Have you heard the latest Barry Bonds joke? He’s not just a ballplayer, he’s an inventor — the first man to make an asterisk out of a syringe.
It may not be very funny, but baseball fans don’t seem to be in the mood for laughter.
Last night the tainted slugger finally hit his 756th career home run, passing Hammerin’ Hank Aaron as baseball’s all-time home run king. America ought to be enjoying a moment of exaltation, but the overwhelming sentiment seems to be indifference. As USA Today’s Mike Lopresti observed, “…the unconditional applause barely carried beyond the gates of AT&T Park.”
My mother taught me that cheaters never prosper, but I didn’t realize until now that one cheater could impoverish an entire nation.
Who has Barry Bonds cheated? Let’s start with himself. Before he mysteriously metamorphosed from a Doberman into a Rottweiler, Bonds was a lock for the Hall of Fame. At the end of the 1999 season, Bonds was a Gold Glove outfielder, a dangerous baserunner with dazzling power, amasser of a whopping 445 career home runs. He was just the eighth player to have won the MVP three times. Had Bonds retired at age 34, he would have joined the ranks of the greatest baseballers of all time.
But beginning in 2000, Bonds’s all-world statistics became, well, otherworldly. At age 35 he hit 49 homers, three more than his previous season high. In 2001, at age 36, he hit 73, and became the first player to win a fourth MVP. Then he won three more. From 2001 to 2004, overmatched pitchers frequently walked him, a high of 232 times in 2004, driving his on-base percentage that year to an astronomical .609. His pre-2000 OBP high: .461. Before 2000, his best seasonal batting average was .336. In 2002 he hit .370, and in 2004, at age 39, he hit .362.
Despite his repeated denials, a great deal of evidence says Bonds did all this with the benefit of steroids. Bonds could have been known as one of the greatest, but instead he’s known as a liar and a cheat. Bonds may have made himself into the all-time home run king, but he cost himself the respect of the nation.
Bonds also cheated his fellow players. To win the MVP four times in a row in your late 30s belongs in the realm of fiction, but we’re talking about real people, not Roy Hobbs. Who deserved to win those awards? 2001: Sammy Sosa (well, maybe not). 2002: Albert Pujols. 2003: Albert Pujols again. 2004: Adrian Beltre. Other apparent steroids victims include Roger Maris, most homers in a season, and Hank Aaron. With or without steroids, Maris and Aaron would eventually have been eclipsed, so the biggest victim is probably Pujols, who won the 2005 MVP. The 2005 award should have been his third; Pujols deserves to be the ninth player to win three MVPs, and be recognized as one of the best of all time.
Bonds also cheated the fans, not necessarily his hometown Giants fans, but baseball fans in general. More than any other, baseball is a sport of statistics and records. Much of the excitement in following baseball is watching records be challenged and, gradually, broken. The career home run record is baseball’s greatest icon; for the past couple of years, baseball fans ought to have been treated to the thrill of baseball’s greatest chase. Bonds deprived baseball fans of tremendous joy. As former two-time MVP Dale Murphy said yesterday: “…he sucked the fun and the life right out of it.”
Major league baseball should be thankful Bonds hit number 756 at home. If he’d done it on the road, the league would have endured the embarrassment of seeing its most cherished record be broken to a chorus of boos.
After last night’s game, Bonds asserted that “the record is not tainted at all, at all. Period.” That’s wishful thinking, Barry.
For now, we’ll have to hope an untainted player comes along soon to knock Bonds off the top of the heap. Alex Rodriguez already has 500 homers at the tender age of 32. Much as it pains me, a native New Englander, to root for a New York Yankee, all I can say is “Come on, A-Rod. Stay healthy.”