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Steroids Bury Bonds; The Needle and the Damage Done to Baseball’s Hall of Fame

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What should keep a person out of the Baseball Hall of Fame? If your name is Barry Bonds, that’s one good reason.

Anabolic steroids create bonds in muscle fiber where there were none before. Blood flows through cells of all muscles, which are magnified and multiplied through the introduction of synthetic testosterone like a controlled cancer.

Damage through activity is reduced and healing accelerated.

That’s what this class of steroids does to muscles. But they don’t always do the same for careers. Game of Shadows by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams pushes the knife in a little deeper into Bonds’ career and reputation. No wonder he hates “the media.”

Especially when someone gets caught. Now it depends on how success is viewed. I set the level at losing the respect of fans while the player may measure success exclusively in dollars, which have become blood-brothers with enhanced performance and results.

Cheaters don’t belong in the Hall of Fame. I’m not willing to say that’s an absolute, as it’s all about the crime involved and its frequency. But when your success is as a result of an ethical cancer, you may have performed better but you have failed at being a better person.

But ESPN offers you a show, Bonds on Bonds airing Tuesday. A better title? “Broken Bonds.”

Just over a year ago Congress held hearings, inviting players to do their best Ollie North act and deny any wrongdoing. Under the authority of the Federal Controlled Substances Act, the House’s Government Reform Committee talked to players and coaches, including the Padres’ Kevin Towers, who was in confessional mode.

It resulted in this year’s much stiffer penalties. In the court of public opinion, of course, athletes are ahead of the game because some people have invested a lot of time, money and lung power in support of their players.

And I certainly can be considered guilty of this. I still have fondness for former Seattle Supersonic Shawn Kemp, a druggie womanizer who let his weaknesses overcome his strengths. But that type of failure seems a different animal then injecting for better performance. And I don’t grudgingly accept that his illegal drug use was a good thing or that the appropriate league should turn a blind eye.

In the arena of sports all illegal drugs are bad, but performance-enhancing drugs are worse than others.

From a sports fan’s point of view, because so many big stars have been suspected and, physically, have proved they’ve taken anabolic steroids without a medically-prescribed reason, the idea that none of their performances should end up in the Hall of Fame, is painful. In fact, it calls into questions the existence and the usefulness of the Hall of Fame if its best players — Pete Rose — are banned. In fact, all kinds of records and players could be called into question through the years, so the real question is, how do you drop a cut-off point? Maybe you create a Prance & Enhance League?

Well, the league has done it before. If they can keep Pete Rose out of baseball for betting on the game, which is argued to deeply effect the integrity of the game; if you do this then you must ban players who have taken steroids.

“I have never used steroids. Period. I do not know how to say it any more clearly than that.” Rafael Palmeiro, after denying taking steroids with those words, before Congress no less, was caught with a positive result. Now was his whole career built on a lie? Not sure, but I don’t think so. Should he make it to the Hall of Fame? Not sure, but I don’t think so.

That is, if there are enough people who think steroid use ruins the integrity of the game. That seems to be a pivotal point and one that remains unresolved. Some argue that it should be legal for everyone. But not every player wants to be better at the expense of a smaller penis, drugs and premature … death. Some people, like Ken Griffey Jr., believe in the phrase, “God-given talent.” There’s a much loved baseball movie called The Natural. There isn’t one called, “The Immoral.”

This is considered by some a situation where Bonds is the best at another aspect of the game — taking steroids without getting caught — and that steroids are the natural progression of the game. As always, it’s what the fans will accept. But if the majority accept it, they’ll still be wrong.

In the 1970s, the big scandal was amphetamines (or greenies). Moving quickly, these now, in 2006, have been placed on the banned substances list by Major League Baseball. Generally (very) those let people push themselves beyond their usual limits. They don’t change muscles’ bulk, they fuel them temporarily. In that way, I put them in a different class, though maybe I shouldn’t.

Jim Klobuchar, in a Christian Science Monitor article “ points out that Human Growth Hormone is still the Achilles’ heel, of the sport. Testing for it is unreliable, he reports, and therefore it is not banned.

Growth hormone, now and in the foreseeable future, can’t be detected in urine samples. Baseball, like other American sports organizations, has resisted the use of blood samples, often citing privacy concerns. “Theirs is an old and stale argument,” says Gary Wadler, an associate professor at New York University’s School of Medicine. “Blood testing had some issues that were unfounded. But it’s routine around the world, and it works.”

So far that argument has not made headway with baseball. Wadler grants that baseball, seeing itself in trouble, has opened its eyes. “Why should we care?” he asked in testimony before the House investigating committee. Because “baseball is a role-model sport and likely contributes to the alarming abuse of anabolic steroids by teenagers…. From a public-health perspective, the abuse of these drugs is harmful both physically and behaviorally.”

George, in a comment at the Sports Justice blog is succinct in his damnation of the whole sport, and I find myself nodding, but hesitating to completely agree:

This reminds me of the movie “Quiz Show” where the contestants in a rigged show were hung out to dry when it was the show’s producers and the networks were the ones that staged the sham.

Baseball has looked the other way on steroid and amphetamine (or greenie) use for years and the owners were complicit in the practice. They could have mandated testing years ago, or better yet turn in the players who used these drugs (illegally, regardless of the banned substances policy at the time) in their locker rooms.

The big issue is when did this start infecting the game. It is impossible to know who is clean and who isn’t. Did Cal Ripken use greenies? There’s another tainted record in my mind if he did.

To cite Bonds, McGwire, Canseco and the rest because they got caught is a joke. The sport is the criminal here.

On this Opening Day of the 2006 baseball season, there are indications that the investigation of Bonds — especially — is ramping up. But as columnist Jim Litke pointed out Friday, there’s nothing that can stop Bonds from playing.

It’s long overdue, but baseball is finally going to provide some context. A lot of reputations and history will be tainted in the bargain, but at least there’s this consolation: Bonds’ overreaching ambition to be recognized as the best player ever won’t be realized precisely because of the era in which he played .

Each year there has been some progress toward treating the taking of steroids as it is. A stain. This year if you’re caught you’re suspended for 50 games, almost a third of the season, without pay. A third offense could lead to a lifetime ban. The out for players is that the ban is subject to review after two years of suspension.

Wouldn’t an announcement that if you’re caught a second time you will be banned from the Hall of Fame also have quite an effect on cleaning up the game?

If it does not, that is not only an indictment of baseball, but of society. Players should be forgiven for some of their transgressions. No one is perfect and a world of perfect is awfully boring. But forgiveness cannot and should not be extended forever

It’s telling that the player’s union has resisted much of this change every step of the way. In a very real way the union’s job is to concentrate on what’s good for their players. But they have done so without thinking of the damage to the game. It is now they have realized that the damage to the game is easily translated to damage to their players.

It is typical to hear some players still claim ignorance and no opinion on the matter of steroid use. It is refreshing to hear some baseball players speak out against Bonds; if he used steroids he deserves scorn, as they all do in relation to the money, fame and statistics thought to have been earned.

Wave the checkered flag

I haven’t mentioned race in all this because race is a complete non-issue. It just is. USA Today had an article Thursday “Reasons for Bonds’ bad image split between steroids and racism” that quoted athletes saying this controversy wouldn’t be such a big deal if Barry Bonds was white and Babe Ruth was black.

“White America doesn’t want him to (pass) Babe Ruth and is doing everything they can to stop him,” says Leonard Moore, director of African and African-American Studies at Louisiana State University. “America hasn’t had a white hope since the retirement of (NBA star) Larry Bird, and once Bonds passes Ruth, there’s nothing that will make (Ruth) unique, and they’re scared. And I’m scared for Bonds. “I think what he’ll go through will be 100 times worse than what Aaron went through” when he surpassed Ruth in 1974. “I pray for him every night.”

What poisoned bilge water. Such a perspective is a direct effort to cheapen the legacy and the terror hurled — with greater venom than any fastball — at Aaron as he approached Ruth’s 714 home runs. As an Atlanta Brave, Hank Aaron hammered number 715 on on April 8, 1974, and finished his career in 1976 with 755.

There’s a reason Hank Aaron said he would not attend any ceremony and celebration if Bonds broke his record. And it’s not because Barry Bonds is black.

The article also says that Bonds’ poor relationship with the media has played a factor in the way he is now being treated. He hasn’t been Mr. Happy Go Lucky. So what? People still loved him, though that same aloof attitude has transferred to the fans. Any relationship with the media should be discarded in this discussion. Diplomacy, while nice, shouldn’t be a factor on the field or being in the Hall of Fame.

Drugs and cheating should.

There’s another name that I thought of before Babe Ruth, and his gaudy career. Ruth is number two in the home run list, headed by Hank Aaron. I would really like Bonds to fail, to retire, to even get a career-ending injury. I wouldn’t wish such an injury if he wasn’t so near the end of his career anyway, but Bonds is a lightning rod an an example of everything that’s wrong with professional baseball.

Ty Cobb’s rampant racism is often dismissed more as a testament to the times and the environment of “everybody was like that then.” Today, we revile Cobb’s racism. In 80 years are we going to look back and forgive? Should steroid use in sports be considered on the same level as racism in sports? Perhaps not.

I want Bonds to fail because he cheated. He — and this is my opinion, of course, though one backed by a growing wave of evidence — took illegal drugs and he lied about it. He lied. He lied. He lied. In his 20 years in the league (he debuted May 30, 1986) Bonds has achieved success (and ironically a three-time winner of the Hank Aaron Award , NL-MVPs, 13-time All Star, the Major League Baseball single-season home run record because he took drugs and lied. True he was an upper-echelon player for a long time — because of natural ability. But in 2000, at the age of 35, his slugging percentage jumped from .617 to .688 and in 2001 it rocketed to .863, followed by years of .799, .749, .812 (and .667 in an injury plagued and shortened 2005 season). His previous highest slugging percentage was .677 in 1993 at the age of 28. [Baseball-Reference.com]

Mark McGwire had an even more dramatic jump in 1995. After two injury- and strike-shortened years (a combined 74 games in 1993/94) during which he must have wondered whether his career was at a premature end, he had a slugging percentage of .685 and never looked back. 1987 was a good year, but it is an anomaly compared to the numbers before 1995. He has admitted the use of androstenedione, a substance banned by many other sports, but a legal one.

Over his 23 seasons Hank Aaron’s slugging percentage was .555 and he averaged 32.8 home runs, with a high of .669 / 47 in 1971. He retired at age 42.

It’s that high profile, and the fact that he was once a jewel of the league — even with the surly, but not necessarily offensive attitude — that causes the spotlight to be shined brighter on Bonds. Now, under that spotlight — no wonder he hates “the media” — any reasonable person has discovered they have found that jewel flawed and fake besides.

Bonds in this pre-season appeared twice in drag before the media. It was a pleasant moment of levity, but why the hell did he do it? It seemed an effort to distract, and then Game of Shadows came out. Spare me the idea that Bonds has suffered at the hands of the media. The last needle junkie to be as celebrated as Bonds was Kurt Cobain, and look at what happened to him – he jumped off the Empire State Building.

Houston Chronicle online columnist Richard Justice describes it all well: “Now Bonds sits atop the worst scandal baseball has had. Steroids have wrecked the record books, called the integrity of the game into question, and dwarfed the accomplishments of a generation of players who mostly didn’t use steroids.”

That’s where we’re at. Justice doesn’t mention “race” and if it plays a part, it is a minuscule one, overwhelmed by a Yankee Stadium’s volume of other more thoughtful concerns.

Seattle Mariner Matt Lawton, himself an anonymous, low-key, ho hum player who also took steroids, and was caught last year (as were the Mariners’ Ryan Franklin and the Reds’ Alex Sanchez), must have had the drugs dull his brain. The USA Today quotes Lawton as saying, “If (Bonds) were white, he’d be a poster boy in baseball, not an outcast,” Lawton says.

He was a poster boy. Now it’s the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and Barry Bonds, to be blunt can’t buy a hit. Not anymore.

OTHER LINKS

  • Bud should back off, ESPN.com
  • Gang Up Job, ESPN.com
  • How-To on steroids use, from Britain. “No crazy cycles, no health risks, no acne, no water retention, no bitch tits, no fat, no abuse, no side effects… NONE! I would NEVER, and I mean, NEVER subject my son to unnecessary risks.”
  • McGwire mum on steroids in hearing, CNN.com. See also this, this and this.
  • Tracking the Barry Bonds revelations, Deadspin.com
  • Barry Bonds career timeline, CBS News. See also, Sports Illustrated
  • Most Home runs in one season, 45 or more. Infoplease.com
  • History of drug use in sports, Ratrobot.com
  • A history of anabolic steroids, A1B2C3.com
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  • About temple

    Always been a writer, always maintained an interest in politics, how people communicate and fantasy worlds within photography and books. Previously wrote for Blogcritics back in 2005 and interested in exploring the issues and topics I'm interested - the changing landscape of entertainment. all from the POV of a creator first, consumer, second.
    • Hunter

      I find the whole thing depressing, Bonds, even without steroids, could still have been the best all-around player in baseball. He has robbed all baseball fans of being able to appreciate him. Whether the records stand or not, whether he gets into the Hall of Fame or not, Barry Bonds’s legacy will always be a dark blot.

      I’ve been wondering why the steroids issue has revolved around him, and I guess that’s the real reason the media focuses on him rather than comparably lesser figures such as McGuire, Sosa, and Giambi. (I think even with their numbers now, McGuire and Sosa are borderline hall-of-famers not even taking account the steroids question.) He’s almost a classical tragic figure, a powerful man undone by his own hubris and envy.

    • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

      The reception Bonds yesterday – wheweeeeee. If he gets that a lot this season, peopoe are going to start to feel sorry for him.

      I just remember he got rich of lies, when he didn’t need to. It was all his doing.

      (stopped at wifi spot at the mo, so checked in on laptop.)

    • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

      Yeah, he’s gonna get booed for 81 games, half-cheered for the other 81.

      Know what fixes that kind of angst? More drugs.