Thanking Barry Bonds

March 22, 2011 | Thyrl Nelson

Keeping in mind that perjury is and has to be seen as the cardinal sin of the American Justice system, it’s still tough not to feel – as US v. Bonds gets set to resume at long last – that this has become a witch hunt of epic proportions now hell bend on holding Barry Bonds or anyone accountable for crimes committed against the very spirit of Major League Baseball and therefore made an example of.

Regardless of the eventual outcome of this case and the price that Bonds is held to pay or not pay, the court of public opinion has spoken loudly and clearly as it relates to Bonds, Raphael Palmeiro and anyone else directly or indirectly tied to steroids. That makes the likelihood of seeing Bonds enshrined in Cooperstown hopeful at best as baseball fans now come to grips with an era in which MLB’s all-time leaders in both hits and homeruns (among countless other categories) are likely to remain on the outside looking in to baseball’s hallowed hall.


It’s not as if Bonds ever seemed to care much about the court of public opinion, if Charles Barkley made famous the phrase “I am not a role model”, it was Bonds who embodied that sentiment. So as Bonds remains baseball’s biggest asterisk in the (hopefully) post-steroid era, it’s not as if he set himself up well for forgiveness from the public who continually felt scorned by the aloof Bonds throughout his prolific career.


Casting Bonds as a figure indifferent to public opinion is probably far too easy though. Far too easy, especially considering that most seem to concede that through Bonds run of National League dominance and 5-tool MVP candidacy in what easily would have been the prime of a hall of fame – no, an all-time great – career he was likely steroid free. As most have operated on the assumption that Bonds spurned by the spotlight, as juiced up cartoon characters like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased Lou Gehrig and greatness, felt compelled to turn to steroids only later in his career. Indeed the freakish changes to his body were all but a dead giveaway to the shortcuts that he had taken and presumably when, providing “evidence” of an almost clear line of demarcation between a pre-steroid and post-steroid Bonds.


To that end Bonds, like Jose Canseco before him might be due a debt of gratitude – if not respect – from the public at large for forcing us to face the realities of steroids and Major League Baseball. That’s because even as Canseco was spouting out name after name of player after player who he “knew” to be linked to steroids, and as players’ bodies and stat lines grew in epic proportions, fans and media were reluctant not only to lend credibility to Canseco’s claims but even to simply acknowledge that steroids and performance enhancers could help baseball players. That’s where Bonds comes in.


Having seen Bonds tear up the league throughout his career as a skinny yet strong 5-tooled MVP and then seeing the marked improvement to that already prolific skill set at a point in his career when Bonds’ numbers should have begun to decline left all of us no choice but to acknowledge that steroids had pervaded and absolutely changed the face of America’s great pastime. Without that acknowledgement, we could have never moved forward with attempts to ferret out performance enhancers from Major League Baseball. Without that acknowledgement, the historical significance of all that happened before and after MLB’s steroid era is diminished if not entirely obscured.


As Bonds prepares again to re-air the dirty laundry that will surely define a career deserving of a much higher esteem, we should thank him. Thanks him for forcing us to come to grips with the issue that was all but staring us in the face in the first place, the issue that compelled us as fans to demand more from our superstars, and as a result compelled those superstars to make science projects of their bodies and long term health prospects.


Forgiveness is another matter altogether, and although Bonds is clearly a long way from hoping to earn anything like it, we at least owe him a begrudging thanks. And perhaps a bit of empathy for a brilliant career forever tarnished by a desperate effort to hold on and to keep up. Lastly, I’ll offer my hope, a hope that steroids have not so damaged his and others bodies that the lives they’ve earned as a result won’t be cut short or irreparably damaged. Paying the price to the Hall of Fame committee or the US government or the court of public opinion is one thing, but only time will ultimately tell the real price that Bonds and others like them will pay for fame, for riches and for our entertainment and sadly the realities of life and death are far more unforgiving than any of the aforementioned.