Barry Bonds is reviled and Lance Armstong feted, the differing responses to these two controversial athletes says much about modern America.
June 17, 2007 12:00 AM
On Monday night in San Francisco, Barry Bonds ‘went deep’ against Toronto’s Josh Towers to register home run number 747 of his career and move to within eight of Hank Aaron’s all-time career record. Denoting longevity as well as talent, it is perhaps the most hallowed mark in baseball, the sport that prides itself as America’s national pastime, yet should Bonds pass it there are those that would like to see an asterisk beside his name.
Most notably Sports Illustrated. The magazine ran a cover on which they inserted not a halo but an asterisk above probably the most polarising athlete in the United States. Americans are particular about their statistics, devoting as much time to poring over a sport’s history as to its present or future, and the asterisk is their version of the famed Timeform squiggle against an unreliable horse. It suggests a lack of integrity, honesty and authenticity. It says ‘dodgy’.
The doubts about Bonds arise from the Balco investigation, so named after a California laboratory famed for producing ‘designer drugs’ for athletes, which fingered Dwain Chambers, Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones (whose second drug test was clean and who has always denied drug use). It is alleged that Bonds used ‘the cream’ (a testosterone-based ointment) and ‘the clear’ (designer drug THG). In front of a federal grand jury in 2003, Bonds denied having knowingly taken steroids, but the suspicions have remained due to his relationship with Greg Anderson, who began training Bonds in 1999. In 2001 Bonds hit a barely credible 73 home runs in a season. In 2005, Anderson was sentenced to three months in jail after pleading guilty to distributing anabolic steroids, and he has been in jail since last November for refusing to testify about Bonds’s suspected steroid abuse. Last week, The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Bonds may still be investigated for perjury following his federal grand jury testimony.
Bonds has become a hate figure. Comparisons, as odious as they are otiose, are often made with OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson, despite neither double murder nor child molestation charges featuring on the baseball player’s CV.
‘If he did it, hang him!’ the ESPN radio host John Seibel has said. ‘If Bonds breaks the home-run record, it will be like the OJ Simpson trial all over again,’ wrote Jemele Hill, one of few high-profile African American women sports journalists. The leader of the pack hounding Bonds is Sport Illustrated’s Rick Reilly, whose new book of his own personal favourite columns features one entitled ‘Bonds’s records should stay in the record books. With a little syringe next to every one’. Yet there have been no findings against Bonds.
Bonds supporters are in a minority. Hall of Famer Willie McCovey has said: ‘He has never been tested positive. We’re supposed to live in a world where you’re innocent until proven guilty and he hasn’t been proven guilty of anything. Knowing what I have gone through in sports, there are always those little, you know, racial overtones.’
It is a point taken up by Dave Zirin, author of Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports (which includes a chapter on Barry Bonds) when we talked on Wednesday. ‘There are two sets of rules. To deny this is to deny objective reality. If you think there are no double standards maybe we could have an interesting discussion about gravity.’
Bonds has exacerbated the strength of the feelings against him by not meekly following the PRs, by refusing to play the Nike Guy. ‘Bonds has never been afraid to tell somewhat gritty uncomfortable truths,’ says Zirin. 'It may be ugly, it may not be palatable, but it’s real, edgy, sharp and refreshing because when he says something it is unequivocably him.
'He is the Sean Penn of Major League Baseball, a Sean Penn in a Tom Hanks world. Bonds has always been surly towards the media and always disliked Mr Reilly, and Reilly returned the favour. Reilly wants to be as big a star as the athletes and when they don’t treat him like that he becomes resentful.
‘There is no love at the end of this rainbow. Like Jack Johnson [the first black world heavyweight champion] Bonds has an unforgivable blackness. One of the reasons he wants to break it is a big “F you” to everyone who doesn’t want him to.’
Whether Bonds took steroids may ultimately be determined by the courts. Even if it is proved beyond reasonable doubt that he did, it must be borne in mind that it was not illegal to do so until 2003. ‘During the 1990s steroid abuse was so pervasive,’ says Zirin, ‘and baseball turned a very wilful blind eye largely for monetary reasons because the home run was bringing people back to the park.’ To encourage this they failed to condemn steroid users and built, another Zirinism, ‘ballparks the size of Dick Cheney’s hot tub’.
The player who hit the ball out of ‘Dick Cheney’s hot tub’ with the greatest regularity was Bonds. His figures are remarkable. Bill James, the baseball statistician’s baseball statistician, ranked Bonds as the best player of the 1990s by at least a furlong. James, 57, has written that Bonds is ‘certainly the most unappreciated superstar of my lifetime. He may well be rated among the five greatest players in the history of the game.’ The son of Bobby Bonds, godson of Willie Mays, and cousin of Reggie Jackson - all Major League greats - has fair claim to be the best of the lot.
Yet his quest might have ended before Bonds had even overtaken Babe Ruth. Fifteen months ago he announced he would be retiring at the end of the season, saying 'I’ve never cared about records anyway, so what difference does it make? Right now, I’m telling you, I don’t even want to play next year. Baseball is a fun sport. But I’m not having fun.
‘I’m tired of my kids crying. You [the media] wanted me to jump off a bridge, I finally did. You finally brought me and my family down. So go and pick on a different person.’ It was his Nixon moment, reminiscent of the time when the failed presidential candidate of 1960 said to his detractors ‘You won’t have me to kick around any more.’
Richard Nixon came back. So did Bonds, and he had not mellowed a jot, becoming if anything more politicised after the death of his father. ‘You want me to define cheating in America?’ he asked recently. 'When they make a shirt in Korea for a $1.50 and sell it here for 500 bucks.
‘I’ll tell you how I cheat. I cheat because I’m my daddy’s son. He taught me the game. He taught me things nobody else knows. So that’s how I cheat. I’m my daddy’s son.’
This weekend he is continuing his quest in Boston. Not a city which is particularly affectionate about him after he said: ‘Boston is too racist for me, I couldn’t play there. That’s been going on ever since my dad was playing baseball. I can’t play like that. That’s not for me, brother.’
The Boston fans have responded by buying foam asterisks with the word steroids written upon them. These they plan to shake at him.
Bonds has faced graver threats. When he closed in on Ruth in second place in the all time home-run list, he received death threats that were sent, according to Louisiana State University professor Leonard Moore, because: ‘America hasn’t had a white hope since the retirement of Larry Bird, and once Bonds passes Ruth, there’s nothing that will make Ruth unique, and they’re scared. And I’m scared for Bonds.’
As he approaches Hank Aaron at the top of the pile, the death threats have returned and multiplied. ‘The same FBI which is investigating him are having to meet with him to warn him that someone is trying to kill him,’ says Zirin.
Whether Bonds will take his ailing body over the line - he will be 43 this July - is moot. He is only eight hits away, but his pace has slowed and he may need another season. Bonds’s attempt, undoubtedly, is the story in American sport.
This is from the Associated Press: ‘Hank Aaron wants no part of Barry Bonds. “I don’t have any thoughts about Barry. I don’t even know how to spell his name,” Aaron said briskly, then added a laugh. Dressed in a tan shirt and brown slacks, Aaron struggled to hear questions amid blustery winds. And when he did hear them, he didn’t have much to say.’
A rare sane and neutral voice is that of the leading author and columnist Tom Boswell. ‘The presumption of Bonds’s innocence now hangs by a thread. But Bonds is such an odd, extreme, gifted and alienated character that he might do almost anything. Or not do anything.’
Meanwhile, while plugging his book Hate Mail from Cheerleaders and Other Adventures from the Life of Reilly last month, Rick Reilly started a campaign for ‘everyone in Denver not to watch this guy [Bonds] because what he did was wrong. He cheated to do this.’ The foreward to Reilly’s book is written by Lance Armstrong, another sportsman whose phenomenal achievements have been shrouded in suspicion. There the similarities end. While Bonds is cast out, Armstrong is a friend of Presidents. While Bonds is damned by the asterisk, Armstrong is feted. While Bonds is black, Armstrong is white.
If the men are different, so has been the approach to the problem of drugs by their sports. Baseball, having swept it under the carpet, now wishes the subject of drugs would quietly go away. Cycling has been indulging an orgy of recrimination and self-laceration. In the last year, Floyd Landis, the non-winner of the 2006 Tour, has tested positive and the two pre-race favourites for that race, Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich, were forced to withdraw because of drugs scandals.
Ullrich was thrown off the T-Mobile team before the race and retired just before DNA tests proved that the blood confiscated in a high-profile raid was his. Basso was not allowed to compete in the race and was then snapped up by the Discovery team co-owned by Armstrong. In April he quit, having admitted ‘attempted doping’.
Last week, Bjarne Riis admitted using performance-enhancing drugs when he won the 1996 Tour de France. Instead of placing an asterisk against his name there is a blank against the year. As there will have to be for 2006, unless Landis’s appeal is successful. Cycling history is not being rewritten, it is being erased.
So bad is the sport’s image, so extensive the drug problem, that a clean sheet may be required. That is the view at the T-Mobile team, who took the necessarily brave step of expelling Ullrich. For seven years he had laboured behind Armstrong, for seven years the team had been centred around him: now, on the eve of his big chance to add to his 1997 victory, his team’s big chance, he was implicated as a cheat.
They had waited seven years, yet it took only ‘six minutes to make our decision’, says Luuc Eisenga, T-Mobile’s technical director. ‘It was made easier because we had asked all our 29 riders to sign a paper confirming they didn’t have anything to do with a doctor in Madrid.’
Ullrich had given his signature, and then declined to make a DNA comparison. ‘We had been working for him for seven years,’ says Eisenga. ‘But he had put the future of the team at risk.’
In the aftermath of the affair, Bob Stapleton became team manager and immediately put in place a zero-tolerance approach towards drugs. This was not universally popular. ‘We don’t have a lot of friends in the peloton,’ he says.
Nor behind closed doors. ‘There was a clear gentlemen’s agreement last October not to take riders named in the Puerto investigation [the Spanish-led probe that implicated many top riders],’ says Eisenga ‘It was a pity to see some teams depart from it a few weeks later,’ he adds, a reference to the Discovery team hiring Basso.
‘We should not underestimate the audience and they deserve a sport which is credible,’ he continues. ‘First, we must be sure that performances by the athletes are done in a clean and fair way.’
This they have sought to achieve through Stapleton’s ‘truth and reconciliation’ programme, which was instrumental in Riis confronting his guilt. This new approach has ensured that T-Mobile are far more of a team and less one man’s plaything. They have invested in young talent rather than experienced, possibly compromised, stars. Among the most promising is Mark Cavendish, the impressive sprinter from the Isle of Man. ‘He’s a great example of youth and talent,’ says Stapleton, ‘I have a responsibility to ensure he doesn’t go through what some other young riders have been through.’
Their policy benefits the elder rides, too, as Cavendish’s fellow cyclist and mentor Roger Hammond explains. 'The dope testing is not done in-house but with independent people coming in so there can be no ambiguity. It is a fantastically bold statement and allows you to trust implicitly everyone around you.
‘In the past, it really frustrated me when people didn’t believe that I was clean. And, in the past, I couldn’t blame them because of the image of the sport and what had happened. Now if they don’t believe me, it’s their problem, not mine. What’s more, it confirms all my past results. There are no question marks about my history.’
By being transparent in the present you can remove doubts about your past and ensure a cleaner future. It is idealistic, maybe, but the brute reality is that this year’s Tour will start with the man who took centre-stage on the podium last year currently engaged taking the stand wearing a yellow tie in a court-room in Malibu. A ridiculous state of affairs but perhaps no more ridiculous than fans at Fenway Park waving foam asterisks in anger at probably the best baseball player they have ever seen.