Sometime soon, probably this week, Barry Bonds will surpass Hank Aaron as the all-time home run champion of baseball. When he does, it will reopen the long and bitter debate about the role of steroids in baseball.
Opinion: Dr. Strangedrugs or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bonds
Barry Bonds, of course, is almost certainly guilty of taking steroids. As the satirical newspaper The Onion once joked, Bonds’ steroid use has been confirmed by “sports columnists, bloggers, people attending baseball games, memorabilia collectors, major ballpark popcorn and peanut vendors, groundskeepers, roommates, significant others, fathers-in-law, next-door neighbors, fellow fitness club members, bartenders, mailmen, coworkers, teachers, doormen, parking-lot attendants, fellow elevator passengers, Home Depot clerks, servicemen and women serving in Iraq, former baseball players, congressmen, second-tier stand-up comics, Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly, and random passersby.”
But while Bonds is widely considered a cheater, he’s not the only one. Mark McGwire, who held the single-season home run record before Bonds, has all but admitted that he took steroids. Jason Giambi has, too. Rafael Palmiero bitterly denounced the focus on steroids — until he tested positive for them. Jose Canseco, McGwire’s former teammate, now says he has proof that future hall-of-fame third baseman Alex Rodriguez is juiced.
And that’s just the hitters. Two-thirds of the players suspended since baseball began testing have been pitchers, including the Twins’ Juan Rincon. Indeed, estimates have ranged from between 15 and 50 percent of baseball players using some form of illegal substance.
And that’s why I’m going to be cheering Bonds on this week.
It’s not that it’s right that players cheat — not at all. But for a decade, baseball turned a blind eye to steroids, willfully ignoring signs that such players as McGwire and Bonds and Canseco were juiced. It did so to spur interest in the game — after all, the McGwire/Sosa assault on Roger Maris’ home-run record was good for the game, insofar as it brought back fans jaded by a mid-’90s work stoppage that ended with a missed World Series. Baseball chose to put drumming up interest ahead of making sure the game was clean.
Moreover, this wasn’t the first time. Baseball in the ’60s and ’70s had a rampant amphetamine problem that baseball never really addressed. Players took amphetamines for energy and to gain an advantage, and baseball chose to turn a blind eye then, too.
This is not to say that it’s good players are cheating. The health risks of steroids are well-known and serious. But baseball made its decision. The integrity of the game has already been shattered. And while it may be true that Bonds wouldn’t hold the record he’s about to seize if not for drugs, it’s also true that baseball chose a path that allowed him to do drugs without fear of reprisal.
In short, Bonds is about to earn his record with the full blessing of baseball. He hasn’t failed a drug test yet. And while you and I know he was juiced to the gills and may be still, until baseball turns its back on him I don’t know why I should.