Taking stock of Bonds

Barry Bonds is the perfect fall guy. His unpleasant personality makes it easy for the baseball establishment, the media and the fans to blame him for the steroid scandal.

Now batting, the whipping boy for the steroid generation.

Now batting, the whipping boy for the steroid generation.

Jay Feldman is a widely published Davis author. His most recent book is Suitcase Sefton and the American Dream.

Unlike many, or even most baseball fans, I have no strong opinion about the legitimacy of Barry Bonds’ new career home-run record, tainted as it is by the cloud of suspected steroid use that hangs over him. I have to admit that I don’t particularly care whether Bonds—along with scores, perhaps hundreds of other major leaguers—took steroids. What I find far more interesting is the controversy itself, and the peripheral issues that surround the debate over whether or not Bonds’ record is legit.

As expected, Bonds’ pursuit of Hank Aaron’s home-run mark saturated the sports pages for weeks, and as with all sports events of such magnitude, coverage occasionally even spilled over onto the front pages. Unless you avoided picking up a newspaper or watching the news for the past few months, you could hardly have escaped knowing that Bonds was closing in on Aaron’s mark of 755 homers.

The career home-run record is considered by many fans to be the most hallowed record in all of sports, a view reflected in the amount of media coverage Bonds received, as well as in the intensity of opinion, both pro and con, that his pursuit elicited. But baseball alone was not the only reason for such compelling interest in Bonds’ quest. Sports are, of course, a reflection of our culture and society; you can learn a lot about American life by reading the sports pages, and the home-run chase predictably afforded some keen insight.

I should make it clear that while it doesn’t really matter to me if Bonds and other ballplayers took steroids, I’m not condoning steroid use—but not because it might give users an unfair advantage. Baseball players and other professional athletes are high-paid entertainers, and if they want to risk, in exchange for the competitive edge it gives them, the physical and psychological damage that steroids can cause, that’s their business.

Unfortunately, however, professional athletes are role models, and the trickle-down effect of steroid use has been devastating. Seeing the possibilities that steroids can offer, many young athletes have done their minds and bodies irreparable damage by emulating their heroes. In an extreme example, 17-year-old Texas high-school pitcher Taylor Hooton committed suicide after months of taking steroids. And he’s not been the only one.

The advisability of steroid use aside, there are deeper issues to consider. Start with the scapegoating of Bonds by the baseball establishment, the media and the majority of fans. Bonds is an easy target. He’s a surly character who has done nothing in the course of his superlative career to court the favor of writers or the public. Bonds doesn’t care in the slightest what fans, writers, and the baseball authorities think of him.

And that’s why he’s been so vilified. For years, baseball commissioner Bud Selig, team owners, and a compliant media turned a blind eye on the use of steroids because of the results they produced, which stimulated fan interest and translated into handsome box-office receipts. But when such widespread substance abuse could no longer be ignored, these same people found it convenient to turn the aloof and arrogant Bonds into the Dark Prince of baseball in order to direct the focus away from their own years of inaction.

Compare, for example, the media’s reaction to the accusation by a former player that future Hall-of-Fame pitcher Roger Clemens had also used steroids. When reporters asked Clemens about the allegations, he brushed them aside, and that was the end of it.

Similarly, look at the public’s adoration of seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who has also been accused many times of doping. Has his reputation suffered? No, because his public image is more in keeping with what we want our sports heroes to be.

Bonds, on the other hand, because he is perceived as unpleasant and uncooperative, has taken the rap for the entire steroid culture that has flourished in baseball for the past 15 years. However, although he admits to briefly and unwittingly using a steroid cream given to him by a personal trainer, the fact remains that Bonds has not once tested positive for any illegal substance. But the commissioner and the media have manipulated public opinion in a cynical and self-righteous attempt to exonerate themselves of responsibility, and Bonds has become the whipping boy for the steroid generation.

Not surprisingly, the bedrock American issue of race also reared its ugly head in the Bonds case. Not in the blatant way it did in 1974, when Aaron was closing in on Babe Ruth’s home run record of 714. Aaron, a soft-spoken, dignified man whose personality is 180 degrees away from the controversial Bonds, received death threats and the most unimaginably vile racist hate mail for having the temerity, as a black man, to threaten the Babe’s mark. Not since Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball’s color line in 1947 had such an outpouring of racist sentiment been directed at a baseball player.

With Bonds, the matter of race manifested in a more subtle way. The results of a CBS-New York Times poll conducted in early July revealed that while 57 percent of African-Americans were rooting for Bonds to break the record, only 29 percent of white fans wanted him to overtake Aaron. Shades of O.J. Simpson, who was considered guilty of killing his wife and her friend by a far larger percentage of whites than of blacks. Attitudes like these indicate just how far we still are from being a color-blind society.

Like Ruth, Bonds is a mythic figure, somebody on whom people project their own ideas and values. It’s too easy to make him a scapegoat—if we look a bit closer, there’s more to see than Bonds, baseball, home runs, and steroids. If we look past the fingerpointing and hysteria, we can see a reflection of our society and ourselves.