THE YEARLY READER
2007: Bow if You Will, Spit if You Wish
Aging, ailing on bad knees, alienated through no one’s fault but his own and accused by the Federal Government of hiding the truth about his steroid use, Barry Bonds remains focused on the field as he closes in on the all-time career home run record.
On August 7, 2007, the Steroid Era came to an end. The epilogue would still be far from written, with more outings, investigations and positive drug tests to come. But the primary damage that the Steroid Era wrought would conclude when a pitch from the Washington Nationals’ Mike Bacsik was slammed into the left-center field bleachers of San Francisco’s AT&T Park by one Barry Lamar Bonds.
The home run was Bonds’ 756th of his career, a record-breaker that toppled the 33-year-old mark held by Hank Aaron. As with Aaron, Bonds’ pursuit of the record would be saturated in controversy, but not for the same reasons. Aaron’s plague would be the disapproval of his skin color by narrow-minded simpletons; Bonds’ would be his own legitimacy, on whether performance-enhancing drugs precipitously aided his run at Aaron’s 755.
Bonds challenged the notion that no man is an island, that no one could thrive in isolation. Within baseball, Bonds had long since worn out his welcome with those he knew, and he seldom cared to say hello to anyone new. Yet he arguably remained the most powerful man in the game, getting his way however and wherever he wanted because of his ability to hit a baseball. That he took his Hall of Fame-caliber career to unforeseen sights when he began using steroids—as he would admit in grand jury testimony in 2003—made for more enemies outside of the lines with fans and journalists.
From his childhood, the athletically gifted Bonds wore entitlement on his sleeve at the expense of almost everyone around him, all because he was the son of former major league all-star Bobby Bonds and the godson of the great Willie Mays. Growing up did not necessarily mean growing wiser in humbling his brash attitude. With every stepping stone he took to the majors, Bonds awed teammates and coaches with his remarkable talent, yet at the same time alienated them with his self-centered, often surly personality; once in Pittsburgh to start his big league career, Bonds developed an immediate and incendiary relationship with the press, one that continued through his playing career and evolved from what he witnessed his father go through.
BTW: Bonds’ teammates at Arizona State University once voted to kick him off the squad, only to be reluctantly reinstated by his manager.
After seven stormy years with the Pirates in which he developed into a consistent MVP-caliber superstar, Bonds was given the ultimate opportunity for happiness when he returned to the Bay Area to play for the San Francisco Giants; the homecoming was sweetened with the presence of Bobby Bonds as the team’s hitting coach and the occasional appearance in the clubhouse of Mays. Giants management, led by then-new owner Peter Magowan, comforted Bonds to the point of coddling, but Bonds’ persona was so set in his ways, it wasn’t long before the ugly off-field chapters began playing out once more amid the heroic on-field performances; Bonds maintained his visceral hatred of the press, battled teammates and managed to sour relations with those he initially befriended.
In 1998, Bonds witnessed the public’s love affair with the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa chase of Roger Maris’ home run record and felt he had been unfairly left eating their dust. Jealousy was part of the problem, but the terrific numbers he put out in six years with the Giants gave him a legitimate beef. Bonds likely felt that the only way he could forge himself back to the center of the baseball universe was to transform himself from Superstar to Superman.
Over the next few years, the physical transformation of Bonds was stunning. Not only had his muscle mass greatly expanded, so had his head—reportedly increasing two cap sizes in a curiously short period. The bulky, bald-headed Bonds of 1999 bore little relation to the quick, lanky Bonds of 1989. Bonds claimed that his immense weight gain was all muscle, though fitness experts gauged it was practically impossible for any man in his mid-30s to achieve such a result naturally. But Bonds attributed his regimen to BALCO, a local “nutritional supplements” lab that worked in concert with Bonds and his long-time trainer and friend, Greg Anderson.
Whether it was supplements, steroids or spinach, Bonds took his game to uncharted heights as the new century dawned. He hit a career-high 49 homers in 2000, then put that to shame a year later when, at age 37, he smashed a major league-record 73 over the wall and, often, over the bleachers and into the water beyond the Giants’ home park boundaries. In the wake of the unprecedented display of firepower, pitchers became not so much smart as downright terrified to face Bonds, giving him little if anything good to hit—and when they did give in, he was likely to make them pay. The insanity of it all was best exemplified in 2004 when Bonds—now 40—was given 120 intentional walks, nearly double what he’d previously received in a season. Bonds’ overall numbers, achieved at an age where most other ballplayers quickly devolved, had not merely become incredible; they had become obscene. People began to wonder: Was all of this accomplished through natural means?
Soon enough, the cat in the bag to Bonds’ success had started to be let out.
The Late Boomer
After putting up numbers through his first 13 major league seasons that easily qualified him for the Hall of Fame, Barry Bonds ratcheted up his game during his late 30s to a level that would have made even Atlas envious. Only Bonds—and perhaps trainer Greg Anderson—knows what caused this unparalleled jump in performance at such an unusual age.
In 2003, Federal agents raided BALCO and the apartment of Anderson and collected documents that, at a layman’s glance, more than suggested that Anderson, through BALCO, was supplying Bonds with steroids. In grand jury testimony three months later, Bonds admitted under oath to taking performance-enhancing substances called the “clear” and the “cream” from Anderson, but said he passively mistook the products for flaxseed oil. Often pleading ignorance, other times bristling with defiance, Bonds denied everything else in connection to BALCO and Anderson.
Bonds may have believed the saga would end behind closed doors with the grand jury proceedings, but he soon realized it was just the beginning of a torturous chapter of his life. His grand jury transcript was leaked to two San Francisco Chronicle reporters who first published it on the paper’s front pages, then later in the highly acclaimed book Game of Shadows; an ex-mistress came on the scene and claimed Bonds had begun taking steroids in 1999; and Anderson, subpoenaed to testify to the Feds about Bonds, wouldn’t—preferring to fall on the sword and be jailed for two years on contempt-of-court charges rather than rat out his childhood friend.
Never considered a threat to Hank Aaron’s home run record in the pre-BALCO days, Bonds suddenly was closing in fast—but so was mortality. A series of knee injuries sidelined him for almost all of 2005 and stripped away his superhuman abilities. Yet in 2006, Bonds managed 26 homers to move within striking distance of Aaron, and he still commanded enough respect from pitchers to continue leading the league in walks, even with limited playing time. For 2007, Bonds re-signed with the Giants, who paid top dollar ($15 million plus incentive pay) despite the fact no other team was willing to take him on, and also in the wake of reports that he failed an amphetamine test in 2006—in the process, committing a deadly clubhouse sin by naming teammate Mark Sweeney as the source of the drug.
BTW: Bonds publicly didn’t deny the usage but did state that Sweeney wasn’t involved.
As Aaron’s record loomed, the public’s focus—and debate—over Bonds intensified. San Francisco fans had become compromised on the subject of Bonds, finding it hard to believe his denials of steroid use but nevertheless rooting for him because, after all, he was a long-time Giant who had given the franchise life in the 1990s and, quite possibly, helped make AT&T Park, arguably baseball’s most beautiful ballpark, a reality. Fans elsewhere had long since come to their final verdict on Bonds: Guilty. They booed him wherever the Giants visited, holding up placards with asterisks and, on a few occasions, throwing syringes toward him on the field.
Even the dignitaries of the game bristled at the thought of Bonds as the potential new home run champ. Commissioner Bud Selig, who criticized Bowie Kuhn for not being in Atlanta when Aaron hit his 755th homer, came off emotionally oblivious on the subject of Bonds and 756; and the gentile, traditionally low-key Aaron, wielding a biting edge rarely seen, said he wouldn’t travel to see Bonds break his record in person—at one point publicly laughing out loud, “I don’t even know how to spell his name.”
BTW: Aaron ultimately remarked that the bad memories of chasing Babe Ruth in the early 1970s were too much for him to want to get involved in watching Bonds pursue his mark.
Barry Bonds’ 756th career home run sails into the night, the center-field bleachers and the record book in San Francisco. (Associated Press)
After a hot start from which he produced 11 homers and a .338 average through May 9, Bonds began a series of deep slumps, leading fans to wonder whether he had much gas left in the tank to catch Aaron. But as always, every time Bonds seemed ready to receive the 10-count, he jumped up and came slugging back, underscoring his fierce, life-long determination to achieve his goals.
On August 4 in San Diego, Bonds reached Aaron’s mark when he powered a Clay Hensley delivery over the left-field wall at voluminous Petco Park. Aaron was nowhere to be found; Selig, watching from a luxury box, reacted to the moment as if he’d just walked into the ballpark, slowly shuffling in front of his chair with a stone-faced look and hands in his pockets.
Three days later, back home in San Francisco against Washington, Bonds toppled Aaron in the fifth inning. Having already doubled and singled off Mike Bacsik, Bonds launched a patented, no-doubt-about-it drive into the bleachers for #756. A brief ceremony moments later was capped by a video message from a congratulatory yet trite Aaron, said to have been recorded weeks earlier. More telling was Selig’s response, as there was none; he was back in New York, huddling with George Mitchell over the former U.S. Senator’s report on steroids in baseball.
Adventures of a Record-Breaking Baseball
When Barry Bonds smacked his record-breaking 756th home run, it was just the beginning of a long and newsworthy journey for the ball he hit. The ball was pounced on in the AT&T Park bleachers by Matt Murphy, a 22-year old Queens, New York resident who, with a day to kill in San Francisco before heading off on vacation to Australia, bought tickets to the game with a friend on impulse. Bloodied with his New York Mets jersey torn, Murphy was practically hauled away by ballpark police, more for his protection than anything else. Murphy initially said he would not sell the ball, but after discovering that the IRS would tax him on its value regardless of whether he sold or not, he changed his mind.
An online auction resulted in the purchase of the ball for $752,000 by eccentric fashion designer Marc Ecko, who turned around and gave the general public three choices on what to do with it: Send it to the Hall of Fame as is, send it there with an asterisk branded on it, or launch it into outer space. Nearly half of the 10 million online votes went for the winning asterisk option. Bonds called Ecko an “idiot” and vowed to boycott his own induction into Cooperstown—if he ever got the votes—should the ball be displayed there with the asterisk.
Bonds extended his record total over the next month, smacking his last homer of the season—and #762 for his career—at Denver’s Coors Field on September 5. He was soon disheartened to learn that the Giants, likely exhausted by his numerous downsides, would not bring him back for 2008. The new, disputed home run king played only one game over the season’s final two weeks, on September 26 at home against the Padres; in his final at-bat as a Giant, Bonds drove a Jake Peavy pitch deep to center field, only to have it come to rest in the glove of Brady Clark on the warning track. Bonds hugged Peavy, left the game, went to the clubhouse and left the park, essentially snubbing a planned postgame tribute in his honor—yet another acidic reminder of who Giants fans and management had become beholden to, for better or for worse, over 15 years.
BTW: The Giants didn’t plan to immediately make the news of moving on from Bonds public, but had their hand forced when Bonds mentioned it a day later on his web site.
The Bonds saga managed to divert attention from the fact that the Giants finished last in the National League West for the first time in 11 years. The team they replaced in the basement would—literally out of thin air—reawake with a vengeance late in 2007.
Ever since their 1993 birth, the Colorado Rockies seemed forever doomed in the mile-high atmosphere of Denver. The thin air aided the Rockies’ offense, traditionally juicing common players with all-star statistics, but it also seriously handicapped the pitchers—reducing ace-caliber throwers into mental wrecks as double-digit scores flourished. Pitchers often referred to Coors Field, which went a full decade before generating a 1-0 game, as the “Rocky Mountain Horror Show.” The spacious dimensions, meant to curb easy home runs, only meant more ground for exhausted outfielders to cover, leading to more doubles and triples. “Pitching at Coors Field isn’t pitching,” former Rockies hurler Darren Holmes once said, “it’s just survival.”
In a desperate attempt to offset the high-scoring madness, the Rockies in 2002 resorted to using a humidor to deaden the baseball and curb the 5-to-10-percent extra distance which experts believed the ball had carried at 5,280 feet. It didn’t seem to cure Colorado’s ails, as the team continued to finish well below .500 while its earned run averages remained above 5.00 both at home and on the road, where burned out Rockies pitchers struggled to recover at sea level from the constant beating at home.
As if the constant burden of playing one mile high wasn’t enough, the Rockies entered 2007 as a team whose spirit was on the ropes following an abandoned trade that would have sent veteran first baseman Todd Helton—easily the Rockies’ priciest player—to Boston. Helton was reportedly miffed about staying, while the other Rockies saw the attempted trade as a sign the front office wasn’t committed to winning. So did the fans; after years of drawing one sellout crowd after another, the Rockies were frequently down to gatherings of 10,000, officially disguised in the box score as 20,000.
The Rockies began 2007 normally enough by their standards, struggling to reach .500. They eventually eased north of the mark and, by mid-September, they were at the bottom rungs of a tight and vastly represented NL playoff picture. That in itself was a moral victory for Colorado fans.
And that’s when the Rockies began to play as if they would never lose again.
Colorado won 14 of its remaining 15 regular season games—the last taking place in a wild, 163rd game against San Diego that rewarded the Rockies with the NL wild card spot. From there, they were as lucky as they were hot, taking advantage of an extremely weak NL playoff roster. In the first round, they swept the Philadelphia Phillies, who wouldn’t have even made the playoffs had it not been for the September collapse of the front-running New York Mets in the NL East. In the NLCS, Colorado easily dispensed of the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that, despite a NL-best 90-72 record, gave up more runs than they scored.
BTW: It was the first time in history the team with the league’s best record was outscored during the regular season.
Is Denver Sinking?
The mile-high elevation in Denver has historically rewarded hitting and punished pitching since the 1995 opening of Coors Field, the home of the Colorado Rockies. But with the 2002 introduction of the humidor, a device that moisturizes baseballs to reduce the distance it travels off the bat, the Rockies’ batting and earned run averages dropped closer to—and, in the case of the team’s 2007 ERA, fell in line with—overall National League levels.
Not surprisingly, the Rockies’ bats were a major contributing force to the team’s sudden success; their leader in the clubhouse was fourth-year outfielder Matt Holliday, who led the NL with a .340 batting average, 216 hits, 50 doubles and 137 runs batted in. What was surprising was that defense and pitching, two ingredients historically and famously lacking in Denver, equally fueled Colorado to the World Series. Its .989 fielding percentage—a major league record—was highlighted by the outstanding glovework of rookie shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, while the Rockies’ 4.32 staff ERA, easily the best in team history to date, was halved to 2.08 during the NL playoffs.
For the World Series, the Rockies’ avalanche of white-hot momentum hit a brick wall of reality: Facing an American League opponent.
In contrast to the sorry state of the NL, the Boston Red Sox emerged from a sharply superior AL that gave the playoffs four teams with better records than anyone in the senior circuit.
The Red Sox coasted through the regular season from start to finish, taking advantage of a rough start from the archrival New York Yankees, a team badly handicapped at the starting line by numerous injuries to its starting rotation. With solid hitting from David Ortiz (.332 batting average, 35 home runs, 117 runs batted in) and third baseman Mike Lowell (.324, 21, 120)—and a healthy rotation led by 20-game winner Josh Beckett, 41-year-old knuckleballer Tim Wakefield (17-12) and highly touted Japanese import Daisuke Matsuzaka (15-12)—the Red Sox never wilted, wavered or fell apart above the Yankees.
BTW: In their first 30 games of the year, the Yankees used 10 different starting pitchers. Though they successfully fought to snare the AL wild card, New York lost in the first round of the playoffs for the third straight year—leading to the ousting of long-time manager Joe Torre.
As with the Rockies, the Red Sox’ desperate need for momentum came not a moment too soon. They trailed an evolved, spirited Cleveland Indians team three games to one in the ALCS and faced the prospect of having to win three straight over the Tribe, including face-to-face assignments against AL Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia and breakout hurler Fausto Carmona (19-9). Boston not only met the challenge, but did so with unquestioned fire—scorching the Indians with scores of 7-1, 12-2 and 11-2 to advance.
Against Colorado in the World Series, the Red Sox’ momentum overwhelmed that of the Rockies’, whose quick NLCS sweep left them idle and on ice for eight days. The Rockies fell apart as fast as they had found lightning in a bottle; they couldn’t pitch (7.68 ERA) nor hit (.218 average, 10 runs) through four straight losses, as one of the younger, greener teams in recent Fall Classic annals caved against a relatively far more experienced and balanced Boston unit that would take its second championship in four years after a historic 86-year drought.
Four years after making his petite admission of unknowingly using steroids, Barry Bonds was cornered by the Federal Government, which didn’t accept his pleas of ignorance—and slapped him with a perjury indictment. In his day, Bonds had ruled over baseball, ruled over the clubhouse and ruled, virtually, over the Giants’ front office. He ruled over the media, scowling non-denial denials—he once blurted out, “I don’t know what cheating is”—and indigenously challenged reporters on whether they had skeletons in their own closets. But going into 2008, Bonds had the fight of his life on his hands, trying to avoid possible prison time against Federal prosecutors, a force he could not rule over.
For many in baseball, the exit of Bonds—whose indictment likely stripped him of what few playing days he had left to offer—was considered as much good riddance as a sad, nostalgic departure. A deep sigh was heaved and fresh air moved in.
The king of the Steroid Era had left the building.
Many hoped that the Steroid Era would follow with him.
Forward to 2008: Out of Darkness, Rays of Light The Tampa Bay Rays, baseball’s eternal doormats, complete one of the majors’ most startling one-year turnarounds.
Back to 2006: Two Reluctant Enemies Best of friends, Tony La Russa and Jim Leyland overcome various hurdles and face off against one another in October.
The 2000s: Driven Deep to Disgrace The new century gives Major League Baseball a decidedly more international flavor with a healthy rise in foreign-born talent—but a disturbing pall is cast over the sport as one megastar after another is exposed for using steroids.