Whatever happened to Barry Bonds?

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March 30 2006 5:38 PM

Game of Shadows

How Barry Bonds became the melon-head he is today, and why baseball is to blame.

Barry Bonds. Click image to expand.
A young Barry Bonds

Looking at a picture of the young Barry Bonds, one is surprised to find a boy so skinny, so plainly middle class, so vulnerable as to be almost feminine. Could this child really be father to the man? Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal That Rocked Professional Sports by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, two investigative reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle, exhaustively details Bonds' transition from emotionally fragile child into baseball's Big Pharma. But its most telling revelation is the authors' assertion that the young Barry Bonds "couldn't escape the feeling that people discounted his achievements because of his father." Unlike many black athletes, Bonds had a father, Bobby, who was a brilliant major league baseball player, someone who could afford to raise a son in San Carlos, Calif., an affluent white community near San Francisco. In some occult genetic sense, Bobby may have given Barry his baseball virtuosity, but he also taught by example: how to let one's moods swing, how to stand off, how to self-destruct. By Bonds' own account, his father was often absent, and when not absent, often abusive. Imagine, then, a creature who combines the self-righteous anger of a wealthy race martyr like Bill Cosby and the insecurity of a preppy brat like John McEnroe, and you arrive at the Bonds of Game of Shadows. Nothing in the book softens Bonds' public image as an overweening monster. And everything in its reporting appears to dispel every reasonable suspicion that steroids turned him from a great player into a historic one.

Its tabloid subtitle aside, Fainaru-Wada's and Williams' book is well-named. Baseball is supposed to be everything but a game of shadows—more like a sun-dappled pastoral frolic. You don't have to believe that baseball says anything about our innocence or our agrarian past to find the steroid scandal deeply offensive. Where the other major American sports are populated by freaks—in basketball, the abnormally tall; in football, the abnormally hulking—baseball doesn't (or at least, didn't) reward the over-specialized body type. It was a game pre-eminently of repetition, patience, and skill, played by the normally proportioned. But after a crippling strike that canceled the World Series in 1994, baseball was in a bind. It could continue to stress its human scale—its intimacy, its lazy summer pacing, its ancestor worship of such untouchable greats as the Babe and Ted Williams—until George Will sat alone in the stands, weeping at the game's poetry. Or it could woo back legions of disaffected fans and change its nature, reproportioning itself to the inhuman scale of basketball and football.

Baseball reproportioned itself, all right. It shrank its ballparks, shrank the strike zone, shrank foul territory, and some say, doctored the baseball itself. But such measures fail to create superstars, for one simple reason: They enhance everyone's batting stats. And nothing proved more effective at minting Michael Jordan-like players—athletes whose individual performances stand so far above their peers as to make them seem godlike in their apotheosis—than the performance-enhancing drugs that began to be used around this time, as Game of Shadows meticulously details. The authors reviewed grand jury testimony, unredacted affidavits, confidential federal memoranda, and they interviewed hundreds of principals. Though the book makes clear that track stars like Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones were routine dopers, along with baseball's Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield, its principal focus is Barry Bonds and his emergence as the greatest player in the history of his sport.

Bonds, along with his weight trainer Greg Anderson, repeatedly chalked up Bonds' metamorphosis from a lithe and speedy outfielder to a record-breaking behemoth to a diet of egg whites, broccoli, flax seed, and free weights. (Why not dental floss, The NewsHour, and remaining master of your own domain? It's roughly as plausible.) In fact, according to the authors, since the 2000 season, Bonds has been rigorously cocktailing human growth hormone, testosterone, insulin, anabolic steroids, trenbolone (a steroid to improve the muscle tone of beef cattle), and something called "Mexican beans," a fast-acting steroid that can clear the system quickly. Over his first 13 seasons, Bonds hit a home run once every 16 at bats. Over the past six seasons—at an age when every other hitter in the history of the sport experienced a decline—Bonds averaged a home run every 8.4 at bats.

Game of Shadows

Game of Shadows is most tantalizing on the question of baseball's complicity in the scandal it now pretends to be so dismayed by, though it is also least conclusive here. The authors speculatively note that the federal prosecutor in charge of the case against BALCO—the doping lab used by Bonds—is a conservative who would like to be a federal judge; and that George Bush, the man who would appoint him, is a former owner of a Major League team. (True, Bush raised the issue of steroids, and sternly, in his State of the Union; but in the end, Bush is a frat boy by nature. It is not hard to imagine some from his former fraternity of owners calling in a little leniency.) However the logs eventually got rolled, the federal investigation into BALCO netted only token sentences, and the cheating athletes were never publicly identified. Game of Shadows is a necessary corrective to the appalling conspiracy of silence. At a bare minimum, the San Francisco Giants, Bonds' team, had to know the score. "[The team's] new head trainer … went to team executives and urged them to ban Anderson and the others from the clubhouse. … The Giants had unofficial background checks done on Bonds's trainers. The club learned that World Gym, where Anderson was a trainer, was known as a place to score steroids, and that Anderson himself was rumored as a dealer."

True, Bonds is the very worst personality type, the bully who sincerely believes he is a martyr, and we should count ourselves lucky that such a grotesque figure has confined his damage mostly to the baseball diamond. But this is partly what makes him a fascinating study. He is an angry black man who has been deprived of the commercially and even socially acceptable outlets for black anger in American culture, those attitudes that now fly under the banner of hip-hop. As a baby boomer, Bonds is a little too old to play at gangsta; as a product of San Carlos, he's a little too culturally white. When he affects a racially charged attitude, the results are nonsensical. "Hey girl, what's up?" he says into the answering machine of his mistress, a woman he will come to threaten, and in one instance, physically intimidate. "Kim, hey—who is trying to get in on my shit? No niggah's trying to get in on my shit. Don't have me kill a niggah. Ha ha ha—later, girl. I'm on my way to San Diego, but I'm still getting the pussy, ha ha! Welcome to the penthouse!" To a reporter who wanted to ask him about his grand jury testimony, Bonds raised his fist and cried, "Black Power!"

Where father Bobby had known Jim Crow up close—in the Carolina League, Bonds Sr. was often laconically addressed as "nigger"—son Barry was raised surrounded by the blandishments of white privilege. Through no particular fault of his own, Bonds grew up saddled with the attitudes of black victimhood and surrounded by far fewer of the mechanisms of white power that had at first degraded and then killed his father. It has been Bonds' one mission in life to create around him a world that satisfies his astoundingthirst for conflict andmartyrdom. At first, this simply meant taking the posture of the sulking athlete to a new level of public petulance. But when Mark McGwire—by any measure, a less outstanding all-around player than Bonds—became the face of the sport, its home-run king, Bonds' sense of outrage at lastfound its objective correlative. Do we really doubt that baseball rooted for the endearing white oaf to beat out Sammy Sosa, his black foil, in the quest to top Roger Maris' single-season home-run record? It was then, in order to mimic McGwire's "monster season" (a locution often favored by sportswriters), that Bonds began to transform himself from a garden-variety assholeinto a monster.

Bonds' inhumanity—the fury with which he cut himself off from the scrawny, pretty, vulnerable child of those early photographs and turned himself into the easily detonated melon-head he is today—was abetted in every way by Major League Baseball, in its desperation to become a sport of inhuman scale. If Bonds' face, now fixed into a more or less permanent mask of rage, has become the public face of Major League Baseball, the sport has only itself to blame.

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.