Great wasn't good enough

Barry Bonds was chasing more than the Hall of Fame

Originally Published: December 3, 2012
By Tim Keown | ESPN The Magazine

Barry BondsGetty Images, Tom DiPaceBonds changed his body -- and his stats changed with it.

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PERHAPS THE BEST WAY to begin is with a history lesson. In 1993, before BALCO and the 73-homer season and Bonds on Bonds, Barry Bonds was the best player in baseball by a margin that might modestly be described as enormous. You know how magazines occasionally create anatomical diagrams that piece together parts from different bodies in an effort to produce the ultimate ballplayer? You know how it goes: What would happen if you combined Mike Trout's legs with Miguel Cabrera's hands and Joe Mauer's eyes? Well, in 1993, before BALCO and the 73-homer season and Bonds on Bonds, Barry Bonds could legitimately lay claim to every significant baseball tool but the throwing arm. He was a Gold Glove outfielder who hit 46 homers, stole 29 bases and had a .458 on-base percentage and a 1.136 OPS. He was not just the best player in baseball; he was a human compendium of all the best players in baseball.

This is instructive because Hall of Fame voters, who cast their ballots this month, face a vexing decision regarding Barry Lamar Bonds, making his first appearance on the ballot. Unlike other players connected with performance-enhancing drugs -- Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro -- Bonds was a no-doubt Hall of Famer long before he met Victor Conte. Despite that, it appears voters will roundly deny him first-ballot entry. There are many reasons for this, some legitimate and well-considered, others petty and dismissive. But nobody who witnessed Barry Bonds in 1993 could help being moved by what he saw.

Back then it would have seemed impossible to imagine Bonds in this position: condemned and disgraced, five years after a retirement that was never his idea. In 1993, he won his second straight MVP, his third in four seasons. He should have had four in a row, but in 1991 writers awarded the title to Terry Pendleton, whose main qualification was being someone other than Bonds. Clearly Bonds' path was established early: He would dominate for as long as possible, take zero crap from anybody and be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

But even though he was that good, the best player of his generation, he needed more. He had a consuming devotion to furthering his family's evolution -- to exceed the play of his father, Bobby Bonds, and even his godfather, Willie Mays -- and at times it resembled a grudge. His quest to be the greatest and remain the greatest created a single-minded obsession with fulfilling a prophecy he considered his birthright. So he remade himself into the pharmaceutically enhanced home run king. Ambition would propel him beyond everyone, leaving one obstacle to eternal life in baseball's most hallowed cathedral: Bonds himself.

Of course, the ending has yet to be written. Bonds may well end up in the Hall of Fame as sentiments change regarding PEDs. Perhaps moral relativism will win out and voters will admit known users under the shrugging assumption that everybody was doing it.

But for now, the Bonds story is the same as it has always been: Stuff gets in the way. Even back in 1993, before BALCO and the 73-homer season and Bonds on Bonds, it was his showmanship, arrogance or refusal to comply with the accepted norms of superstar behavior that sent otherwise sane individuals into reflexive rage at the mere sight of the gold cross that dangled from his left ear. And that was precisely his contention; he felt nothing he did could be viewed through clear eyes. It is the definitive paradox: He wanted everyone to ignore the noise and hear the music, even though he was the one creating both.


ON AUG. 18, 2001, after it became a foregone conclusion that Bonds would make a run at McGwire's single-season home run record, he hit a pitch from Jason Marquis -- 94 mph, chest-high, on the fists -- for his 54th homer. It wasn't his most memorable homer, but the physics of it were astounding.

About two weeks later, I interviewed him for a story in The Magazine. I asked him to take me through that 2-2 pitch: what he was thinking, what he was looking for, how he refined his swing to be short and quick enough to get the barrel to it. He refused. He wasn't nasty; he just felt it was a senseless exercise.

[+] EnlargeBarry Bonds
AP Photo/Noah BergerAfter the BALCO congressional hearings and constant denials that he had used steroids, Bonds was found guilty of one count of obstruction of justice.

"I just have it," he said. "I can't explain it. You either have it or you don't, and I do. People always think there's an answer to everything, but there isn't. How can you do that? I don't know. I just can. When people see something they've never seen before, the first thing they say is, 'How did you do that?' The next thing is, 'Can you teach me?' The answer is no because you don't have it."

That quote, and the laugh that followed, is the essence of Bonds. His career was played to the backdrop of four words: You can't do this. Equal parts arrogance and truth, it became an unspoken mantra. It's the same mentality he used to separate himself from the game's pedestrian details. He routinely refused to show up for team photos during his years with the Giants. He stretched with his own stretching coach in the clubhouse rather than with his teammates on the field. He was notoriously stingy in providing assistance to teammates, acting as if their mundane talents were contagious. His knowledge would remain the property of the one person who could use it best: Bonds himself.

His grandiosity knew few bounds. He arrived at his first spring training with the Giants with a chauffeur. Replete with black suit and tie, Dennis drove Bonds to and from the ballpark for six weeks in February and March of 1993. It was Barry being Barry, but within the clubhouse it was seen as a brazen act of hubris.

And the crazy thing was: He knew better. It wasn't an inability to read the room or a mistaken belief that teammates would understand how a man of his stature might need to display the gilded trappings of his success. It was a calculated effort to separate himself from the rank and file. You either have it or you don't, and I do.


THE ARROGANCE WASN'T the whole truth. The arrogance hid fear and wariness and distrust. Life creates indelible imprints, and it would have been impossible for Bonds to be unaffected by the circumstances of his father's baseball career. Bobby Bonds was a fantastic ballplayer but a difficult man. He played for seven teams in seven years after leaving the Giants following the 1974 season, and he felt his legacy was tarnished by racism that stemmed from his strong personality.

The defining characteristic of Bobby as a young father was his alcoholism. In Love Me, Hate Me, Jeff Pearlman's biography of Barry, there are stories of Barry being angered and humiliated by his father's drinking. One telling example came during Barry's high school years. On a ride home from school, he passed his father's car on the side of the road after a DUI arrest. Barry pretended not to notice.

Embarrassment for Barry Bonds turned into motivation. He funneled his conflicting emotions toward the game. He performed as if his career were a reaction to his own lineage. It took a ballplayer of Barry's stature to upstage a father like Bobby Bonds. Longtime Bay Area fans contend that Bobby had as much natural talent as Barry. But the son, unlike the father, refused to waste even the smallest amount.

Everything he did was predicated on being the best. When Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire captivated baseball with their 1998 home run chase, Bonds took it as a slight. He knew what they were doing and how they were doing it, and he knew neither one, all things being equal, belonged in the same conversation with him. Bonds set out to prove himself to his peers, his father, his godfather -- to show them all. To do that, he had to be more than he already was.

With the help of BALCO, he changed his body. And his statistics changed with it. The home run was king, so Bonds usurped the throne. He could do what McGwire and Sosa did, only better; they could only dream of doing what he had done to that point. What essentially amounted to a second career would make him the era's transcendent player, putting his name along the continuum of Cobb/Ruth/Williams/Mantle/Mays/Aaron. When he walked onto a field, his body language sent a message: Judge me only on my magisterial talent.

Bonds didn't play against the other team. He didn't hit against the opposing pitcher. His world existed elsewhere. He was playing against Mays and Ruth and Aaron -- not players on a field but numbers on a page. For someone with Bonds' sense of the game's history, the Hall of Fame is the only proper resting place for his career. How intrinsically did he understand that? Consider this stream-of-consciousness statement from Bonds on Bonds:

"Willie's number is always the one I strived for," he said. "And if that does happen, the only number I care about is Babe Ruth's. Because as a lefthanded hitter, I wiped him out. That's it. And in the baseball world, Babe Ruth's everything, right? I'll take his home runs and that's it -- don't talk about him no more."

He took them all -- Mays and Ruth and Aaron -- destroying all of baseball's most hallowed records. He brought joy without seeming to partake in it. And along the way, the questions mounted: What about BALCO? The "cream"? The "clear"? How many parts talent? How many parts science? Everything he had done was tarnished. Even the sweetest music became noise.


IN AN AUGUST interview with MLB.com, Bonds said: "I respect the Hall of Fame, don't get me wrong. I really, really, really respect the Hall of Fame ... I don't worry about it because I don't want to be negative about the way other people think it should be run. I know I'm going to be gone one day. If you want to keep me out, that's your business."

But as Bonds knows, the Hall of Fame exists on a different plane. It's permanent. It would justify everything he had done along the way. He could play the role of persecuted genius and point to his enshrinement as evidence that it all worked, that nothing else mattered.

The steroids issue as it relates to the Hall of Fame is a hot mess. Everyone whose career exploded during the era is considered suspicious at best, guilty at worst. Will a whole generation be excluded? If nobody who carries the taint -- not Roger Clemens nor Sosa nor Bonds -- makes it to Cooperstown, shouldn't there be an exhibit for future generations to understand the gap? Would that, in its own strange way, serve as an enduring validation for the man with 762 homers?

The Hall of Fame was his final chance to form the narrative, to force the world to hear his music forever. Without the Hall, he exists as a string of dubious numbers, as stories passed down, as a cautionary tale. The story -- his story -- belongs to everyone but him.

Why? Because great wasn't enough. Because a pathological obsession compelled him to go beyond the greatness of 1993, to untangle the web of the game's history and his own. Now he is baseball's Macbeth, undone by the unchecked ambition that both built and razed the best player of our time.

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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