Twenty years ago on Friday, Barry Bonds began the greatest stretch of hitting in baseball history.
For four seasons – 2001 to 2004 – he wasn’t untouchable. He was so far ahead of everyone else that he became unseeable.
Ballplayers generally agree that the best statistic for measuring a hitter’s value is OPS (On-base percentage Plus Slugging percentage). By OPS, during those four years, Bonds put up the first, second, fourth and eighth best single seasons in history.
By the end of this stretch, opponents were so fearful they began taking a knee whenever Bonds came up with runners on base. He was intentionally walked 120 times in 2004. The overall walks leader in 2019 had 119.
In the usual course of things, this anniversary would be the occasion of some sort of celebration. We are now two decades removed from the beginning of the greatest hot streak ever. The narrative boxes during that run are begging to be ticked off: the race to 73 home runs; four MVP awards in a row (no other player has won more than three in a career); Bonds’s advanced age throughout (36-39 years old).
But nobody is talking about Barry Bonds, nor will anyone be talking about Barry Bonds. Without actually striking his name off any rolls, Major League Baseball has turned Bonds into an unperson. Sure, he did the things he did, but we don’t talk about it any more. That seems to be MLB’s unofficial official position. If not cruel, it is certainly unusual.
The problem, of course, is drugs. The more drugs we do, the less patience we have for the pros doing them. That’s the new morality.
What exactly do we know about Bonds and performance-enhancing drugs?
We know he did steroids, because he admitted as much. He told a grand jury that he did so unknowingly – that he believed a steroid cream was instead flaxseed. That eventually got him rung up on a perjury charge.
Bonds was never convicted of perjury. The one charge he was found guilty of – obstructing justice – was quashed on appeal.
So we know the full weight of the U.S. government was brought to bear in order to prove he knowingly did drugs, and that that tussle ended up in his favour.
We also know that, in his mid-30s, Bonds transformed from a long, sleek physical specimen into a refrigerator with a head. And what a head. Bonds’s noggin became so pumpkin-like that the only time he looked discomfited on the field was while he was wedging on a batting helmet.
So a lot of what we know is actually what we infer, or what we suspect. We know a lot of Bonds’s peers did drugs because they were caught at it. We know a lot of baseball players in the nineties and early Aughts started to look like they’d been inflated with a bike pump, none moreso than Bonds. And we know that power numbers went into the redline around the time Bonds was averaging a home run every eight(!) at-bats.
But we don’t know anything more than that.
MLB didn’t ban Bonds. It didn’t punish him in any way. None of his records have been struck off the books.
Instead, his legacy has been put into cold storage. He did those things. They’ll give you that much. But that’s all they’ll give you.
Another thing we know about Bonds is that he wasn’t exactly a caring-is-sharing sort of guy. Near the end, he had a reputation as the most sullen player in baseball. The baseline demeanour of most ballplayers is somewhere between standoffish and actively aggressive. So that’s really saying something.
Back when I was new at this, I was tasked with interviewing him one afternoon in San Francisco. Every etiquette was observed. I waited until he was at his locker and not busy. As I approached, he’d been sitting there for several minutes staring off into space.
I introduced myself and asked if I could ask a question (in baseball, you never just ask a veteran player a question).
Bonds started yelling straight off. It occurred to me later that none of his teammates turned around to see what was going on. They were used to it.
The yelling ended with, “I’m busy! Can’t you see I’m busy?!” I retreated to a corner of the clubhouse.
Bonds moved six feet to his right and sat down on a couch. He starting looking around for something to be busy with. He picked a newspaper off the table in front of him. He opened the paper and pretended to read it for a beat. Then he lowered it just enough so that he could lock eyes with me. He lowered it a couple of inches more so that I could see him sneering.
I mean, come on. That’s pretty great. It’s still one of my favourite war stories.
But I get that if you had to deal with that every day, it would become a bit of a drag.
So when baseball decided to pull a Joe Stalin with Bonds’s memory, the media were happy to go along with it.
Objectively, no player in history has a better claim to entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame than Bonds. Every time he is denied entry (he’s up to nine misses now), it reinforces the silence around him. It reminds all involved that the gatekeepers are still on board. Even those who vote for Bonds feel compelled to explain their choice, when all you really need to say is “2001 to 2004.”
The Hall of Fame is meant to valorize players. Perversely, in Bonds’s case, it has been used to justify his exile. Because if he can’t convince these people, then he must have done something wrong, mustn’t he?
But nobody is willing to take the next step. Why not erase Bonds’s records? Why not formally expel him?
Because there’s no proof he knowingly did anything wrong. Nobody wants to talk about that little problem.
The result is a bizarre détente between Bonds and MLB. He’s allowed to hang around (now 56, he works as a “special adviser” for the Giants) as long as he never talks about his reputational limbo.
This situation should be untenable, but isn’t. Maybe a couple of generations from now, when nobody remembers the BALCO scandal or what a pill Bonds was to deal with, people will acknowledge him for what he was – the best hitter baseball has seen. By then, everything else will have faded into background noise. All that will be left are those unassailable, irrefutable numbers.