I grew up in New York City, in a time when baseball was soaked in sepia. Mays, Mantle, Snider. Jackie. Dem Bums in Brooklyn. The dynasty in the Bronx. The Shot Heard 'Round the World.
Truth is, the Dodgers played in a bandbox, the Giants drew for the season what the Yankees get in a long home stand today and those same Yankees didn't deign to put a black player in the starting lineup until eight years after Robinson broke the color barrier. And the Shot? Maybe a long out in any park but that weird oval thing called the Polo Grounds.
And yet, and yet ... what we choose to remember is Mays in the deep shadows of that same park, making that miraculous catch; Mantle hitting what would probably have been the longest homer ever had it not crashed off the Stadium façade; the joyous crowds dancing in the streets of Brooklyn after the Dodgers finally brought home a Series, only two years before abandoning them.
We cherish our personal narratives, and delight when others share them. And our baseball narrative is very much a shared one, not unlike a religion, with its catalogue of myths and its priests, in the form of writers and columnists, to create and sustain them.
Which brings us to the heretical figure of Barry Bonds.
Bonds, as anyone who's turned on a TV set or a laptop recently knows, has just tied the record for most home runs in a career. In the baseball canon, numerology is sacred, and no numbers are more sacred than 755 (previously reached by Hank Aaron) and 714 (Babe Ruth's once unapproachable number). Bonds's pursuit of this record has been almost universally described as joyless and soulless, often by the same writer or commentator on successive days and many times by a chorus of pundits on the same day. And yet, if you've been watching his games, they've been neither: he's cheered at home and mostly booed on the road with great passion (though the San Diego crowd was decidedly mixed after witnessing number 755). And in the end, isn't that what the games are about? Joyless and soulless would more accurately describe the tens of thousands of words that have been written attacking him.
What has Bonds done? It's hard to deny that he's taken some form of illegal enhancement over the course of his last several seasons. We know he's reportedly cheated on his wife and on his taxes. We know he's moody and surly, and not easy to get along with, that he's not a great teammate. We know he believes he's the best at what he does, and he's not reluctant to say so.
Here's what we also know, if we choose to. We know that insiders say some 40-70 percent of major leaguers have used illegal enhancements over the past decade, including many pitchers, who may have benefited more than hitters. Athletes and celebrities have been known to cheat on their wives and on their taxes, as have a lot of us. Joe DiMaggio was a lousy teammate; Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth didn't get along (the Babe may have slept with his wife); Ted Williams was as ornery a character as the game has produced. Michael Jordan and Lance Armstrong are Bonds's only current peers; neither wins points for being humble or easy to get along with (never mind Armstrong's reported kinship with Bonds in the doping department). That's not to diminish the very real feats of these people, but only to point out that being a singularly driven narcissist seems transparently part of the package of becoming a great athlete.
So what makes Bonds different? It's facile to say his color, although the overwhelmingly white sports mediacracy certainly has trouble minding its temper when black athletes don't conform to the orthodoxy of humble cliché mumbling. But there's something more complex at work here. Baseball's last 15 years have been defined by a giant gap between myth and reality. Crippled by a strike in 1994 that cancelled the World Series for the first time ever and embittered fans everywhere, the game was revived by a long-ball epidemic created by men who looked like Bluto in the Popeye cartoons. The Mac and Sammy show was a media-created burlesque in which the big sullen white guy (Mark McGwire) was converted to a smiley face by his happy Latino rival (Sammy Sosa) as they both broke the season record for homers in 1998. And all of us in the church of baseball bought into it (including the writers and editors of my publication, ESPN The Magazine).
Bonds opted into this drama during that time, according to an account in Jeff Pearlman's underrated biography (Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero). It was in August of 1998 that Bonds became the first member of the 400 stolen bases, 400 homer club and was ignored as the press continued to flock to the Mac and Sammy Show. Enraged, he told Ken Griffey Jr., during that off-season he was "tired of fighting" the juicing trend, and implied that he was going to beef up and beat McGwire's record of 70 homers. And so he did, belting 73 in 2001 and growing what seemed like five hat sizes in the process.
The very flagrancy of this act made it impossible to ignore what had really been going on. And some journalists determined to find out. If you bothered to read beyond the Bonds exposés and the circus of congressional hearings in 2005, you would have learned that steroids have been used by baseball players as far back as at least the mid-'80s, that by 1991, baseball officials were alarmed enough to add steroids to a list of banned substances sent to all teams, and that even with new testing procedures in place since those hearings, any player who wants to enhance can likely do so with little chance of being caught. But most sportswriters and columnists went back to the safest route: blaming the few, extolling the virtues of the game, finding solace in building up new heroes to replace the fallen ones.
Bonds's real sin, in the end, is in making that so difficult. As he continued his assault on Aaron's record, passing Ruth in the bargain, he was a constant, irritating reminder of the shortcomings of the church of baseball, and especially of its priests in the press. And so he had to be punished. Again and again and again.
Won't we all be relieved when it's finally over.
By Gary Hoenig