America at Large: Baseball's fleeting shame at drug cheat Barry Bonds

Rehabilitation of former San Francisco Giant and others shows criticism dies quick

Former San Francisco Giants batter Barry Bonds’ misdemeanours have been quickly forgiven by the public and those in baseball. Photograph:Thearon W Henderson/Getty Images

Former San Francisco Giants batter Barry Bonds’ misdemeanours have been quickly forgiven by the public and those in baseball. Photograph:Thearon W Henderson/Getty Images

 

Anybody privy to the specious morality of American sport will not have been surprised by news that the Florida Marlins have hired Barry Bonds as their new hitting coach. Baseball has long since been a place where lengthy and unapologetic associations with steroid use carry no stigma at all. What has been mildly shocking however is the excessive air of acclaim and celebration that greeted the appointment. A few mildly discordant voices aside, media, fans, players and coaches seem inordinately gleeful that arguably the greatest cheater in the history of the sport is back in the game.

“It’s all about the bottom line,” said the Marlins right-fielder Giancarlo Stanton. “Controversies aside, the man was a genius. For that knowledge to watch us play every day and give us back that knowledge is what we need.”

This is the equivalent of a Ben Johnson turning up in Rio next summer, carrying a stopwatch, wearing a tracksuit and, with that slightly demented grin, announcing himself as the trainer of some sprinting sensation. Or at least it would be if anybody around here cared a jot. Which they don’t.

Mark McGwire, another whose feats with a bat in his hand and performance-enhancing drugs in his veins, came to tarnish an entire era, returned to work in the major leagues years ago. As if nothing untoward ever happened. He was greeted by many, many cheers, hardly any jeers.

What has always separated Bonds from so many of his peers who succumbed to temptation is that he didn’t need pharmaceutical assistance to compete at the elite level. One of the most talented players ever to pick up a bat and glove, he was already two-thirds of the way through a storied Hall of Fame career when he discovered the magical concoctions available from Victor Conte and Balco.

Whether or not he was originally motivated to use by jealousy of the adulation afforded McGwire and Sammy Sosa during their epic (and chemically-fuelled) home run chase of 1998, “the clear” (tetrahydrogestrinone) helped him to stop his body clock and to shatter some of baseball’s most hallowed milestones. At an age when most hitters are suffering from diminishing power and waning numbers, he became the all-time home-run leader with 762, and, at a sprightly 37, set a single-season record with 73 long balls in 2001.

“There are no second acts in American lives,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. Maybe back in his time that rang true. Not any more. Bonds is headed down a well-worn path towards a kind of redemption.

Mike Tyson is a convicted rapist. These days, he’s also a bit-part movie actor, star of a Broadway show, and the voice of an eponymous cartoon series on television - “Mike Tyson Mysteries”. Of all the dastardly things predicted for him when he left an Indiana prison two decades ago, surely nobody ever envisaged him putting his name to a very funny spoof of Scooby Doo. Is the sight of Bonds back in uniform any more questionable than that?

In America, it appears you just have to bide enough time until your crimes and misdemeanours are either forgotten about or can be exploited for comic and commercial relief. Notoriety is just one more branch on fame’s family tree.

Pete Rose is banned from baseball for life for gambling, a sentence that prevents him from ever entering the sport’s Hall of Fame. A couple of years back, he starred in a television ad for Skechers making fun of this prohibition. Two suspensions for positive drug tests haven’t stopped sprinter Justin Gatlin shilling compression athletic wear for Tommie Copper. Shame, it seems, isn’t even fleeting, it’s nothing more than a unique selling point.

Of the other marquee names embroiled in the Balco scandal, NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski and New York Yankees’ slugger Gary Sheffield both became respected television pundits, and Marion Jones had a stint playing in the WNBA before embarking on a third career as a motivational speaker. Against that tawdry background, Bonds returning to advise a new generation of hitters on the mechanics of their swings has such a ring of inevitability about it we should be astonished it’s taken eight years for the invitation to come.

The tremendous irony about all this is Bonds spent some of his period of exile deeply involved in another world synonymous with steroids. In a plot twist that might be deemed too outlandish for Hollywood, he discovered cycling, started dating Mari Holden, a former Olympic time trial silver medallist and outspoken critic of how drugs corrupted her sport, and ended up sponsoring a professional women’s team. The bike also apparently provided solace when he fought and won a perjury case against the United States government.

“I love cycling,” said Bonds last week. “I can only ride my bike so much, and I love that sport. But baseball’s who I am. This is who I am. This is what I was raised to do. This is what God put me on Earth to do, and this is what God blessed me to do. The only way I’m going to find out is if I try.”

Somewhere in Colorado, Lance Armstrong may be wondering where he went wrong as he watches one more notorious drug cheat get seamlessly rehabilitated into polite society. Or perhaps he’s too busy planning his own second act to notice. All available evidence suggests that’ll probably be fine by America too.

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