Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

The Steroid Jerk (or Implausible Deniability)

I am, by all accounts, a rather biased sports fan. Any of my friends can tell you this. I am one of those loud and vocal fans who tends to forgive the slightest transgression. I believe in my sports heroes athletic better selves, and can argue from any perspective, no matter how illogical. Actually, many of my ex-girlfriends could tell you that. When I attach myself to a sports figure it’s very hard to detach myself. Sometimes I wonder what it would take—would my favorites have to kill somebody—for my allegiance to falter?

I’ll give you an example: My favorite quarterback of all-time is John Elway. I lived in Colorado his rookie year with the Broncos and bumped into him at a donut shop. Actually, I bumped into his kneecap. He signed my box of dozen.

Even when it looked like he would spend his entire career without the benchmark for greatness that any QB must have, a Super Bowl ring, I would still argue, till breathless, that he was the greatest of all-time. Give him half the players Joe Montana (one of my other favorite quarterbacks of all-time) had on the 49ers and John would have had 7 rings. No one could prove me wrong, but it illustrates a point. Sometimes the eyes of a fan are blind, not blurred; sometimes our sports heroes can do no wrong. On the field.

I’ve never bought into the notion that athletes are to be looked up to. They are not moral arbiters; they aren’t school teachers or politicians, they are a form of entertainment. And a great one at that. But athletes are for me, as they always have been, a distraction from life. I watch games and follow stats to be reminded. Of what I’m not exactly sure, but just to be reminded.

So ask me who the greatest baseball player of all-time is. Go ahead, ask me and I’ll tell you.

Barry Bonds. The greatest player to ever lace them up and range a diamond is Barry Bonds. And even with all the steroid controversy raging around I still have the same answer. The “scandal” in the steroid debate is that we find this a scandal at all. When the testimony came out—and I find it interesting that we aren’t asking how government sealed testimony got leaked to the papers in the first place—I found myself having an odd reaction. I didn’t care. I wasn’t bothered. I know, I know, I should be. I really should. It’s beginning to look like he cheated, so why can’t I find it in me to be at least the slightest bit disillusioned, or even angry, about what’s going on.

I’ve been thinking about this for a few days. Actually, a few years. I started thinking about this in 2001 when he was making a run at the greatest single season any baseball player has ever known, a feat he has matched or exceeded with each following year. So if this run at the record books coincides with suspicion that is, even as I write, becoming, even as we sit here, crystaline, then shouldn’t his juicing effect how I look at these feats? Effect how I look at this man?

For now it doesn’t, and I say that while reserving the right to change my mind at any given point down the road, because the truth is I don’t know the full effect of the past few days. Things take time to sink in, sure, but it all seems to have rolled off my back.

To be a fan of baseball is also to view the sport through a sort of skewed prism. There is this attachment, a pull of the leg, that the game itself has on our nostalgic selves, to better times. When we speak of the game it is usually in the past tense, as though there is no continuum, as though at some point in some pristine time that didn’t exist the game itself froze never to be altered or changed from that moment on. It is grainy and black and white and kind of sped up. We honor past players as mythmakers: Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Wee Willie Keeler, Sandy Kofax, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams.

When we talk of baseball’s most hallowed numbers, it’s never within the context in which they were accomplished. 755 homeruns. That number lives forever. When the story is told about Hank Aaron we pay only a glance to the time of volcanic racial relations, and only in the manner that lifts Hank himself, not in one that denigrates our society. Because why would we look at it this way? “Imagine accomplishing such a feat under such duress?” we will say. Imagine, as though in the imagining we place ourselves in Hank’s shoes, as though we were capable of just putting our head down and hammering away, just as he did. In marveling at the pressure he must have lived under, the pressure Jackie Robinson must have lived under, we lift these men to heights they probably don’t feel comfortable with. But in doing so we elevate ourselves and that makes us feel better.

Maybe you have to be a fan of Barry Bonds—and I am, very much so—to feel that all of this is somehow off target. Because when it turned out that Barry had used the “clean” and the “clear,” two substances it turns out were probably steroids, I looked up from my newspaper and shrugged my shoulders. So?

But then I thought about it. How can this affect me so little? Does it have something to do with being a fan? With forgiving something because we want to forgive it, because we don’t want to look into the implication of what it all might mean? Perhaps. I have to acknowledge that first before I acknowledge anything else. Maybe I’m okay with the Barry As Cheater paradigm because I don’t care what he does as long as he is great. Maybe that’s part of this. Just keep hitting, keep me in awe, no matter how you do it. But that, of course, undervalues what I think of sportsmanship on the whole; it undercuts my own sense of fair play.

Years ago and somewhere in the back of my mind I think I accepted steroids as just a fact of the game. As much a part of baseball as white chalk lines and the hit and run. I don’t know quite when this would have been, but I also remember looking at Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire bash monster shot after monster shot for the Oakland A’s in the late 80s and early 90s and thinking, “Holy shit, they are huge. That can’t be natural.” I remember watching certain players come out of nowhere 25 pounds heavier in a single off season (“I just hit the weights,” they’d say. “I worked out like an animal.” Well, you did something like an animal, but working out wasn’t it) and put up once-in-a-lifetimes stats. At some point I just accepted what seemed to be reality. These guys are juiced up like a mother fucker. And since no one seems to be saying anything, let’s just sit back and watch them mash the hell out of that poor defenseless ball.

Baseball is not just a game in America. It is The Game. A religion. The vocabulary is even the same. The sanctity of the game. The purity of the sport. The same blind acceptance of certain tenants by faith. Americans don’t need proof of things when it comes to the game. We know them in our heart, and that is enough.

Of course, that also has nothing to do with the way the game is played. It is also a game of cheaters and assholes and selfish, self-centered pricks who couldn’t give a crap about what they do, just as long as they get theirs. But we have a way of separating those things from what we believe, the real from the imparted.

Barry Bonds is certainly capable of using any tool at his disposal to sustain his greatness. The line between the kind of drive it takes to single-mindedly pursue this level of greatness and the small minded insecurity you might need to sustain it by any means necessary cannot be a large one. Just half a step to the left and you’re over it, clear to the other side. Maybe he turned a blind eye on his trainer’s activities so he could stand before the inquiry and say with a straight face, “If I used them I certainly didn’t know about it.” Plausible Deniability is a powerful tool.

But we cannot suspect him without suspecting them all. These drugs don’t taint the numbers, they taint the game. They taint the players. All you have to do is look at the regularity with which players big and small suffer odd, inexplicable injuries to their shoulders, elbows, knees and ankles to know something just isn’t right. The human body was made in proportion to itself. Bones support muscle and tissue. But some joints, some bones, were not made to support muscles doing this at this velocity. And so, as a result, they break down. The fact had to be that this is not about just one man, there has to be an unknowable multitude, a plurality of players who have experimented with banned substances. Just a periphery scan of the BACLO list supplies nobody names like Marvin Bernard and Armando Rios.

Like all things in baseball, it comes down to the numbers. Can we believe in the stats? Can we put our faith in the numbers? Did our eyes deceive us when we watched this game played. But scanning the list and coming across a name like Marvin Bernard (who I happen to know of because I am a Giants fan) is one of those, “Who the hell is that guy?” moments. And if they are juicing then why can't any of them approach Bonds' numbers?

What has bothered me the last couple of years is the focus on Bonds as the epicenter and fulcrum of all cheating between the lines. He has been singled out in a way that seemed just wrong to me, and ugly. At the same time as the Commissioners and owners were benefiting financially and through proximity to his feats, at the same time as reporters were selling papers by the truckload at the mere mention of his name, there was also this lazer focus on him as the only cheater in the land. Not Mark McGwire (who is now, as he hits golf balls on the links, a mere shadow of his former Paul Bunyan self), not Sammy Sosa and his minstrel act, smiling at the cameras while checking the quality of his cork, not any other player on any other team had the same aspersions and sideways accusations breathed at him as Bonds did. Racism certainly doesn’t come in the form of a burned cross or hooded crazy man, but the strain that still exists is no less than those actions were. It’s just under the rug, more careful. Plausible Deniability can be a powerful thing.

This has nothing to do with the issue at hand, it’s just another reason why I was always drawn to Bonds. I couldn’t understand why we didn’t celebrate him as vociferously as we did those who came before him. And to pretend that race has nothing to do with it is to pretend that racism isn’t a problem anymore. At the same time, racism has absolutely nothing to do with whether he stuck himself knowingly or not. But it has to do with the nature of this debate, how things have, and continue, to play out. Because the truth is we cannot suspect him without suspect them all, and Bonds' singular gifts can never be dismissed as the singular effects of a newly minted bionic man. Better. Stronger. Faster.

I admit to letting him off the hook. I looked at him years ago and thought he had just gotten so damn big. And the normal questions or suspicions that would be there with me just weren’t. It’s like renting a movie, I guess. I don’t watch the DVD with all the documentaries showing how the CGI effects were seamlessly interwoven with the action on screen. I just don’t fucking care. I like watching the finished product. I like the entertainment. I like marveling at the finished product, not delving into the nuts and bolts of the behind the scenes. I guess I never would have discovered that the Wizard was actually just some small nerd with a Napoleon complex because I don’t care what’s behind the screen. Just let me see the numbers. Let me marvel at the feats. Let me sit back, see something, and call my dad. “Did you see that, Dad? Did you see what he just did? How did he do that?”

And, of course, there is a personal stake for me in believing that Bonds would never have knowingly cheated. He came to the Giants my senior year in high school and lifted a step-brother franchise to the big boys on the block. We didn’t have to have a complex anymore. We had Barry. Hell, some years we didn’t even need ballplayers. Just roll some geriatrics out onto the field with him (something I swear to God the management tried a few years) and just his presence alone was enough to get us into the playoffs. We always had a punchers chance. And the year he was surrounded with even B-grade talent, well damn if we didn’t almost win the whole damn thing. If the worst thing Bonds did was to trust a friend who turned out to be rotten, it will be hard for me to hold this against him. If he consciously shot up, if in the end it’s proven that he knowingly cheated… I don’t know what I’ll do. Fidelity to team can make you forgive a lot of things.

The other part of this is innate talent. I was always athletic as a kid. I was not an athlete, but I could always just play any sport I happened to pick up on. I was good for the simple fact that I was good. I never practiced, something that drove my father to fits.

“Can you imagine how good you could have been?” he will sometimes say.
“Dad, I was really good.”
“I know. But you could have been great.”

But I didn’t ever want to be great. I was always one of the better players, particularly after I grew and my height neared that of the other boys. I could always just play. I could see it and then do it, just mimic what someone else had done.

When I watch Barry play, and I have seen him play for years now, my eyes tell me I am watching someone who is just simply better than everyone else, who’s level of talent far exceeds theirs. There is not a substance on this earth that could make him do what he’s done the last few years. Not one. No pill or shot can bridge the gap between will and talent. If there was one, don’t you think we’d all be on it? Hell, the mere implication that this juice can produce such feats is enough for me to believe that are all on it. But what he has done the past few years he has done on talent, not by some potion.

If he did juice the effect was one of longevity. It made him greater for a longer period of time than he deserved. It kept him at his peak.

The last part of this for me is about perspective, because baseball is not the sanctified game of heroes that we pretend it is. Half of the reaction puzzles me. I mean, it’s not as if Barry lied about a stockpile of nuclear weapons aimed at our homes and ready to fly at a moments notice, sending thousands of young Americans to their deaths. I don’t put as much stake in athletes as I do in politicians, so if a little over half of all Americans can stand by Bush despite all evidence to the contrary well then I can certainly stand by Barry until the evidence has come in.

And it’s hard to watch our heroes fall; to think them less than the mythic beings we have watched and believed them to be. And until someone shows he deliberately cheated, I’ll go one pulling up his stats. I know I should be more bothered by this whole thing, but like I said, I think they are all cheaters, which for me creates something of a level playing field. Because in a game of juiced up testosterone freaks he’s still just that much better than the rest of them, just in how he plays the game not in who he is a person.

I’m fighting the facts. I know that. I’m just not ready to accept it yet. I don’t want to believe he acted knowingly. And the truth is I’d rather not ever know. I’d rather the facts not reveal themselves. I don’t want to have to start questioning it all, the whole game, and myself for not thinking on it harder. I don’t hold athletes to the same strict standards I hold others to; my friends, my families, my President. But what standards do I hold them to?

Maybe the pull of the game is stronger than I thought. Maybe I’ve accepted some part of the primrose vision of baseball everyone else has; the perfect game, the pure endeavor. Because I’m not ready to believe he’s not what I think he is.