On Oct. 26, 2002, in the top of the sixth inning of Game 6 of the World Series between the Anaheim Angels and the San Francisco Giants, Barry Bonds came to bat. There were no outs, no runners on base, and the Giants were leading 3-0. Bonds had hit three home runs in the series so far, and his reign as hitting king had reached yet another peak. He takes a strike to the outside corner from Angels’ pitcher, Francisco Rodriguez, and proceeds to hit the next pitch — a belt high fastball — into the right field bleachers for yet another home run.
Hit isn’t the right word in this situation: Crush, obliterate, destroy, these words seem more suitable descriptors. The sheer noise that his bat makes when it connects sends a shiver down my spine. Imagine a sharp axe striking through a dried log. Hear that sound, that crack like a clap of thunder in your ear drowned quickly in the roar of a crowd in awe. Announcer Joe Buck manages to call the moment stating, “That is CRUSHED, deep into the night and it’s 4-0 San Francisco,” while his co-commentator, Tim McCarver, can only offer a stunned “Oh!” The summary of Bonds as a hitter, the terror he instilled in teams, the reason he drew huge crowds and was treated like a spectacle of the sporting world, it can all be summed in that clip.
But then again, he used performance-enhancing drugs, so it’s all for naught. Right?
It’s a question that’s hovered in the sporting world’s atmosphere for decades: Do people who use illegal drugs to enhance their performance, or to put it plainly, those who cheat at some point in their careers, deserve to have those careers recognized in their respective sport’s Hall of Fame or record books? The gut-reaction of most fans is no, cheating has no place in the accolades of greatness; the inclusion of rule-breakers would taint the nature of the Hall of Fame, as it turns cheating into an overlooked, if not celebrated, element of competition. There are those who oppose this, who say that unless a player’s entire career is defined by their use of PEDs then their achievements should hold merit, perhaps with a divide in their statistics that designates a clean era and a cheating era. I’m all for keeping an open mind, but there’s a reason “gut-feelings” are called such and why the phrase “go with your gut” is just so accurate.
Playing a sport requires the commitment to adhere by specific rules laid out in the sport’s fundamental structure and the overarching league, organization or governing body. Athletes who want to play in the NFL don’t solely have to abide by the rules of football, but by rules the league implements about player conduct. The same goes for any professional, amateur or even recreational league anywhere; the intent to maintain a level of competition swayed only by natural talent and work ethic. The sport has rules and like laws in society, there are consequences for violating said rules. Bonds used steroids to improve his strength and conditioning training and overall physicality, a decision that resulted in benefits to his game that, while intangible, are evident. One has to simply view clips of Bonds as a member of the Pirates and compare them to clips of him as a Giant — in the former he is a lean but muscular ballplayer while in the latter he embodies his team’s mascot. Need an even more drastic comparison? Check out José Canseco, who wrote a book about his “juicing” days. These men, and hundreds of other men and women across the competitive gamut in history defied the standards of conduct they agreed to when they entered into the sport. It’s a black and white issue with an equally simple consequence: Loss of legacy.
Now that’s not to say fans can’t acknowledge the feats of athletes who used PEDs. It’s a fair claim to make, if not an agreeable one, that Bonds was one of the greatest hitters of all time. One can’t deny the crowds and media coverage that Lance Armstrong drew to cycling in his prime, though they may abhor his decision to cheat. Staying with Armstrong, the achievements of these athletes outside of their athletic careers cannot be marred by one within them; the Livestrong foundation has done great work for cancer awareness and research, a fact that can be celebrated and credited in part to Armstrong. Being able to distinguish between the athlete, their achievements within a sport and their work outside of the sport is important when assessing their impact and weight to the competitive world.
There’s a great piece of symbolism that currently exists in the Baseball Hall of Fame, that I think sums the entirety of the debate: Bonds’ 756th home run ball. The ball that broke Henry “Hank” Aaron’s home run record, which currently resides on display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., has a large, gold asterisk imprinted on its face. The asterisk was placed there by fashion designer Marc Ecko, who purchased the ball for over $700,000 and then donated it to the Hall of Fame. So while Henry Aaron, who never used PEDs and upheld the standards of competition throughout his career, has maintained a spot in the Hall of Fame since 1982, Bonds is represented by a ball with an asterisk.