americans in general—are already looking to dismiss Bonds’ accomplishments. His single-season record of 73 homers in 2001 is now looked back upon suspiciously. And if he manages to surpass Hank Aaron’s career total of 755 someday, many people have already decided that it just “shouldn’t count.”
Unfortunately, this idea stems from the false belief that baseball’s cherry of innocence was somehow popped during the steroid era of the late 1990s. It wasn’t. Baseball has never been a pillar of absolute virtue. There have always been cheaters in our national pastime, just as there have always been cheaters in our nation.
The only reason we talk about Bonds the way we talk about Bonds is because he’s seen as an unfeeling bastard. If his achievements are to be “called into question,” it has nothing to do with cheating and everything to do with his being a jerk.
I realize it probably sounds like I’m excusing Bonds’ alleged steroid use here. In a roundabout way, I suppose that I am. But there’s a reason why we refer to the last 10 to 15 seasons of baseball as the “steroid era,” and it’s not because one man happened to be using steroids. It’s because a lot of men happened to be using them. Perhaps the public ought to feel gypped about that. Perhaps we ought to look back upon 1998, for example, and feel we were lied to during Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s historic—if steroid-powered—pursuit of Roger Maris’s single-season homerun record. But as far as I can tell, most people don’t seem to feel that way about McGwire and Sosa. They certainly think they were lied to during the drama of that wonderful season. But they don’t feel they were lied to.
Both men may have enhanced their proverbial performance through steroids that year, but if either of them currently held the single-season homerun record—or were in pursuit of Hank Aaron’s career total—we wouldn’t be asking ourselves whether we should “count” it. We would be talking about their on-field achievements as metaphors for whatever it is our military is doing on the field of battle.
We would never talk so lovingly about Bonds’ on-field achievements, and this is because, unlike McGwire and Sosa, Bonds has never looked happy while signing an autograph.
His steroid use isn’t what makes him a villain. It’s just the pretext we need to hate him for being one.
For this reason, all talk of “striking” Bonds’ records “from the record books” is both foolish and counterproductive. Bonds may be remarkably contemptible, and the idea of him holding two of baseball’s most cherished records may not sit very well with us, but what we have in Bonds is a man perfectly willing—perhaps even happy—to shoulder every last bit of anger or distrust we may have over the issue of steroids. We have a man for whom being loathed is part of his character. We should be taking advantage of this. Instead of striking his records from the books or pretending he never set them, we should be glad that he set them—even while thoroughly hating him for it. This is the only way to accept steroids’ impact on baseball while at the same time not really accepting it. And in the end, that’s the only practical way to proceed.
Just imagine what it would mean if we decided to pretend Bonds never accomplished what he accomplished over the last few years. If steroid use has been nearly as rampant as it’s been reported, you would need to strike not only Bonds’ accomplishments from the record books but every other steroid users’ as well. How could you possibly do this? How could you possibly know who used what, and when, over the last 10 to 15 seasons?
Furthermore, even if you could know it, how would you implement such information? Would you go back and take away every hit and every homerun, etc., etc., of every player who ever juiced? Because that would affect the outcome of every game they ever played in. You’d have to go back and re-tabulate all the scores of every game played by every team since the Reagan era. This would dramatically change the standings in each of those seasons, which, in turn, would dramatically change each season’s playoff picture. There’s no way to know who would’ve won the World Series in any of those years.
You’d basically have to recruit all the players who comprised every roster over the last two decades and have them come back and re-play every game. Not only would this be impractical, but there would be some major complications involved in the process. For instance, what would you do about players who are dead now? Would you recruit them and force them to play the games anyway? Because surely players who play the game dead affect the outcome just as strongly as steroid users. Don’t you think?
This is why Barry Bonds isn’t the worst thing ever to happen to baseball—and why, under the circumstances, he’s probably the best. You can’t go back and undo the steroid era, because that would make the entire dynamic of baseball history useless. But at the same time, you can’t let all those seasons stand, as is, either. Because then baseball history would be living a big fat lie.
Barry Bonds provides a convenient solution that neatly addresses both sides and all of the issues. If anyone was going to break the records he’s broken during the steroid era, he’s the one who should have broken them. After all, even before steroids, he was already the best player of his generation. By emotionally dismissing his achievements, however, we can dismiss the steroid era without really dismissing it. And until we accept the fact that steroids are here to stay, this is the only reasonable way to proceed.
Jonathan David Morris is a Staff Writer for The New Media Alliance. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.