Sports Illustrated runs an excerpt from a book by reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams documenting seven-time baseball MVP Barry Bonds' performance enhancing drug regimen. It's all pretty much what you'd expect from my American Conservative article "Out of the Park" from two years ago, but what's new is that the authors have found (based on interviews with Barry's ex-mistress) that the direct cause of Barry starting to cheat was the intense jealousy he felt about the humongous hoopla over Mark McGwire's 1998 breaking of Roger Maris's homerun record, when it should have been obvious that McGwire was a juicer. (Indeed, late in the season a reporter found a vial of steroid precursor in McGwire's locker).
Toward the end of the 1998 season, Stephen Jay Gould wrote a celebratory op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about how the homer competition between McGwire and Sammy Sosa had restored the innocence to the game, yada yada. I sent Gould a fax suggesting that there was nothing innocent about it, that the explanation for their soaring totals was that they were breaking the law by using steroids. Gould never replied.
According to the article, Bonds never used anything stronger than a protein shake before the end of the 1998. Bonds was certainly the best all-around ballplayer of the 1990s, winning three MVP awards from 1990-1993 when he was in his later 20s.
His father, Bobby Bonds, had been a remarkable talent, with an almost unprecedented combination of speed and power, but teams had had a hard time figuring out how to use him. Moreover, Bobby was an alcoholic and chain-smoker, so his output fell off rapidly after he hit 30.
Barry inherited his father's power and speed, and avoided his failings. Bobby struck out almost twice as much as he walked, and Barry started his career with a similar pattern, but by 1996 was walking twice as much as he struck out.
Without performance enhancing drugs, Barry was one of the top 20 players of all time, and had a shot at the career top 10. Up through age 33, during which Barry was clean of steroids,, the most similar career to Barry's was that of Frank Robinson's, one of the greatest players of all time. Still, Barry's godfather was Willie Mays who was even better than Robinson. And Barry's career was following the normal path -- he'd peaked at age 27-28 in 1992-93 -- and he was now in his biologically inevitable decline phase.
At age 34 in late 1998, his stats remained terrific, but his body was slowly deteriorating, and lesser players like McGwire and Sosa were cheating to steal the limelight from him. He entered a home run hitting contest.
Moreover, Bonds is an anti-white racist, and the adulation for the cheating McGwire who is white, was driving him crazy.
On that trip [to McGwire's St. Louis in May 1998] Bonds began making racial remarks about McGwire to Kimberly Bell [his girlfriend]. According to Bell he would repeat them throughout the summer, as McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the buff, fan-friendly Chicago Cubs slugger who also was hitting home runs at an amazing rate, became the talk of the nation.
"They're just letting him do it because he's a white boy," Bonds said of McGwire and his chase of Maris's record. The pursuit by Sosa, a Latin player from the Dominican Republic, was entertaining but doomed, Bonds declared. As a matter of policy, "they'll never let him win," he said.
As he sometimes did when he was in a particularly bleak mood, Bonds was channeling racial attitudes picked up from his father, the former Giants star Bobby Bonds, and his godfather, the great Willie Mays, both African-American ballplayers who had experienced virulent racism while starting their professional careers in the Jim Crow South. Barry Bonds himself had never seen anything remotely like that: He had grown up in an affluent white suburb of San Francisco, and his best boyhood friend, his first wife and his present girlfriend all were white. When Bonds railed about McGwire, he didn't articulate who "they" were, or how the supposed conspiracy to rig the home run record was being carried out. But his brooding anger was real enough, and it continued throughout a year in which he batted .303, hit 37 home runs, made the All-Star team for the eighth time and was otherwise almost completely ignored. The home run chase, meanwhile, transfixed even casual fans, in the way that a great pennant race used to do in the old days.
He started using steroids after the 1998 season, but had trouble with injuries.
If Bonds had any doubts about continuing to use performance-enhancing drugs, they were eliminated just before the start of spring training in 2000, when he went to Cashman Field in Las Vegas to compete in the Big League Challenge, a charity home run derby broadcast on ESPN. Jose Canseco dominated the event. He hit 28 bombs in the last round, while Bonds didn't even make the finals. At one point Bonds saw Canseco take off his shirt: 255 pounds, seemingly not an ounce of fat, just gleaming, chiseled power.
"Dude," Bonds said. "Where did you get all that muscle?"
In the early 1990s, a friend, whose brother was a major leaguer and who is a player's agent himself, told me that Canseco was the "Typhoid Mary of steroids." Wherever he went, guys started imitating his use of steroids.
Bonds got more sophisticated in 2000 and had an excellent but not unbelievable year. Then, with the help of a world class steroid cheater, he went on a four year tear. As I blogged in 2004:
From the age of 36 through 39 he went on a four-year tear averaging 257 [on the Adjusted OPS statistic, which is the single best measure of productivity], which is better than Babe Ruth's single best season (1920) of 255, when he was 25. Ted Williams had a 233 when he was 38 but his surrounding seasons weren't too close to that. Bonds' last four seasons include the three best offensive seasons in the history of baseball. That just ain't natural.
Not surprisingly, steroids made Barry, who was never a nice guy, a nasty son of a gun. His girlfriend kept her old answering machine tapes with his diatribes on them in a drawer in case she ended up like Nicole Simpson. By the way, Barry told his white girlfriend that he had to get married to keep from losing all custody of his kids from his first marriage, and that he had to marry a black woman for the sake of the media, but that wouldn't affect their relationship.
One interesting detail is that Barry had never been "buff" before the drugs. A three time MVP, a man who had averaged more than 36 homers per year from 1990-98. So, that may something about athletes who are buff.