A week into the era of no one being able to rationally doubt that Barry Bonds has taken steroids, I'm still trying to figure out how to think about it. I've heard the various reactions -- outrage, denial, "Well, duh" and a whole lot of indifferent shrugging -- and none of them quite fits for me.
As you know, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last Friday that Bonds told a federal grand jury in the BALCO case that he'd used substances known as "the clear" and "the cream," now known to contain steroids, but that he didn't know what they were.
In the leaked testimony, Bonds said he believed his friend and trainer, BALCO defendant Greg Anderson, who gave Bonds the items and told him they were nothing more serious than flaxseed oil and an arthritis rubbing balm.
It's a patently ridiculous excuse. The idea that Bonds, an intelligent, elite athlete with an unquestioned work ethic, a well-documented narcissism and a cerebral approach to the game he plays, would unquestioningly put anything on or in his body stretches credulity to the breaking point.
That he would do so in the 21st century, years after steroids became a major story in sports, years after they became a major issue in baseball during the 1998 home run chase, is just absurd. Either Bonds is a liar or he's so stupid he's not worth having any regard for. His continued dismissals of any allegations about steroid use in the last year tell us which is more likely.
We're left with a couple of big questions: How do we think about Bonds' achievements on the field, the awards he's won, the records he's set and the ones he's approaching? And what should baseball do about its exploding steroid problem, which also includes the now-overshadowed revelation that Yankees slugger Jason Giambi, a former American League Most Valuable Player, told the same grand jury he'd juiced up?
The question about what baseball should do is the easy one. The players association has already agreed to negotiate on testing that's more strict than the joke of a program agreed to in the last collective-bargaining agreement.
There's no way around this now. The union has resisted testing for years on the grounds that workers in America shouldn't have to prove their innocence to their employer. But the BALCO revelations mean the players have to prove their innocence to the customers, which is a different thing. And it outweighs any privacy or presumption of innocence concerns. The players know this, and polls show them overwhelmingly favoring stricter testing.
Until very recently the owners didn't push back very hard on testing because they really didn't want to know whether something synthetic was behind all those home runs that were flying over all those fences and into all those seats that had all those butts in them.
Now the owners need to clean up the image of the business that they and the players are partners in -- though neither side will admit that -- and it's also nice for the owners that they can posture like good guys who've been trying to fix this mess all along.
I don't think testing and punishment will clean up the Grand Old Game. That sort of thing never really works. The cheats will always manage to stay one step ahead of the gumshoes, and while some bad guys will get caught, there will be steroid abuse in baseball as long as there are paydays. Or until something better than steroids comes along, legal or not.
But it's too late now to try to find a way to deal with the problem that's more creative and possibly more effective than cranking up the war on drugs. I wish baseball didn't have to go test-crazy like track and field because I believe the acceptance of such things in sports leads to acceptance of them in the workplace, and I think drug testing as a condition of employment is wrong except for a few professions involving public safety.
But that's my problem. Baseball has its problems and it has to deal with them in a way that satisfies the public, and the public wants to see some players peeing in jars.
How we should think about Bonds' accomplishments on the diamond is the far trickier, stickier and more interesting question. It might seem like the more frivolous one, but it's not.
Awards and, especially, records are the currency of baseball, the lifeblood of the one sport above all others whose present relies so heavily, is so intertwined with, its past. Nothing that a great player does in baseball means much of anything if it can't be compared not only with his contemporaries but with those who've come before and those who will come after.
I admire the clarity of the many people who are able to respond to Bonds' leaked testimony by saying either "Strike his name from the record books" or "This doesn't mean anything."
Two months ago, in wrapping up my Barry Bonds MVP Stat of the Day series, I wrote, "I don't know how I'll feel about Bonds' achievements if it turns out he's been on steroids or other illegal drugs. Would that render the last four years moot? Or just some percentage of it? Did we not really see what we saw starting in 2001? I don't know. I'll cross that bridge if I ever come to it."
Well here's that bridge, and after a week I feel like I'm just starting to think about it. I used to live in Oakland and work in San Francisco, so I'm accustomed to long pauses before crossing bridges. I'll probably be considering and reconsidering Barry Bonds, who is a year younger than I am, until he's a very old man -- knock wood for him, given the harm steroids can do.
Here's what I think so far: The records should stand. Forget striking Bonds' name or putting that mythical asterisk next to it. Barry Bonds really did do all those things he's done over the last four years, really did play well enough to win the last four MVP awards, really is 11 home runs away from tying Babe Ruth for second on the all-time home run list, 52 away from tying the leader, Hank Aaron.
Other, lesser sports can scrub their record books clean. Not baseball. Eliminating from the records that part of history that doesn't suit us is wrong and weird and smacks of Stalinism, but aside from that, how do you do it? If Bonds didn't hit those record 73 home runs in 2001, did the pitchers who gave them up not give them up? Did the Giants not win the games Bonds' homers helped them win? Do we take the runs scored away from the men Bonds drove in?
Once you start down this road, the record books quickly become meaningless, and baseball without its record books is just a bunch of guys swinging a stick at a hunk of cowhide.
We don't know what percentage of Bonds' achievements were steroid-driven, or how many of his opponents -- the pitchers who faced him or the sluggers who tried to match him -- were juiced. We have to decide for ourselves how those various equations work out, and we'll be figuring and refiguring them forever as we learn more about steroid use and who used them, and as our feelings change about them, if they do. That's how it works.
Rob Neyer of ESPN put it perfectly: "Look, baseball statistics succeed brilliantly at telling us what a player did," he wrote. "On the other hand, baseball statistics succeed somewhat less brilliantly at telling us what a player is."
We get to decide that last part for ourselves.
Bonds was a great player before steroids, and even though some part of his recent performance appears to be drug-enhanced, his accomplishments are so far off the charts that we can't simply attribute the whole thing to the juice. Bonds wasn't the only one on steroids. Jason Giambi had some good years, but he wasn't rewriting the record books.
For now -- and this is subject to change forever -- I've dialed back my opinion of Bonds to about what it was in 2000: A great player, a Hall of Famer, among the all-time elites, but not quite in that inner circle.
Baseball has made us do this kind of calculation before. Look in the record books at who won the 1919 World Series. It was the Cincinnati Reds. Everyone in the world knows the Chicago White Sox took money from gamblers to throw that Series, but the result stands. We can debate forever whether the Reds might have won that Series anyway, but it's indisputable that they won it. We decide for ourselves how we think about that.
There are spitballers in the Hall of Fame. The Miracle at Coogan's Bluff was achieved in part through cheating. Editorialists calling for a return to the lost ideal of fair play are ignoring history. There was never any such thing.
We don't need an asterisk to tell us that things aren't always as they seem. We know that. Barry Bonds has reminded us.
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NFL Week 14 [PERMALINK]
With a lot of words already behind us, I'll keep comments to the legal minimum as I turn to Week 14 in the NFL. Winners in caps.
CHICAGO (5-7) at Jacksonville (6-6)
Cincinnati (6-6) at NEW ENGLAND (11-1)
Cleveland (3-9) at BUFFALO (6-6)
INDIANAPOLIS (9-3) at Houston (5-7)
New Orleans (4-8) at DALLAS (5-7)
N.Y. Giants (5-7) at BALTIMORE (7-5)
Oakland (4-8) at ATLANTA (9-3)
Seattle (6-6) at MINNESOTA (7-5)
Detroit (5-7) at GREEN BAY (7-5)
MIAMI (2-10) at Denver (7-5) What the Heck Pick of the week
N.Y. JETS (9-3) at Pittsburgh (11-1)
San Francisco (1-11) at ARIZONA (4-8)
St. Louis (6-6) at CAROLINA (5-7)
Tampa Bay (5-7) at SAN DIEGO (9-3)
PHILADELPHIA (11-1) at Washington (4-8)
KANSAS CITY (4-8) at Tennessee (4-8)
Season record: 121-71
Last week: 12-4
What the Heck Picks: 6-6 (would tie for last NFC wild card)
The legal minimum of comments according to the What the Heck Institute: 1
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