I love Barry Bonds for the same reason I love Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. I love a good bad guy. I love Jack Nicholson in The Departed, Christopher Waltz in Inglorious Basterds and Barry Bonds as the all-time and single-season home run record holder.
The man played the bad guy his entire career, but saved the best for last. We thought he was the antagonist in the “prime” of his career – pre-1999 – but he only became more despicable as the film progressed. But even as his character became more detestable, or more fascinating, his audience grew. Even the fans who hated Bonds – most outside of San Francisco – watched. What Bonds did to himself in order to hit a baseball better than anyone else in the world was captivating.
I know Barry Bonds was a jerk. I had a good feeling he was using performance-enhancing drugs. I knew Hank Aaron was the perfect person to hold the all-time home run record. I didn’t want Bonds to break it. Despite knowing all of this, when Bonds came to the plate, I couldn’t turn away. He is one of the most interesting characters in the history of the game.
I loved Bonds as a kid because he was the best baseball player in the game – nothing more. I didn’t read the columns or the articles. I read the statistics page and Bonds was all over it. His numbers could be found among the league leaders in home runs, runs batted in, runs scored, stolen bases, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, walks, and he was also one of the great left fielders in the game.
I remember reading reports from spring training in 1999 that Bonds had gained something like 30 pounds of muscle over the offseason. In the heart of the steroid era, this was not rare. Baseball players claimed they simply learned how to train more effectively in the offseason. They didn’t mention the illegal drugs they were using.
But much like the rest of the country, I turned a blind eye as I was too busy the previous season watching Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa steal every headline and magazine cover they could. Many fans had their doubts even then, but who cares, home runs are fun! Plus, who’s Roger Maris anyway? To many, he was a grumpy guy from North Dakota who had a couple of good seasons and then faded from the limelight.
Sosa and McGwire destroyed Maris’s single-season record like they were cheating. What else could they do? Neither player could do more than blast the ball hundreds of feet and knock in runners. They struck out a lot and weren’t known for their defense. Sosa had some speed, but nothing to brag about and McGwire was a liability on the basepath. Barry Bonds could hit home runs, knock in runners, play wonderful defense, steal bases, avoid strikeouts, get on base and go from first to third on a single. Bonds was a better baseball player by far. But Bonds was not a self-confident man. He needed the attention. He needed everyone to know he was the best, but in the summer of 1998, no one outside of San Francisco noticed. Baseball fans were too busy watching two steroid-injected behemoths rocket long ball after long ball.
Barry Bonds, the greatest player of the last decade, spent the offseason saying to himself, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” If the public wanted steroid-fueled home runs – if that’s what made baseball players famous – he’d give them home runs like they’d never seen before.
He spent 1999 on the disabled list for much of the season, probably not figuring the right mixture of workout to drugs. In 2000, he figured it out. From 2001 through 2004, Bonds was playing baseball on Beginner mode while the rest of the league was on Expert. The years 2001 through 2004 Bonds was holding up his middle finger to baseball fans saying, “You said you liked home runs? I gave you home runs. What, you only like it when guys with smiles on their faces do it? I didn’t know that was a stipulation. I can’t stop now. Here I come, Henry.”
I love Henry Aaron and I think he’s one of the greatest to play the game while also being a good man. Barry Bonds is not a good man, but I’m glad he holds the record. Too many baseball fans want purity from the game. The individual game will give you purity – a cleanly fielded ground ball, a double in the gap, a knee-buckling curveball for a called strike three. There is purity in the game, but not in the league. If you don’t want records broken by those who you believe shouldn’t break them, don’t keep them. If you don’t like players using performance-enhancing drugs, don’t obsess over the overrated statistic that is the home run (https://tripleinthegap.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/ban-the-home-run/).
Barry Bonds did not sell nuclear secrets to the Soviets. He did not start an unnecessary war. He defiled his body to make himself an even better baseball player. He took drugs that made his head pumpkin sized and break some meaningless records. He shot up to make up for the love his father never gave him. He hurt himself, his reputation and eclipsed two meaningless records. He has not hurt a soul except his own, yet fans act as if the man stole third base … literally stole every third base from every baseball field in America. He did not hurt the game, only himself.
It is in spite of the angry fans calling for Bonds’ head that I appreciate what he did. Baseball fans put too much emphasis on the home run and its records. Bonds spent a career spreading his skills across a vast number of statistical categories, but after the fiasco that was the 1998 season, no one seemed to care about any of those categories, so Bonds obliged them.
Fans complain that an asterisk should be placed next to his all-time home run record: not necessary. In every bar, barber shop, restaurant, ballpark and home in America, fans will discuss their favorite baseball players and the topic of sluggers comes up they’ll talk about Ruth, Aaron, Mays, Killebrew, Griffey Jr., Thome and Jackson. When someone suggest they add Bonds to that list, someone will scoff at the idea, a few others will second the complaint and the topic will move on. When children look at the record books and ask their mother about Barry Bonds, she’ll tell her kids about Bonds and why he had so many home runs and those kids will remember.
I will tell my kids another story. I’ll tell them how the nation became overly obsessed with the home run in the 1990s and our attention was drawn from interest in a good baseball game to a good slugfest. I’ll tell them how the greatest player of his generation mocked the nation’s notion of a good baseball game by increasing the absurdity of that notion.
Barry Bonds: baseball’s greatest villain.