Thursday, August 09, 2007


Tuesday night, Barry Bonds hit his 756th career home run, breaking one of sports' most hallowed records. No one cared.

Such a thought would have been inconceivable to me and my neighborhood friends growing up. Before cars, before girls, perhaps before Almighty God Himself, there was baseball. The St. Louis Cardinals were our local heroes, even though they were suffering through a long mediocre stretch in those days. Many summer days were spent gathered at Whitehead's Field, where we learned to chop home runs over the creek that cut right field short. A deep blast to center would bring an immediate end to the game, as it would land in the tomato patch and bring Old Man Whitehead out of his house cursing and shaking his fist: "Youse damn kids! Gidt oudt! Gidt oudt!!!

When we didn't have enough guys for a game we studied the numbers. Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs. Ty Cobb had 4191 hits. Lou Gehrig played in 2130 consecutive games. Walter Johnson struck out 3508 batters. We bicycled down to the corner store to buy our cartons of Pevely Orange Drink and our baseball cards, where we would learn more mundane trivia concerning the likes of Dick Drago and Denis Menke. I knew the stats of benchwarmers like Pepe Frias like the back of my hand, because it seemed that every pack of baseball cards I bought in the summer of '74 had one of Frias' damn cards in it.

We had some new numbers to learn that summer. That was the year one of our local heroes, Lou Brock, set a record by stealing 118 bases. Then there was the home run record, held for decades by the one and only Ruth, the Sultan of Swat. When we were little, our dads, uncles, older brothers and cousins figured Willie Mays, who they all swore was the greatest player they'd ever seen, was the man to break the record. But age would take its toll on Mays, and he fell just short. Meanwhile, nobody was paying much attention to Hank Aaron, because he hit .300 with 40-some home runs every year, as he had done before any of us kids were born, as long as anyone could remember. Perhaps the most consistent hitter the game had ever seen, you could set your watch by Henry Aaron.

Suddenly people realized that all those 40-homer seasons were piling up, as Aaron first surpassed 600, then 700, career home runs. Hammerin' Hank opened the 1974 season on the verge of breaking Ruth's record. The whole world seemingly waited in anticipation. There were only the three networks back then, no ESPN, no dozens of local satellite channels, no 24 hour-a-day sports talk radio to distract with analysis of NFL draft picks or NASCAR strategy. Stock car racing, anyway, was just something that drunken good ol' boys paid attention to. When Aaron connected for his record-breaking 715th home run, it was one of those pop-cultural moments that everyone who was around back then can remember where they were and what they were doing.

By the 90's, though, things had changed. A pair of crippling player strikes had sapped baseball of much of its interest. More people now considered football to be their favorite sport. A slew of all-sports cable channels popped up showing everything from pro wrestling to Australian rules football. Baseball was just another niche sport on TV. Worst of all, fewer young boys were running down to the neigborhood field with bats, balls, and gloves, for their parents feared that child molesters were lurking around every corner to snatch their kids off the streets.

Baseball had faced hard times before, notably after the 1919 season when eight Chicago White Sox players conspired with gamblers to fix the World Series. The "Black Sox Scandal" shook baseball's reputation to its foundations, and it took Babe Ruth's unprecedented slugging to restore the game in the hearts of America's sports fans. Ruth hit 54 homers in 1920 to shatter the single-season mark, and in 1927 he would push that figure to 60 home runs. This mark stood until 1961, when Roger Maris raised it to 61 homers, stirring controversy in the process as Maris played a season that was eight games longer than Ruth's. Maris hit his 61st during one of the extra games, and the baseball commisioner declared an asterisk fixed to Maris' record to denote that he required the longer season to break the record.

Following the 1994 strike, which caused the cancellation of the World Series for the first time in 90 years, baseball once again turned to the home run for salvation. When play resumed the next year, home runs began flying out of ballparks in unusually great numbers. Rumors flew that the composition of the ball had been altered so it would travel farther when hit. Others noticed the new ballparks were smaller than the ones they were replacing. Some people lamented that pitching had become a lost art. A few people noticed that some ballplayers were unusually muscular, but figured that improved conditioning regimens were responsible for the increased muscle mass.

Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa typified the new breed of slugger. In 1998, the two players staged an assault on Roger Maris' single season record that restored fan interest in the game. The story almost wrote itself, as a better contrast between two men couldn't be found. The Cardinals had the taciturn McGwire, arms as big as tree trunks, who hit his homers, showered, and went home. The loquacious Sosa played for the arch-rival Chicago Cubs, and he never seemed to lose his smile as he joked with reporters and signed autographs for the kids after games. The 1998 season ended with McGwire setting a new record with 70 home runs, Sosa not far behind with 66, and baseball getting a much-needed shot in the arm. Since both men were established sluggers prior to the strike, no one seemed to think anything unusual was afoot. A few remarks about McGwire's humongous forearms aside, most fans simply believed that they had raised their games to a higher level.

Barry Bonds, the greatest hitter of his generation, observed these things, and he was not amused. By 1998, Bonds had been a superstar for over a decade, and already had amassed stats good enough to get him into the Hall Of Fame. Despite his success, Bonds felt he lacked respect, and felt he deserved the attention received by his slugging contemporaries. He was particularly jealous of Mark McGwire, with some justification: Bonds was a superior all-around ballplayer, while McGwire's skills, apart from his ability to hit a baseball further than almost any other human being, were at best average.

Bonds' desire for attention was handicapped by two things: a surly personality which resulted in an uneasy relationship with the baseball writers, and by his decision at the peak of his career to play for the San Francisco Giants, the team which his father Bobby starred for in the 70's, and also the team of his godfather and hero Willie Mays. Giants' home games started too late for fans east of the Rockies to follow, and by the seventh-inning stretch, most of the rest of America was in bed, thus causing Bonds to spend much of his career laboring in relative obscurity. Few outside the West Coast regularly witnessed his feats at the bat, on the basepaths, and in the field, but all America heard of his temper tantrums. Barry Bonds, with the twilight of his career approaching, desired to be remembered for the ages, and he resolved to do so by becoming the greatest home run hitter the world had ever seen.

By this time, baseball fans had added a new word to their lexicon - "androstenedione". In an interview following McGwire's record-breaking season, the Cardinals' slugger admitted to using the drug, an over-the-counter steroid, to increase muscle mass. Although banned by the NFL, steroids were legal in baseball at the time, and after McGwire's interview, rumors began floating around that steroids were the reason behind the increased home run output of the last several seasons.

Around this time, Barry Bonds began spending a lot more time in the gym. The trainers he worked with were familiar with various types of steroids. Bonds figured that anything that was good enough for Mark McGwire was good enough for him. Soon, baseball fans saw a new Barry Bonds.This Bonds was buff, muscular, with hulking forearms capable of driving a baseball deep into San Francisco Bay. At the age of 35, when most hitter's skills begin to decline, Barry Bonds began hitting home runs at a pace the world had never seen. In 2000, he hit a personal best 49 homers, one less than Sosa's league-leading 50. The next season he surpassed McGwire's three-year-old record by clubbing an unheard-of 73 home runs.

Strangely, though, the adulation given to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa when they were setting slugging records was not forthcoming to Barry Bonds. Storm clouds of suspicion were gathering over the game of baseball. Fans whispered at the ballpark speculating which players were "juicing" and which players were not. Perhaps it was just too soon for the record to be broken - Ruth's and Maris' single-season records had each stood for over 30 years. And Bonds' reputation as baseball's surliest, most tempermental player had never helped with the fans. Barry Bonds told his friends that some racist fans simply couldn't bear the thought of a black player holding a record that had always belonged to a white man.

The next season, pitchers started to avoid Bonds like the plague. Nevertheless, in 2002 Bonds hit 46 home runs and led the Giants to the World Series despite rarely seeing good pitches to hit. Suspicions about baseball's power surge continued to grow. Bonds' name began to be associated with BALCO, a Bay Area laboratory involved in the manufacture and distribution of steroids. That year, former major leaguer Ken Caminiti, who in 1996 hit 40 home runs and won the MVP award after a decade of being better known for his glove than his bat, admitted that steroids were responsible for his increased production in his later years. He then went on to allege that half the players in baseball used steroids. Two years later, Caminiti suddenly dropped dead from a heart attack, further underscoring the dangers of steroid use.

In 2003, Bonds hit 45 homers and won his third straight Most Valuable Player award. The career record for home runs held by Hank Aaron was coming into sight. Toward the end of the season, federal agents raided the BALCO facilities and arrested its owner for distribution of controlled substances. The feds asked the company's head for a list of those he had distributed illegal steroids to. On the list was the name of Barry Bonds.

By 2005, the steroid issue had become too big to ignore. That spring, retired slugger Jose Canseco rocked the baseball world with a tell-all book that described, among other things, how he and McGwire would shoot each other up when they were teammates with the Oakland A's in the early 90's. Congress demanded a hearing on the effect of steroids on the sport, and several of baseball's prime suspects were brought in to testify. Jose Canseco sang like a bird. Sammy Sosa made a typically glib statement about how he had never broken any laws. Mark McGwire, his physique noticably smaller than in his playing days, faced Congress with the same stoic manner which he used to handle the sportswriters, until he nearly broke down while reading a prepared statement in which he said that answering further questions would implicate his family, his friends, and himself. Baseball ended up banning steroids and implementing a new drug testing regimen.

Through it all, Barry Bonds continued to issue denials as he continued to inch closer to Aaron's record and his former BALCO associates were hauled off to the courtroom. Yet the things he seemed to want most, the adulation of the fans and the acclaim of being the greatest player of all time, continued to elude him. The public now saw Bonds as a pumped-up freak whose slugging accomplishments were suspect. Bonds sought to be the king of the sports world; all he received for his efforts was apathy. When Hank Aaron hit his record-setting home run, the whole world watched. When Barry Bonds supplanted Aaron late Tuesday, all the kids had gone to bed. Nobody even bothered to break in to network programming. Bonds' historic achievement was relegated to the highlight reel on ESPN, next to the motocross results.

All the old numbers we memorized are gone now. Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb's record for base hits, before being barred from the game for life due to his gambling activities. Cal Ripken played more consecutive games than Lou Gehrig, continuing on past the age that Gehrig lost his life to a disabling muscle disease. Nolan Ryan obliterated Walter Johnson's strikeout mark, and Rickey Henderson ran well past all of Lou Brock's stolen base records. But their numbers are of little interest to young boys today. The stars of today remain under a cloud of suspicion, and you're about as likely to find young boys poring over their accomplishments as you are to find those boys playing baseball in some old man's field on a warm summer day.

UPDATE: Cakesniffer notes in comments that androstenedione is not a steroid, which is technically correct. Andro is naturally produced by the human body, which in turn breaks it down into testosterone. Here's the best explanation I can find:

Androstenedione is a supplement made from a naturally occurring steroid hormone. The body metabolizes androstenedione into testosterone, which is considered a steroid. When supplements of testosterone are taken in high doses, they are known to have an anabolic effect increasing muscle size and strength.

The distinction to be made is between andro and synthetically produced anabolic steroids such as what BALCO trafficked in. The FDA, though, treats supplements containing andro the same way it treats the synthetics.