This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's April 24, 2006, issue. Subscribe today!
AT SOME POINT in the immediate to near future, someone is going to throw Barry Bonds a strike when he should be seeing a ball, and he will rake it with extreme prejudice. His propulsive, compact swing will rock the sphere toward the roof of the troposphere; it will fall to earth roughly 440 feet from where Bonds is standing, and he will react as if he is: (a) unimpressed or (b) vaguely annoyed.
He will then jog 360 feet, and some people will cheer, and some people will have mixed feelings, and some people will have mixed feelings while they cheer. And that is because this particular raking will be the 715th home run of Bonds' career, meaning he will have surpassed the home run production of George Herman "Babe" Ruth.
This is a problem.
It is not a problem the way global warming is a problem, nor is it a problem the way throat cancer is a problem. But it's a problem for anyone who considers sports to be a meaningful prism through which to understand life and culture. It's a problem for future historians, which means it's a problem for us right now. The problem is this: It's an achievement of disenchantment. And that applies to pretty much everyone involved, including you.
The reason we keep statistics -- and the reason we care about statistical milestones -- is that we assume some sort of emotional experience will accompany their creation and obliteration. These moments are supposed to embody ideas that transcend the notion of grown men playing children's games; these moments are supposed to be a positive amalgamation of awe, evolution, inspiration, admiration and the macrobiotic potential of man. But the recent success of Bonds contains only two of those qualities, and maybe only the first.
It's hard to feel good about that. Bonds is a self-absorbed, unlikable person who has an adversarial relationship with the world at large, and he has (almost certainly) used unethical, unnatural means to accomplish feats that actively hurt baseball. His statistical destruction of Ruth is metaphoric, but not in a good way. It's an indictment of modernity, even for people who don't give a damn about the past or the present.
Bonds probably doesn't care about any of this, and I'm not necessarily certain he should. But the rest of us are left in a curious quandary: How do we reconcile a massive, momentous achievement that is neither wholly real nor socially good? In a vacuum, Bonds might be the greatest hitter who ever lived. But we don't live in a vacuum. We live in the world.
This is a problem. It's a big problem composed of five smaller problems, and they're all kind of important.
Problem 1: The end of numbers -- in the only realm where numbers matter
At this point in history, no one considers baseball as popular as football or as culturally relevant as basketball. But baseball is still the intellectual game; it's the game most compelling to the likes of Ken Burns and George Will and Yo La Tengo, and that's at least partially due to the quantitative import of its record keeping. Baseball is the only sport where numbers always seem meaningful, and it's the only sport where a numeric comparison between players of different eras is even halfway reasonable. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored almost 7,000 more career points than Wilt Chamberlain did, but no one would ever suggest that Abdul-Jabbar was the superior, or even comparable, offensive force. Baseball is the only game where categories like batting average and slugging percentage have objective meaning, and it's the one sport where specific cumulative plateaus (3,000 hits, 300 wins) are regularly used as guidelines for the Hall of Fame. It's the only game where sabermetrics could exist and be taken seriously. Unlike football and basketball, baseball exists within a hard reality.
Steroids, and Bonds in particular, have probably changed that forever. Performance-enhancing drugs create two problems for baseball's bean counters -- one of which is predictable and one of which is not. The first, obviously, is that they enhance performance. The second is that these performances are enhanced to a degree that's completely unclear. In the case of Bonds, it would appear that the improvement has been profound: At an age (37) when his skills should have been diminishing, he hit 24 more home runs than he ever had before. But that still tells us very little about the specific impact of steroid use.
There is no way to quantify the intangible components of injecting yourself with drugs that make you better. How much of this increased production was due to Bonds' newfound sense of mental invincibility? How much was due to the realization by opposing pitchers that Bonds was: (a) totally juiced up and therefore (b) impossible to overpower? Moreover, it's not like steroids magically turn spray hitters into Magnus Ver Magnusson; they mostly help hitters (and pitchers) recover faster from workouts, which allows them to train harder and more often. Does this mean "the cream" and "the clear" made Bonds into a freakish superman, or does it mean they merely allowed him to become the natural superfreak he always had the potential to be? These are questions we can never answer.
It would be absurd to argue that Bonds' hitting assault over the past six years is completely inauthentic or even mildly unimpressive. It is, however, relatively meaningless. Because steroids make the values of all modern statistics confusing and incomparable, they also diminish the two things baseball had going for it: history and math. Everything that's happened in major league baseball since approximately 1995 is now potentially useless, which ultimately means that everything since '95 is completely useless. And this will continue to have an effect in the future, even if steroids and human growth hormone are completely eliminated from the game.
Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the maximum number of home runs an organic, free-range, unenhanced baseball player can hit in a 162-game schedule is 65. Perhaps a 65-homer season is the limit of human potential and as close to power-hitting perfection as any normal person can achieve. If someone were to do this in 2016, would anyone even care? It's hard to imagine how 65 legitimate home runs could ever seem as stunning as the 73 semi-fake ones we've already seen.
Problem 2: We were all fools and now we have to pretend we weren't
Part of what makes Bonds' alleged juicing so troubling, if we are to believe the exhaustively researched book "Game of Shadows," is that it appears so brazen. Many of us -- including his own mistress -- swear that the man's head has physically increased in size, which is generally not a consequence of aging. His cheating seems stupidly obvious. But nobody seemed to perceive this obviousness until we had no other choice.
In 1998, Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs and Sammy Sosa clubbed 66. McGwire looked like a bipedal Clydesdale swinging an elm tree; he was somehow far stronger at age 34 than he had been 10 years before. Sosa was (supposedly) only 29 in 1998, which seemed slightly more reasonable; of course, he happened to be a 29-year-old man with acne, so that was a little weird. But people loved these jovial manimals, and people wanted to see the never-beloved Roger Maris erased from the record books, and people casually wondered if maybe there was something wrong with the actual baseballs. Americans tend to be conspiracy theorists, but we're not particularly skeptical.
The situation with Bonds is different. The evidence is overwhelming, and the protagonist isn't heroic. Moreover, his chemistry experiments are going to have a consequence no one is happy about: Bonds will supplant Ruth, the most enduring sports figure of the 20th century. Everybody knows this, and there's nothing anyone can do.
It's too late. And because we all let this happen -- because we ignored what now seems obvious about McGwire and dozens of other hitters in the late '90s -- we will have to retrospectively reinvent how those experiences felt. Barry Bonds will force people to change their recent memories so they correspond with a new frame of reference, which is how historical revisionism generally occurs.
Problem 3: Tomorrow, today will be yesterday -- and Bonds will represent what that was like
In November 2000, the United States held a presidential election, and nobody knew who won, so we just kind of made up an outcome and tried to act like that was normal. Less than a year later, airplanes flew into office buildings, and everybody cried for two months. And then Enron went bankrupt, and the U.S. started acting like a rogue state, and "The Simple Life" premiered, and gasoline became unaffordable, and our Olympic basketball team lost to Puerto Rico, and we reelected the same president we never really elected in the first place. Later, there would be some especially devastating hurricanes and three Oscars for an especially bad movie called "Crash."
Things, as they say, have been better.
I'm only 33 years old, so I'll concede that my life experience is limited. But the past five years have been an especially depressing stretch to be an American, and I don't think many people of any age would disagree with that sentiment (except for maybe Kelly Clarkson ... things seem to be working out OK for her). If it's the era of anything, it's the Era of Predictable Disillusionment: a half-decade in which many long-standing fears about how America works (and what America has come to represent) were gradually -- and then suddenly -- hammered into the collective consciousness of just about everyone, including all the people who hadn't been paying attention to begin with.
This will not be lost on future historians. In 50 or 100 years, they will search for events within the popular culture that supposedly embodied the zeitgeist of the time. Some of these people will use sports, not unlike the way contemporary historians might use Muhammad Ali as a means to define the 1960s. As these future historians try to explain what was wrong with the world in the early 21st century, I suspect they will use Barry Bonds. Here was a man accomplishing unbelievable things -- things so unbelievable that they literally should not have been believed, even as they were happening. But we did not really believe or disbelieve. We just sort of watched it happen, and then we watched it get out of control, and then we expressed shock without feeling a grain of surprise, and then we tried to figure out how we were supposed to reconcile an alien reality we unconsciously understood all along. So if you're wondering how to feel about Barry's passing Babe, here's one option: You can feel like you're experiencing how the present tense will be understood in the future.
Problem 4: What Bonds says is occasionally true -- and why this makes things worse
A mound of evidence suggests that Bonds has been less than honest about steroids. But it seems like he's been honest about a lot of other things. "The last time I played baseball was in college," he said in his grand jury testimony during the BALCO case. He said almost the exact same thing to The New York Times Magazine in 2002: "The last game I played was in college. Ever since then, it's been a business. This is a business."
So far as I can tell, this is the only plausible explanation for Bonds' alleged decision to use performance-enhancing drugs: the idea of not using them seemed ridiculous. It did not strike him as unethical, because for Bonds, this is not a moral issue. Who possibly worries about such matters? The goal is to do business. This is a job.
It's important to realize that the way you view baseball and the way Barry Bonds views baseball have almost no relationship whatsoever. You likely view Bonds' life as somewhat extraordinary; he absolutely does not. There has never been a single moment in his existence when being around superstar ballplayers was peculiar. Bonds' father was an All-Star outfielder, his godfather is Willie Mays and his distant cousin is Reggie Jackson. And Bonds has never played on a team for which he wasn't the best player. You could argue that he has never played against anyone as talented as himself. He has always been rich, always been dominant. Fame has always seemed normative. So any deeper meaning we may place on how steroids will affect the sanctity of the game is -- to Bonds -- irrelevant and probably preposterous. Baseball holds as much symbolic value to him as delivering the mail does to a postman.
This is what makes Bonds frustrating: It's entirely possible that he views his actions more reasonably than everyone else does. When I consider the choices he made, I find myself thinking, "Why?" He was already the best player of his generation. But then I realize that my question is reflexive. The reason Bonds would jeopardize his legacy is because he doesn't view it as a legacy -- he views it as a responsibility he doesn't particularly like. Part of what makes him unlikable is that he doesn't care how other people expect him to think. Part of what makes him unlikable is the fact that he's so shrewd.
Early in "Game of Shadows," authors Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams try to illustrate what motivated Bonds to inject chemicals into his rump, and they suggest that his actions were driven by jealousy and, to a lesser extent, race. "They're just letting him do it because he's a white boy," Bonds supposedly said of McGwire's steroid-fueled run at the single-season home run mark. This statement makes Bonds seem as paranoid as Richard Nixon. How, one wonders, could unseen puppet masters be pulling the strings behind the home run race? It all seems crazy.
But, then again, nobody ever wrote a takedown book on Mark McGwire. I'm not sure anyone even considered it.
Nixon wasn't always wrong.
Problem 5: Babe Ruth doesn't exist -- and probably never did
We are all familiar with the story of Babe Ruth; it's the classic American narrative. He was born inside a burning saloon. As a teen, he was persuaded to become a southpaw pitcher through the guidance of a priest impressed by the boy's ability to consume entire turkeys during brunch. As he matured, Ruth found he was able to hit 600-foot home runs for dying children without the use of a bat. His on-field excellence was punctuated by an ability to drink whole kegs of beer while making love to nine women simultaneously, none of whom was his wife. When the Red Sox traded his rights to the Yankees, 560 people died in a mud slide. Ruth served as Warren G. Harding's secretary of state, albeit briefly. He also weighed in the neighborhood of 18,000 pounds and once won a best-of-three-falls wrestling match against Man o' War, the horse he later ate.
For all practical -- and statistical -- purposes, Ruth wasn't a real person. In 1927 he hit 60 home runs, exactly twice as many as NL co-champs Hack Wilson and Cy Williams hit; when Ruth retired in 1935, he had hit 714 homers, more than twice as many as Lou Gehrig, the man in second place. In 1925, he got a tummy ache, and it was one of the biggest stories of the year. He revolutionized the game, captivated radio audiences, built houses, inspired candy bars and was used as an epithet by Japanese soldiers during the war. Ruth has been dead for 57 years, and he is still substantially more famous than Barry Bonds.
But Bonds is going to pass him, and no one knows how to feel. Ruth was a troubling person, but he's a wonderful idea; Bonds is a troubling person who's an empty idea. For his entire career, Barry Bonds has embodied nothing. Now he will embody only this, and "this" isn't good for anyone. He's just compiling numbers we don't trust, and they are as colossal as they are meaningless. To care about these home runs is to care about nothing.
David Grann's 2002 profile of Bonds in The New York Times Magazine was titled "Baseball Without Metaphor." It ended with a rhetorical query. "But for the moment, as the crowd settled back into its seats, there were no heroes or demons," Grann wrote while awaiting Bonds' next at-bat, back when his home run total still hovered below 600. "Just baseball. Isn't that enough?"