When I was a kid, during summer vacation I used to go
my local branch library and read the sports
biographies-- all the sports biographies--Bob Turley,
Don Larsen and Sal Maglie. The Jackie Robinson Story,
The Billy Martin Story, The Roy Campanella Story,
Eddie Matthews and Willie Mays. I read the stories of
Don Hutson and Johnny Blood, T. Truxton Hare and John
Heisman. I read The Sammy Baugh Story, The Bobby Layne
Story, the Bill Russell story, The Lenny Wilkens
Story, The Sid Luckman Story, and on and on.
For some reason I didn't get to The Hank Aaron Story
until the fall of 1965, but I already knew a lot about
him. My father was a great admirer of Henry Aaron and
thought him the best pure hitter since Ted Williams.
At the time, this was a minority view. The general
feeling among sports cognoscenti of the era was that
while Aaron was a very good hitter, he was not the
equal of Willie Mays and perhaps not even Mickey
In fairness, you could see why. Willie Mays hit .317
with 52 home runs in 1965--this in an era featuring
pitchers like Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal,
Don Drysdale, Jim Bunning and earned run averages
under 2.00. Mays was already 34 years old in 1965 but
by years end he had 505 Home Runs and people were
beginning to talk about Mays having a chance to
surpass Babe Ruth's home record of 714. I, however,
didn't think so, nor did my father.
Incredible as it sounds, you could already see signs
of the great Mays' decline--at least my father could--
even during that MVP year. It was actually a fly ball
Mays couldn't reach in a game against the Phillies--and
that Mays, and perhaps only Mays, would have reached
five years before-- that tipped my father off.
After Mays failed to come up with the ball, my father
shook his head and said to me, "you know Abums, I
think Mays is in decline." I said to my father "you're
nuts"--I used to call him nuts all the time--in 1965
Willie Mays was the best player in baseball as he had
been for most of the previous fifteen years. But my
father was right. Mays never hit .300 again after '65,
and after '66, his power numbers began to drop
precipitously as well.
Aaron meanwhile, by year's end 1965 was sitting on 398
lifetime home runs, but Aaron was only thirty-one
years old and I did the math. Since his Rookie year
when he hit 13 home runs, Aaron had averaged exactly
35 Home Runs a year over the previous eleven years. If
he could somehow maintain that pace over the next
eight years, Aaron would be in reach of Babe Ruth's
then seemingly unreachable record by the time he was
Being eleven years old at the time, I perhaps did not
understand how difficult a task I was laying out for
"The Hammer". Nonetheless standing there in the
antique, albeit institutional, grandeur of the Bushrod
branch library on Castor Avenue in Northeast
Philadephia, I felt a shiver run through me. Willie
Mays wasn't going to break Babe Ruth's record, Hank
Aaron was and I had been the first to figure it out.
I ran home to tell me father, who seemed surprisingly
unmoved by my epiphany; as though maybe this time, he
thought I was nuts.
"We'll see," he said.
Forty years later, I feel as proprietary as anyone
about Hank Aaron's home run record. I feel like I
called it, in a sense, like when Babe Ruth called that
home run for the sick kid. And that revelation in the
library, unknown to all but me, my late father--and now
you--is a major event of my youth.
So having said that, let me further say that the best
pure hitter I've personally ever seen was Barry Bonds
between the years of 2000 and 2004.
And therein lies another, larger story.
I confess to not having read the Balco book, Game of
Shadows by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark
Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams which uses reports of
leaked grand jury testimony, to the effect that Bonds
not only took performance enhancing drugs but lied
about it to the grand jury. I have however read the
synopsized version of the book in the Chronicle. I
have also read Bonds' own description of what he
claims he thought he was taking from his personal
trainer, Greg Anderson. That is, a balm for muscle and
joint pain--which came to be known as "the cream," and
flax seed oil.
For what it's worth, I've also heard Victor Conte, the
owner of Balco speak about Bonds. Conte, who has been
quick to finger other steroid using athletes he was
supplying, says that he personally did not supply
Bonds with anything illegal and is not sure what, if
anything, Bonds was taking during these years.
For the decade of the 1990's Barry Bonds was, year in
and year out, the best hitter, and arguably the best
player, in baseball. He won three Most Valuable Player
awards. He hit over forty home runs three times, only
hit less than thirty three once, drove in over a
hundred runs every year but one, hit .300 or more
every year but one, and stole the lion's share of his
career 510 stolen bases. Bonds also won eight Golden
Glove awards for his defensive play in left field and
was generally an awesome to player to watch.
However in 1999, during or right before Spring
training, Bond's fell down the stairs of his house and
hurt his knee badly. He was on the disabled list until
June 9th of that year. When he came back, though he
managed 34 Home Runs and drove in 83 runs, he only
batted .262, his worst average since the early years
of his career in Pittsburgh. Bonds' knee became
arthritic around this time and he says that this is
when he started using the balm from Balco. I believe
For their part, Fainaru-Wada and Williams take into
account Bonds' knee injury, but say that Bonds' new
steroid aided training regimen of these years was also
prompted by Bonds' jealousy of the steroid aided, big
power numbers that others were putting up in the
Nineties. Bonds' was apparently further piqued by the
fact that none of these overachieving players now out
producing him, were as good as him.
This also has the ring of truth.
Every era in baseball has been created accidentally as
it were, by outside forces the game has had to respond
Previous to the modern era in baseball was the
so-called "dead ball era", as it was known to
subsequent generations of fans. Before 1919, the
single season home run record in Major League Baseball
was 14, held by Frank "Home Run" Baker, the greatest
slugger of his time. Then came the "Black Sox" scandal
in which eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox
were accused of throwing the World Series.
Baseball, then truly the American pastime, was at a
crossroads. In the aftermath of the Black Sox scandal
along came Babe Ruth and the so-called "live ball,"
though it's hard to say which came first. Ruth, a
former pitcher in his first season as a full time
player, smashed Baker's home run record, hitting 29
home runs (the next leading home run hitter in
baseball hit 11) in 1919. Babe followed this up by
hitting an incredible 54 home runs in 1920 and 58 home
runs in 1921. It was a new day.
Then, in the aftermath of WWII--a war against fascism
and, at least implicitly, against the ideology of
white supremacy--it became clear to even some of the
idiots who ran Major League Baseball that the
continuing practice of white supremacy in the National
Pastime was an abomination. The breaking of the color
line, coming as it did along with the rise of
Television, arguably led to Baseball's greatest era.
In 1994, a baseball strike wiped out the postseason
for the first time in over ninety years. People were
saying the strike was the death knell of baseball. The
sport was a relic of a previous century, they said,
there wasn't enough action in the game to hold the
attention of our increasingly attention deficit
When play resumed in 1995, the home runs began to
mount, seemingly exponentially over the next three
years, culminating in the record-breaking season of
1998. In the course of this season, Mark McGwire and
Sammy Sosa both broke Roger Maris' previous record of
61 home runs. Sosa hit 66 home runs that season and
McGwire finished with 70 home runs. At the time, most
fans figured that Major League Baseball was juicing
the ball again, just as they had seventy years before
in the wake of the Black Sox scandal. And maybe they
But Barry Bonds and other baseball insiders knew it
was more than that. By this time steroids were an open
secret in baseball and there was no more prominent
steroid user than the new Home Run King, Mark McGwire.
During the mid 90's, McGwire was open about his use of
the steroid precursor, androstenedione, or
"andro"--which was not illegal at the time and was
widely available. McGwire, while not admitting to
actual steroid use in this period, did not deny it
either. However McGwire had special reasons to look
for help. He had lost both the 1993 and 1994 seasons
to injury, first a partially torn muscle sheath in his
right foot and then his left. In 1995 McGwire got off
to a great start and then severely hurt his lower
back, sustaining disk damage. He was out for most of
July and all of August that year.
In 1996 McGwire came back from his three years of
injuries to hit 52 home runs. He proceeded to hit 58
home runs in 1997 and 70 home runs in 1998, all career
McGwire was not the only player to use steroids for
help in rehabilitating from injuries in this period.
Many other well-known players, faced with career
threatening injuries, turned to steroids as well, not
so much to gain an "unfair competitive advantage," as
for help in rehabilitating themselves.
But ultimately it didn't matter what reason a player
turned to steroids for, the drugs, in the short term,
delivered. Scores of players from the late 80's
through the 90's began using them to great effect and
its almost impossible to believe that Bonds, now
rehabbing from his own injury, did not take note.
By 2000, Bonds had recovered from his knee injury. He
hit .306 that year with 49 home runs, 106 RBI's and
129 runs scored. It was a great year to sure, but well
within the parameters of his previous statistical
All through this period Bonds was becoming noticeably
bigger and stronger, however Bonds' regimen of six to
eight hour work outs were already legendary and Bonds'
entourage of personal trainers trailing through the
Giants' clubhouse, already notorious.
Statistically Bonds' does not jump off the scale of
his even own outsized statistical achievements until
2001 when he hit an almost unreal 73 home runs, along
with 137 RBI's and a batting average of .328 and again
129 runs scored.
By the next year Bonds apotheosis was complete. He not
only hit 46 home runs in 2002, but his average was
.370 and pitchers were now completely afraid to face
him. Bonds walked a Major League record 198 times and
his on base percentage was .582. Over the next two
years Bonds hit a combined .350, with ninety home
runs, and topped out at a ridiculous 232 walks--bases
on balls-- in 2004. His on base percentage and slugging
percentage also continued to rise. Taken altogether it
was a thing as unprecedented in baseball history as
Babe Ruth hitting those 52 home runs in 1920.
Bonds may very well have used performance-enhancing
drugs for those years, but I don't know that, and
neither do you. I do know that a lot of players were
using them and none of them came close to Bonds'
Ultimately the main point about Barry Bonds, is that
like Ruth, like Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays,
Hank Aaron and Rogers Hornsby, Bonds was a baseball
genius who figured out a way, in the short term, to
transcend the limits of the game itself.
And by that, I don't necessarily mean using steroids.
Like Ted Williams, Bonds was, is, a hitting scientist.
Bonds' home run record will fall, sooner rather than
later, if not to Alex Rodriguez, then to some
twelve-year old playing at this moment on the sandlots
of Camaguey, Cuba. But I'm not sure if Bonds' record
for bases on balls--currently at 2525 and rising-- will
ever be approached. Bonds only swings at pitches in
the strike zone that he can hit. Like with Williams,
Bonds' "Walks" are a testimony to his hitting
discipline, to playing the game the right way in order
to seize the moment when it presents itself.
Bonds is also reminiscent of the baseball immortal, Ty
Cobb. Pete Rose took Cobb's record for total hits but
without some kind of species mutation, no one is going
to challenge Cobb's career batting average record of
.363 any time soon. The adjective politely applied to
Cobb as a player and person was "prickly," and that
could also be applied to Bonds. More accurately, Cobb
was also called a vicious player and a selfish jerk.
Though Bonds has never been accused of being vicious
he is regularly castigated around baseball for his
personality problem. But one can't help thinking that
part of the problem with both Cobb and Bonds is their
supreme egoism, their unwillingness to let anything
get in the way of their competitive edge.
This egoism also translates into a sort of big-ticket
utilitarianism. Bonds has long been a proud
Republican. As he once said at a Republican fund
raising event for former California Governor Pete"Prop
187" Wilson, "the Republicans are the party of the
Rich man, and I'm a rich man."
The big lie of our official culture is that we are an
anti-drug society. It is often said that Ronald Reagan
ran for President in 1980 on an implicit platform of
reversing the 1960's--by which one assumes they mean
sex, drugs and rock n'roll.
However what happened to sex, drugs and rock n'roll
since the '70's is that they got pressed into the
service of sales and advertising and now have to pay
their own way.
It's hard, for example, not to experience a moment of
cognitive dissonance watching a discussion of
performance enhancing drugs in sports on ESPN or CNN,
with the weird graphics crawling up the screen against
a throbbing bass and pounding drums all created
expressly to mimic a drug experience.
And then there's poor Anderson Cooper. He seems like a
good enough guy, but how does he keep going around the
world 360, 24/7? And what are the long-term
From 2000--2004, Barry Bonds was the greatest hitter I
have ever seen--and yes, that includes Ted Williams who
I saw play in 1960. It includes Stan Musial, Frank
Robinson, Mickey Mantle, George Brett, Rod Carew, Mike
Schmidt and yeah, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.
And if some people are gonna decide, well that's
because he was on steroids, I suppose Bonds has only
himself to blame for that, but for me it only slightly
diminishes his achievement.
As has often been said, the thing about baseball is
that it's primarily a game of failure against which
you then measure your infrequent successes. The best
clutch hitter is going to fail to drive in the winning
run, two out of three times. The best team in baseball
is probably going to lose at least sixty times over
the course of a season.
It's this built in sense of failure and loss that
makes this definitively 19th century game, so
poignant, powerful and timeless. It is also often said
that baseball is a lot like life, in that both will
kick your ass.
And so when we see a player manage to stand above the
game for a season or two, to actually be better than
the game itself, it's like watching a river run
uphill, like watching Icarus rising and this time
disappearing in the sky.
Yesterday I walking by the Montgomery street Bart
Station in downtown San Francisco and saw an old man
sitting there on a milk crate playing a battered
guitar. He had a baseball cap in front of him, full of
change. As I came closer I saw that the guitar only
had five strings, it was missing the high E string,
but he was singing a sort of uptempo Jesse Fuller type
blues and it sounded pretty good anyway. I came a
little closer to make out the words. They went like this:
Every asshole tries his hardest
We all got feet of clay
I seen Bonds in and outta this world
The rest just falls away.