Hello to all my loyal readers and those of you reading my column for the first time. My beloved Baltimore Orioles went out with a whimper in the 2023 MLB playoffs, losing 3 straight games to the Texas Rangers AKA the former Washington Senators in the divisional round. This was the first time in this outstanding season that the Orioles had been swept in a series. Even though there was an early exit from the playoffs, it was truly a magical year. After many years of miserable play, the Orioles young draft picks shined in 2023, winning 101 games. There are more future stars in the minor leagues just waiting for their turn. Looks like many years of success are in store! I was able to attend the last major memorabilia show of the year at the Dulles Expo Center and bought some cards of players that I hope will be future stars. We shall see. This month will be part 3 of the series on the performance enhancing drugs (PED’S) era of MLB with the story of Barry Bonds.
Bonds was drafted in 1985 by the Pittsburgh Pirates and made his major league debut less than a year later. He immediately made an impact with an immense skill set combining speed, power, and fielding ability. Bonds was a big reason for the increase in attendance at Pirate games, saving them from a rumored relocation to Denver. His second season, batting leadoff, Bonds hit 25 home runs to go along with 32 stolen bases. He won his first league MVP award in 1990, blasting 34 home runs and stealing 52 bases. Bonds was the charter member of the 30/30 club, the first player to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season.
The Pirates, being a small market team always short on money to pay free agents, planned to trade Bonds in 1992 to the Atlanta Braves. This was after Pittsburgh had made 3 straight playoff appearances. Jim Leyland, the Pirates manager, threatened to resign if Bonds was traded and the deal was rescinded. The Pirates made it to the National League Championship series but lost once again to the Braves. Pittsburgh traded away its stars, including Bonds, in 1993 and has never gotten close to a World Series since. He was never well liked in Pittsburgh due to his surly nature with reporters and fans. This perception followed him for the rest of his career.
Barry Bonds got a fresh start as a member of the San Francisco Giants. He immediately won his second MVP award in his inaugural season with the city by the bay. They missed out on the playoffs by one game. Bonds continued to put up consistently great numbers year after year and was well on his way to the Hall of Fame. He continued to complain to anyone who would listen that he was not getting the credit or attention he was due for being the best player in the MLB. In 1999, his frustration turned to anger as all the eyes of the sporting world fixated on the two behemoths that were smashing the hallowed home run record. Barry Bonds was insanely jealous of McGuire and Sosa. In 1999, Bonds became the first player in the history of the league to have 400 career home runs along with 400 stolen bases. To this day, he is the only player to achieve that feat. No one cared in the year of the home run race. To Bonds, the thought was if you can’t beat the cheaters, join them. He was a far more skilled hitter than either McGuire or Sosa. Just imagine what he could do with a little help.
Spring Training 2000 rolled around, and Barry Bonds was unrecognizable from the year before. He was noticeably more muscular, and his chest and biceps threatened to pop out of his shirt. Pretty sure he had a little more help than Popeye’s spinach to put on that much bulk. The whole league was on notice. At 36 years of age, when most players skills start to diminish, he hit a career high 49 home runs. In 2001, Bonds had put on even more muscle. Even his hat size increased 2 inches. He had been training with a man named Greg Anderson, who was working with a little-known lab in San Francisco called BALCO. Along with legal performance enhancers, BALCO had developed a steroid that was undetectable by the testing of the day. In addition to Bonds, they worked with sprinters training to be a part of the US Olympic team. These track athletes started shattering world records. The governing bodies were suspicious, but the athletes never tested positive for anything illegal.
Bonds started hitting an astronomical number of home runs, 28 in his first 50 games. He had 39 by the All-Star break, the halfway point of the season. Two years after the “unbreakable” 70 home run season, Bonds was closing in on the record. With 3 games to go, he tied McGuire. Bonds hit 3 more in the last two games of the season to set the record at 73. He set all time records with 177 walks and a slugging percentage of .863.
The following season, when he was 38, he had one of the all-time great seasons, hitting .370 and breaking his own record with 198 walks. It seems that Bonds improved his batting eye and his reflexes as he got older. Pitchers didn’t want to pitch anywhere near the strike zone. In his age 40 season, he won another batting title and was closing in on the most famous baseball record of all, the all-time mark of 755 home runs set by Hank Aaron.
In 2007 at age 43, he entered the season with 734 home runs, 21 shy of the record. Pitchers continued to walk him intentionally rather than face him. Bonds got very few good pitches to hit. On August 4th, he tied the all-time mark and broke it on August 7th. What should have been a celebration of monumental proportions was muted because of the PED allegations. The fact that Bonds vehemently denied cheating and his continued war with the press assured that the coverage of his achievement was negative.
The next year, Bonds still wanted to play, but the Giants or any other MLB team for that matter offered him a contract, and he quietly retired. BALCO and its Olympic athletes were eventually busted when the testing folks finally figured out what they were doing. Bonds claimed that the “cream and the clear” that he was given by his trainer was flaxseed oil and a balm for arthritis. All four defendants in the court case against BALCO made a plea agreement and were not required to implicate Bonds for using their products.
My personal thought is that Barry Bonds would have been a Hall of Famer without any help. His all too human frailties and ego wouldn’t allow him to be upstaged by players that he thought were inferior and now he is a pariah instead of being mentioned with the all-time greats. I will leave you this month with a quote from the great Hank Aaron, still the legitimate home run king in my opinion. “I never smile when I have a bat in my hands. That’s when you’ve got to be serious.”