There seems to be little question that San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds is a jerk. He's "famously surly," in the words of former reason staffer—and current and future baseball fan—Matt Welch (who also thinks Bonds is one of the all-time greats, an assessment with which I agree). In many ways, Bonds is precisely the sort of extremely well-paid player that fans love to hate.
But is he a cheater? Now in his 22nd season, Bonds is closing in on the Major League Baseball home-run record; as of this writing, he is just nine dingers shy of Hammerin' Hank Aaron's total of 755. (It's a small measure of racial progress in America that Bonds is widely disliked not because of the color of his skin but the supposed lack of content in his character. Aaron received death threats from white supremacists disgusted that a black man was eclipsing a record set by a white man during the national pastime's pathetically long-lived segregationist phase.)
According to widespread press reports and last year's book-length expose, Game of Shadows, Bonds allegedly started taking steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs during the 1998 season. The charges are credible: Since '98, Bonds has packed on somewhere between 15 pounds and 20 pounds, all of it muscle. His late-career output defies common patterns of decline. And there seems little question that over the past 15 years or so, baseball has been soaking in steroids like Madge's manicure clients used to in liquid Palmolive.
Whether steroids help ball players all that much is a different question, one that we can bracket for the present conversation. But surely it's worth noting that whether Bonds juiced or not, he's never been charged with violating any of MLB's doping policies, which have changed over time. Nor has he been charged with breaking any federal, state, or local laws in connection to steroids.
Yet the allegations are the reason that a recent USA Today poll found just 34 percent "of fans said they would acknowledge Bonds as the best" slugger even after he sets the new standard for homers. This is in many ways unfair to Bonds, whose career has always been stellar; his seven Most Valuable Player awards are more than twice as many as anyone else has managed since the Baseball Writers Association of America started handing out the honor in 1931.
As Sports Central's Paul Tenorio writes, even if Bonds had retired after the 1998 season (his 13th as a player), he would still have Hall of Fame stats, including "three National League MVPs, eight all-star appearances, eight Gold Gloves, 1,751 runs, 1,917 hits, and 411 home runs." Continues Tenorio,
"His numbers are so staggering, that if you took Bonds' average per season over the first 13 seasons of his career and spread them over the last eight years of his career, Bonds would retire at the end of this season with the following numbers: 2,957 runs, 3,240 hits, 699 home runs."
Whether Bonds is ultimately accepted by fans is less interesting to me than what his censure suggests about our society's attitudes toward drugs: We remain convinced that even in contests where certain substances weren't banned, it's somehow uniquely immoral to use drugs to transform ourselves or give ourselves an edge. This attitude seems impervious to change, even as Americans increasingly rely on drugs in all aspects of our lives—to control our cholesterol, to improve our attention span, to change our moods on a daily basis.
Baseball fans are excruciatingly well versed in the reality that, as ESPN's Bill Simmons has written, "people have been cheating in baseball for decades." Discussing the Hall of Fame chances of Mark McGwire, another record-setting slugger who almost certainly used performance-ehancers, Simmons notes that players have
...fixed games, stolen signs, corked bats, slimed balls, popped greenies and, yes, injected steroids and rubbed HGH cream. We're told that baseball is America's pastime, the implication being that it mirrors real life. And you know what? It's true. A long time ago, Babe Ruth showed us that athletes, like everyone else, are imperfect. More recently, [accused gambler Pete] Rose hammered home the point for any of us who might have forgotten it. What did McGwire make clear? That human beings are always searching for an edge, and when they find it, they use it.
It's a curious fact that, as Simmons notes, you almost never hear fans dismiss the accomplishments of someone like Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry, who openly admitted cheating (by doctoring the ball). But if there's a hint of drug use, there's a big problem.
A curious fact and, when you look at the absolute havoc wrought at all levels by misguided drug policies that warp everything in this country from education to foreign policy to law enforcement, a tragic one.
Nick Gillespie is reason's editor-in-chief.