I know not many of you go for the baseball stuff, but the Barry Bonds story is weighing heavily on my mind, and I have to get it out…
Babe Ruth was caught using a trick bat in 1923, after which the American League outlawed that practice. Sixty years later, some of the Seattle Mariners were looking at one of his bats that was part of a travelling display, when one of them noticed that it was corked–that is, it was hollowed out, filled with cork, and plugged up with wood, in order to make it easier to swing without losing power. So the first great home-run hitter benefitted, more than once, from cheating. “Nothing could be more typical of Ruth,” wrote Bill James in his Historical Baseball Abstract, “than to use a corked bat if he could get by with it. Ruth tested the limits of the rules constantly; this was what made him who he was. He refused to be ordinary; he refused to accept that the rules applied to him, until it was clear that they did. Constantly testing the limits of the rules, as I see him, was Babe Ruth’s defining characteristic.”
The pitcher Gaylord Perry, more recently, founded a career on the spitball, both by throwing it and by making people believe he was throwing it. He was never caught defacing a ball in a game, but it was common knowledge that he did it–he even wrote a book after he retired, Me and the Spitter. He’s in the Hall of Fame, and part of his high reputation, it seems to me, is based on the public’s admiration for a man who could cheat so brazenly and cleverly (he would glue sandpaper to his finger to scuff up the ball, e.g.) and get away with it.
Go down the list of the great players and you’ll find plenty who bent or broke the rules to give themselves an advantage. The most dramatic baseball game ever, the playoff for the 1951 National League pennant between the Giants and the Dodgers, was won by stealing signs. The great athletes, like Ruth, are defined by wanting to be better than everyone else, and they took this advantage however they could.
Now, it is finally clear that Barry Bonds did indeed use steroids over the last few years, years in which he established himself as one of the very best players in baseball history. Why is this worse than what Ruth did with his bat, or Perry with the ball?
First, let’s be clear: it is worse. I’m not some wounded Giants fan defending Bonds by saying, “Well, everyone’s a cheater.” There is a difference between what Perry did and what Bonds (and, it must be said, a probably startling percentage of current major-leaguers; but then, none of them is in the top 10 of all-time players, where Bonds is) did, and to my mind it comes down to this: Perry messed with the equipment, Bonds messed with his body.
The rules about the equipment are arbitrary; they’re limits in place to maintain the balance between offense and defense and to make today’s records coherent next to yesterday’s. It’s not like we’re using the best equipment for the job; if baseball suddenly switched to aluminum bats, you would probably see a player hit ninety or a hundred home runs in a year. We’re not using aluminum because we’ve decided we don’t want to see that. A player who messes with the equipment is giving himself an unfair edge, but he’s doing it by tinkering with an arbitrary rule.
But tinkering with your body is different. The foundation for sports is physical ability. That’s the primary reason–for some, the entire reason–to be interested in the enterprise: watching people who have developed their bodies and skills so far that they are better than almost anyone in the world. The worship of an athlete and the worship of, say, Bruce Lee comes from the same place: the audience’s amazement that a fellow human being can naturally become so physically perfect. As an athlete, you’re supposed to make yourself into the best player you can–but the whole reason it’s exciting is that you’ve gotten there through single-minded dedication, through understanding your body and the game you play. If those of you who’ve watched a game with me wondered where that far-off look came from when Barry Bonds was at bat, now you know.
Steroids puts paid to all that. If you use steroids, you’re letting science, some chemist, do the work for you. You’re getting somewhere you don’t deserve to be. I’m not saying that steroids can turn a nobody into a great athlete; by that logic, I could take steroids and hit .260 in the majors. But who knows where the line is? Have steroids given Bonds an extra 10 home runs? 20? Have they increased his batting average by 20, 30, 50 points? Have they lengthened his career? Would he be challenging Hank Aaron without them? We don’t know. The product is of uncertain value.
I still believe Barry Bonds is a great player; his years before he doped make that clear, and as I said steroids can’t do everything for you. (Jason Giambi took what Bonds took–he hit well for two years, then suffered a bunch of steroid-related injuries [tendonitis, a tumor in his pituitary gland] and his career is pretty much over.) And I still believe that Bonds should and will go to the Hall of Fame. What Bonds did is better than what Pete Rose did–betting on baseball, that is–because Bonds was trying to be a great player and help his team win; Rose is not in because he made us worry that he was trying the opposite.
But the more I think about this, the more disappointed I am. Barry had my respect and admiration sewn up in 1997; I never revered any athlete before him. I wish he hadn’t cheapened himself with drugs he didn’t need. I wish he could have taken a few less home runs, a few less years, in order to stay what he already was: one of the very best. I wish he could have just remained, as he was for me, a hero.