Roid Monster (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Tolerate 756)
Let’s say you’re a PR director for a major-league baseball team. And you want to design your dream player, the guy who’ll look just perfect on the cover of a media guide or during a photo op at the hospital ward.
You want him to be a fun player – someone who plays with glee. You’d also want him to be a battler, maybe the type of guy who had to overcome a rough upbringing, or some physical deficit. He’d be selfless – kind to coaches and teammates, never showboating or yapping off. He’d be gritty, clutch, someone who always rises to the occasion and leaves it all on the field. And lastly, you’d want to make him… well, not white necessarily – that’s not essential these days – but someone who’s not about race, someone who makes his race a non-issue. What you’d end up with is someone who plays with a mix of joy and humility. You’d end up with Kirby Puckett, or Sean Casey, David Ortiz, Stan Musial.
What you would not want – the last thing in the world you’d want – is Barry Bonds. In fact, you could take just about every positive PR attribute I mentioned above, turn it on its head, and you’d have Barry Bonds. He’s not a team player. He comes from a privileged baseball background. He’s self-important and swaggering. He’s irritable. He badmouths his superiors. He plays the race card. He even, for a long time anyway, had a rep as a choke artist (think 1991 NLCS and his turkey-wing throw to try to get Sid Bream). And as for giving it 110% in the Gas House style of, say, Craig Biggio – well, let’s just say Bonds has thrown a lot of spotless uniforms onto the postgame laundry pile.
That Bonds is MLB Enemy #1 is not news. Hell, Rick Reilly owes at least half his weekly shtick to Bonds bashing, and every hack sportswriter (this includes you, Curt Schilling) has had a field day portraying Bonds, as Bill Maher once said, “like he’s the BTK Killer.”
Here’s the thing, though. I basically agree with those sportswriters. Sure, their methods are cheap, their thinking knee-jerk, but, like them, I absolutely loathe Barry Bonds. I hate how he adores his home runs and sometimes turns doubles off-the-wall into long singles. I hate how he comes across like every jock asshole you knew in high school. I hate how he paraded his son Nikolai before the media during spring training, 2005 – the kid was barely a teenager, clearly dying inside, but Bonds insisted on using him as a prop for his persecution complex, instructing photographers to take pictures of him “so you guys can see the pain you’re causing my family.”
But more than anything else about Bonds, I hate his voice. You don’t expect it from a guy of his stature. You expect something commanding, stentorian. Instead it comes out gentle and sedated. Or, more accurately, it comes out synthetic, as if he shared a soul with HAL 9000. It’s so out of character with everything else you know about the man that it creeps me out. It’s always reminding us, as Jeff Pearlman put it, that Bonds is “completely, undeniably 100% full of shit… Nothing he says holds any meaning.”
So yes, I hate Bonds. But truth be told, I don’t hate that he’s the new home run king. And I think it’s a complete waste of time to get exercised about 756. How come? Well, I can think of five reasons:
(1) No one has any idea how much Bonds has been helped by steroids.
Well, let me rephrase that: some people have some idea how much Bonds has been helped by steroids. But unfortunately they don’t form a consensus, and each of them would admit that he’s more or less playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Nate Silver estimated that steroids give position players 10 extra points of AVG, OBP, and SLG. J.C. Bradbury found that the benefits are negligible. Others – notably Patrick Hruby, who reckoned that about a hundred of Bonds’ homers can be chalked up to steroid use – fall more in line with popular thinking.
Even with these studies, we’re still left with a quagmire. How many other players were using steroids during Bonds’ home run spree? How much of an advantage was he getting? More to the point, how many pitchers were juiced up over the last ten years? (Oddly enough, Bonds hit #755 off of Clay Hensley, who, unlike Bonds, has actually failed a drug test.)
And did steroids make Bonds more durable or less durable as he got older? Sure, the evidence shows that Bonds hit more homers after age 35 than anyone in history, but evidence also shows that steroid use can lead to soft-tissue deterioration, tendon damage (particularly triceps tendon injuries, the kind that caused Bonds to miss 7 weeks in 1999), as well as the type of back and knee problems that have plagued Bonds the last few years. When you look at the shortened careers of known or alleged steroid users like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Jason Giambi, you wonder if steroids gave Bonds a boost when it came to breaking short-term records, like the single-season home run record, but had mixed results when it came to toppling career records, like Aaron’s 755.
Of course, we’ll never know. And that’s precisely the point. Until we have good, solid data – as opposed to armchair theorizing – regarding the effects of steroid use on ballplayers, then I think it’s best to extend a bit of graciousness (the kind, incidentally, that often seems missing from Bonds himself) and give him the benefit of the doubt. Because the bottom line remains that Bonds was a great ballplayer – the best of our generation – before he supposedly began taking “the clear,” and he’s been a great ballplayer, one of the very best in the league, even after he presumably stopped using steroids. That’s no small feat for a man well into his 40’s.
And if nothing else, we can say that Bonds is truly the greatest steroids hitter in major league history. I know, I know, that’s a stupid statement, satisfying to no one… but then again, as Chuck Klosterman pointed out rather amusingly, the Beatles took performance-enhancing drugs (how else do you think they came up with side two of “Revolver”?), and no one holds it against them.
(2) Bonds is a product of his era, just as Aaron and Ruth were products of theirs.
I look at it this way. There's a rule in basketball against traveling but the NBA has pretty much stopped enforcing it. Well, they still call traveling but they will allow you to take about five steps without dribbling as you are running toward the basket. There was no "decision" not to enforce this rule; they just kind of lost track of it. They started not calling one step and progressed to not calling two steps, not calling three steps, and eventually they just kind of lost track of the rule. Should the players who took advantage of this failure to enforce the rule be banned from the NBA Hall of Fame? After all, aren't they cheating? They're not obeying the rules. Julius Erving, out. The Hall of Fame doesn't need cheaters like you. Kobe, Michael, get out. If you don't play by the rules the way Elgin Baylor did, you're not deserving.
I think James’ analogy breaks down at some point. After all, lax traveling calls in the NBA are presumably applied equally to players of each era, whereas steroid-users gain an advantage over not just players from other eras, but against players in their own era, i.e., the ones not using PED’s. What’s more, in basketball, traveling is out in the open, so to speak. We can watch TV, judge who travels, who doesn’t, and make our historical adjustments accordingly. That’s not the case for baseball players who are hiding their drug use.
Nonetheless, I think James’ general point holds: that is, that Bonds is a product of a systemic set of values, a culture. It’s the same point Jesse Jackson made recently, when he told the Chicago Sun-Times, "My question is, if 400 guys tested positive, do you put asterisks by all their names? Do you put asterisks by [spitballer] Gaylord Perry's name? Do you put asterisks by guys who had the ultimate enhancement [by] denying others a chance to compete?" (Hat tip: Studes, for the link)
I forwarded these comments to a friend last week, and he emailed me back: “if pre-1947 ball was not ‘all it could be’ because of the color line (a theory I think everyone with a brain would agree with), and post-1980s ball is ‘tainted’ because some used steroids, does that mean we've only had 40-45 years of undisputed competition?” I wrote back that, in fact, every era has been tainted in some way, with statistics constantly subject to some distortion or other. One era might not allow people of color, another might be tainted by steroids or amphetamines, another by the height of the mound, another by the system of selecting and promoting players from foreign countries, another by primitive approaches to heath and recovery, another by using too much plate armor, another by weird strategies and shibboleths, like the one that says it’s unmanly to swing from the heels or take a walk now and again. Some of these are probably a stretch, but I really think people are naïve if they don’t think that every record carries with it some kind of implied asterisk.
At first blush this sounds like the biggest bummer of all time. Does this mean that we can’t trust any of our numbers? Does it mean that the subject of Bonds vs. Aaron will never be settled? This goes against the very grain of sports, the thing that most distinguishes it from our everyday lives – i.e., the fact that sports has clear-cut winners and losers. The closest analogy I can think of for Bonds’ home run chase is the 2003-2004 college football season, when USC and LSU split the national championship. Actually, a better analogy might be the 2000 presidential race, when I thought Bush won, you thought it was Gore, and all of us were both right and wrong. In this way 756 is a sign of our times, in which there are no longer any truths, only perspectives, opinions, fragments, and the kind of anti-foundational stuff that gave night tremors to Nietzsche, Foucault, et al.
And yet… and yet… Isn’t that, at least in part, what makes baseball so entertaining? Yes, baseball’s numbers are tainted – but imagine if the opposite were true. Imagine if every number were set in stone, static and inarguable. What a drag that would be! How much more fun to share a beer with a buddy and argue, say, how many home runs Ted Williams would’ve hit had he not been drafted. Or what would have happened to Jose Cruz if he hadn’t played in the Astrodome. Or if Johnny Beazley had been born after the advent of Tommy John surgery. Yes, we want baseball to be obvious and dependable, but it seems we are at least equally charmed by the game’s elusiveness. I find that rather encouraging.
(3) Bonds’ home run crown isn’t as bad for Hank Aaron as you might think.
I’m sure by now you’ve all seen footage of Bud Selig reacting to Bonds’ record-tying 755th career home run. He basically made an ass of himself, I thought – standing up only after he was prodded, putting his hands in his pockets, showing all the enthusiasm of an 8-year-old boy forced to sit through Sunday service. As Joe Sheehan pointed out, Selig’s enmity for Bonds stems from his reverence for the man he’s replacing atop the leaderboard, Hank Aaron. (Sheehan doesn’t offer any evidence for this connection, but it certainly rings true.)
Selig isn’t alone in sizing up Bonds vs. Aaron. To root for one, it seems, is to root against the other, just as folks back in 1974 tended to take sides for either Ruth or Aaron, but not both. If this is the case today, then surely Aaron is winning. In fact, the last few weeks have seen an outpouring of love letters to The Hammer, most notably a Sports Illustrated magazine cover, with the inside story declaring him “The People’s King.” (Incidentally, that’s as many SI covers as Bonds landed for the entire four-year period 2000-2003. I know Bonds notoriously froze out the magazine after they published a 1993 story about him entitled, “I’m Barry Bonds, and You’re Not,” but geez… Bonds was in the midst of the greatest hitting binge in major-league history and that’s all he got? One cover?)
Anyway, the point is that Aaron has been enjoying a renaissance lately, one that wouldn’t be possible without his purported nemesis, Mr. Bonds. The irony is that Hank Aaron was not especially beloved in his day, and I’m not just talking about the racist yokels who mailed him death threats in 1974 (the ones who caused Aaron’s mother to mistake the celebratory fireworks after her son’s 715th home run for sniper shots, of all things). I’m talking about good, respectable baseball folks who had nothing in particular against the Hammer, but never embraced him the way they embraced, say, Roy Campanella, or Willie Mays. Next to them Aaron seemed charmless and remote. And it was all too easy for people to mistake Aaron’s quiet reserve for something more sinister: laziness – surely a byproduct of the casual racial stereotypes of that time. (His first manager, Charlie Grimm, once asked about Aaron, “why doesn’t he sleep on his own time like everybody else?”)
But the years have been good to Aaron. Unlike DiMaggio, a beloved star who became a depressing figure in his final days (when we heard stories about his friendlessness, or the way he disowned his only son, leaving him to live in a junkyard trailer in northern California), and unlike Mark McGwire, who until recently was treated like a national savior, Aaron has only grown more likable with time. (Ironically enough, if Aaron played today, he’d probably be dogged by steroid rumors – look what a twig he was when he first came into the bigs, then look at the beefy guy who experienced a career high in home runs at age 37.)
The great sportswriter Jim Murray once wrote about Aaron, “He underplays like a British actor. Willie [Mays] attacks the game. Aaron just gets it to cooperate with him.” This whole flap about Bonds and steroids might be yet another way in which Hank just got the game to come to him.
(4) Bonds’ record will be broken anyway.
I read somewhere recently that DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak is so improbable, so statistically preposterous, that you’d have to replay the entire history of baseball something like eight times before it’s likely to happen again. Like Cy Young's 511 wins or Nap Lajoie's .426 single-season average, we probably won’t live long enough to see anyone match it.
Barry Bonds’ mark for career homers is not one of those records. Nate Silver wrote an article recently in which he gave Alex Rodriguez a 28% chance of hitting 800 jacks, and a 10% chance of hitting 900. Of course, that still means A-Rod will most likely fall short of the record. But he’s just one guy. What if you matched Bonds against the field?
Suddenly the record looks much iffier. If you use Bill James’ Favorite Toy (which, admittedly, is much less sophisticated than the PECOTA system Silver used), you’d find that Bonds is projected to hit 787 lifetimes bombs when all is said and done. Sounds reasonable. Here are his closest competitors, the active players with a non-zero chance of hitting 788:
A-Rod 32.3% Pujols 21.3 Andruw Jones 14.7 Adam Dunn 8.5 Ryan Howard 1.4
Combine their chances and you get a 41% chance that none of them will hit 788, ergo, a 59% chance that at least one of them will.
And that’s just the names above. For as long as baseball is still around, players will have a crack at the record. Maybe one of those guys above will break it. Or maybe it’s some newbie, like Justin Upton. Or Justin Upton's child. Or grandchild. After all, Bonds was only nine years old when Aaron surpassed Ruth.
The bottom line: until someone enters Sadaharu Oh territory – 868 lifetime home runs – then I think the home run mark will remain very breakable.
(5) Admit it – you love that Bonds broke the record.
Sally Jenkins, who writes for the Washington Post, suggested recently that, when the moment came for Bonds to break the record, he should have laid down his bat and walked away from baseball, preserving the game’s dignity and turning himself into the greatest folk hero of all time.
Whatever. As I said earlier, I hate Bonds, but I like hating Bonds. He’s the perfect villain – our Voldemort, our Dr. Evil, our Galactus, Devourer of Worlds. I think it’s perfectly appropriate that he’s on top.
One thing that’s always irked me (and I’ve harped on this before, both here and here) is the idea that baseball should be a beacon of moral values, or that ballplayers should be “role models.” Honestly, what kind of idiot looks to a guy who wears cleats and hits baseballs as an exemplar of virtue? I like ballplayers because they’re entertaining. The game offers a rich panoply of characters, both good (Jim Eisenreich, Larry Walker) and bad (A.J. Pierzynski, Carl Everett), and we’d all be a little poorer without them. The truth is, Bonds’ home run chase is one of baseball’s all-time great stories, breathtaking and absurd at the same time.
Because I’ve talked a lot about steroids, I’ll close with my favorite quote on the subject, from one of baseball’s most breathtaking and absurd characters, Rickey Henderson. A reporter once asked him if Ken Caminiti’s estimate that 50% of big-league players were taking steroids was accurate. His response? “Well, Rickey’s not one of them, so that’s 49% right there.”
So let’s tip our caps to Barry Bonds, the best of that 49% – and really, let’s be honest, the best of the other 51% too.
Brian Gunn is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles who formerly headed up the baseball website Redbird Nation.