Rooting for Barry Bonds

There may come a day when Barry Bonds steps onto the hallowed grounds of the Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown to take his place amongst the all-time greats. There may be fans who travelled thousands of miles to cheer on the home run king with aged peers looking on begrudgingly, as Bonds gives what would certainly be a speech for the ages for all the right or wrong reasons, depending on your perspective.

That day has not arrived yet, and, after a third denial from the voters, it’s becoming harder to envision what Bonds’ plaque might look like. Arguing the merits of his candidacy is a futile practice at this point. Anyone not putting Bonds on their ballot is doing it for one reason: to punish the man who became the face of the steroid era, where homers were flying, pitchers were cranking up the heat and the record books were being dismantled.

Legends like Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were being replaced in the record books by ‘roided up schmoes like Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. Somewhere, after it was all over, George Will shed a single tear in remembrance of the golden game of yesteryear.

Of course, thinking that baseball’s past was all sunshine and unicorn farts is grade A malarkey. The dead-ball era saw terrible offensive production thanks to the frequent use of the spitball, which is now illegal to throw. Players of lesser moral character than Bonds, like notorious racist Ty Cobb and notorious boozer and womanizer Babe Ruth, still have their plaques, pictures and artifacts proudly displayed in Cooperstown.

And while the steroid era certainly padded some players’ numbers, it’s a pretty safe assumption that many MLB players who played before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier may not be in the Hall of Fame if they had to face the likes of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.

Those considerations probably are not going through the minds of the Hall of Fame electorate, and their opinions won’t likely change soon if baseball’s reputation for being stuck in the past is any indication.

Someday soon though, writers of a certain age will no longer be voting for the next Hall of Fame class, and in their place will probably be someone younger, someone who embraces saber metrics or an objective methodology and doesn’t just base their vote on whether or not a player “looks” like a Hall of Famer.

The day will come when the children raised during the steroid era will decide who is worthy of being immortalized with the game’s highest honor. If their early baseball experiences are anything like my own, players like Bonds stand a good chance of joining baseball’s most elite club.

Bonds is the reason I love baseball. When I was younger, I was captivated by the sweet swing and beaming smile of Ken Griffey Jr., but it was Bonds and his Ruthian power that truly captivated me. Ignorance truly was bliss, as watching him send baseballs into the San Francisco Bay with what felt like just the flick of his wrist became a sight to behold.

Even at a young age, I knew this was the player I would one day tell my kids and grandchildren about. My grandfather had Stan Musial, my father had Mays, but Bonds was my baseball hero.

Until he wasn’t. In 2006, the long suspicions of Bonds’ steroid use were all but confirmed with the release of Game of Shadows. The news rocked my world. I was probably too naive, too caught up in fandom, but the news felt like how it might feel to watch a friend or loved one commit some unforgivable act.

And yet, I never stopped cheering. It may have become more muted, but the cheering continued on through home run number 756 and until his final moments at AT&T Park.

Maybe it made me a bad baseball fan to keep rooting for a known cheater, but every San Francisco Giants fan was too invested at that point. Bonds had provided so many of the greatest moments in the team’s history that it felt wrong to turn our backs on him at that point. The 73 home runs and the moonshots in the World Series were all real memories that we would cherish forever.

Nothing, not even the cloud of suspicion that rolled in like the San Francisco fog, could take those memories away. We were all dancing with the devil, and it was nothing short of enchanting.

Bonds has not played a professional baseball game in almost eight years, but my perspective on him, as a player and a man, is always evolving. There’s no question at this point that Bonds did something to enhance his performance, but the older I grow, the less that matters. Not everybody was doing it as some say, but a whole hell of a lot were.

More importantly, rooting for Bonds changed my perspective on how I, and probably many who grew up cheering for him, view some of the greatest athletes. Athletes can be heroes, but the idea that they are by default is no longer true after the fallout of the steroid era.

These players, just like us mind you, will take shortcuts at times to reach the highest of heights. Despite popular opinion, it doesn’t make them evil or lesser athletes, it simply shows that they are no less human than we are and can succumb to the pressures of fans and the media.

Bonds, and many of his enhanced peers, were viewed as Greek gods in their prime. The truth was that their stories, especially Bonds’, were more like a Greek tragedy. Bonds’ father, Bobby, was once a highly touted prospect who drew comparisons to Willie Mays. Bobby’s All-Star start to his career would soon take a turn for the worse after dealing with drug and alcohol abuse and a sour relationship with the media, two things that would ultimately play a role in shaping who Barry would become as a player.

From his debut in 1986 to the turn of the 21st century, there was no one better than Bonds. The ultimate five-tool player, Bonds went to the All-Star Game eight times, took home the Gold Glove eight times, was recognized as the National League MVP three times and became just the fourth member of one of baseball’s most exclusive clubs, the 400 home run-400 steals club.

And yet, it was not Bonds who was recognized as his era’s best player. His prickly personality made fans and writers pay more attention to the million times more likable Griffey Jr. and the majestic home run chase of 1998 between hulking gladiators McGwire and Sosa.

Oct 15, 2014; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants former player Barry Bonds prepares to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before game four of the 2014 NLCS playoff baseball game between the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals at AT&T Park. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It’s safe to say that Bonds didn’t take kindly to the lack of praise thrown his way, and a snub on Sports Illustrated’s All-Century Team (and the inclusion of Griffey) might have made that worse. While it does not justify his steroid use, it at least helps to explain why he did it. If no one would recognize him as the once in a generation talent that he was, he would force everyone to take notice by becoming something beyond human.

It’s fitting that my generation, the millennials I guess we are now deemed, lived through baseball’s dark days. Reality became all to real for my generation with 9/11, the Patriot Act, wars in the Middle East and Hurricane Katrina all taking place in between our transition from childhood to adulthood. Those events, and the increasing presence of the internet, has helped a whole generation see society for exactly what it is, warts and all.

The Baseball Hall of Fame should follow suit. They have done a great job at molding the history of baseball into a spotless, Disney-fied version of the game’s history. But that won’t fly for long, especially considering an entire generation of ballplayers are in danger of being erased from the game’s collective memory.

Besides, it’s called the Baseball Hall of Fame and MUSEUM. That “Museum” part seems to say that anything that shaped the game of baseball, whether it be good or bad, should be represented.

Not every confirmed or suspected steroid user will, or even should, make it into the Hall of Fame. But someone like Bonds, who was a Hall of Famer in his own right before his late 30’s growth spurt, is more than just an all-time great. He is, whether he likes it or not, the perfect representative of an entire era.

Whether it’s the guy who took steroids to get out of the Minor Leagues and get his first MLB check or the guy who wanted to hit 600 home runs and not just 450, the motivations, pressures and stories of these players share striking similarities.

There is a good chance that many suspected PED users will never take their place amongst baseball’s elite. For many fans, that’s just the way it should be. For others like myself, it misses the point of what Cooperstown should be. There will hopefully come a day when I can take my own children to Cooperstown, like my parents before me, to show them my favorite players from my youth.

If we happen to pass the plaque of Bonds, there will be stories of splash hits and jaw-dropping plays, but mostly there will be stories of who he was as a person and what he ended up representing.

There will be no talk of heroes then, just of how Bonds taught me the most important lesson I have ever learned as a sports fan; that Bonds, like so many of his contemporaries, was just a man, with as many flaws and imperfections as anybody else.

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