So here’s the thing: I love courtroom scenes. Paul Newman in “The Verdict,” and Al Pacino in “And Justice for All?” Awesome. The jury room in “12 Angry Men?” Fabulous. The real culprit shouting out from the back of the court room, “Yes I did it! And I’d do it again!” in Perry Mason? Can’t get enough. I love the cross examination of Jack Nicholson (as unrealistic as the Perry Mason scenes), the literary recounting of Scopes in “Inherit the Wind,” the throwing of the briefcase on The Brady Bunch, and the yutes in “My Cousin Vinny.” Basically, I love them all.
The reason I love them, I think, is because no matter how good or bad they are, every courtroom scene offers something to root for. You want the bad guy to get punished. You want the wrongly accused to be set free. Sometimes, like in Primal Fear*, there’s a cool twist. But there’s always something to touch you emotionally.
*I have been working on a list of good movies with terrible names, and at last check Primal Fear was No. 1 on the list.
I think that, in the end, is why the Barry Bonds trial that is going on right now has no affect on me at all. I am numb to it. I hate that it’s happening. I don’t want either side to win. I don’t have a single rooting interest or a single reason to believe something good will come from this thing. I know that the ending, whatever the ending, will feel pointless and sad and like a horrible waste.
Here’s what I think most people believe: Barry Bonds used steroids to become a better baseball player. He, reportedly, does not even deny this. He does claim — and claimed before a grand jury — that he did not KNOWINGLY take steroids. To think that Barry Bonds took steroids, but not knowingly, seems ridiculous, absurd on its face, and it seems an insult to the question and the people asking it. For seven years now the U.S. Government has been trying to nail him for this unconvincing bit of nonsense.
So, on the one hand you have someone who is probably lying — and obviously we should not stand for people lying to grand juries. On the other, you have what seems an extreme use of government power and money and shaky methods to nail him for this lie. Supposedly at some point during this trial we are going to get a spurned girlfriend telling the court all about Barry Bonds’ sex life and mood swings. The whole thing feels unseemly.
And … for what? I have seen it written in numerous places that this trial will help us “get to the bottom” of the Selig Era in baseball. But, one thing that seems absolutely certain to me is that this won’t help us get to the bottom of anything. People already know Barry Bonds used steroids. People already know Mark McGwire used steroids. People already know that Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield and Jose Canseco and Wally Joyner and Ken Caminiti and numerous pitchers and many others used steroids or some kind of illegal performance enhancing drug. There are no questions left that steroid use was prominent among the biggest stars in baseball, and many non-stars too. There is nothing left on that front to “get to the bottom of.”
What we don’t know is what it means. How we should feel about it. How prevalent it was. How we should view the Selig Era. And this Barry Bonds trial most certainly will not help shape a clearer picture there.
The most popular complaint about PED use — steroid use in particular — builds around home runs. Few seem to care much about PED use in pro football, for instance. Few seem to spend much outrage about PED use by pitchers or non-home run hitters (Roger Clemens excepted, but Clemens has always been a contentious figure). The thing is home runs, and the thing can be pointed out like so:
Players who hit more than 45 home runs between 1972 and 1986:
1. George Foster
2. Jim Rice
3. Dave Kingman
4. Mike Schmidt
Players who hit more than 45 home runs between 1987 and 1994:
1. Mark McGwire
2. Juan Gonzalez
3. Cecil Fielder
4. Kevin Mitchell
5. Andre Dawson
6. George Bell
Players who hit hit more than 45 home runs between 1995 and 2010:
1. Alex Rodriguez (5 times)
2. Sammy Sosa (5)
3. Mark McGwire (4)
4. Ken Griffey (4)
5. Barry Bonds (4)
6. Ryan Howard (3)
7. Albert Pujols (3)
8. Jim Thome (3)
9. Albert Belle (3)
10. Prince Fielder (2)
11. David Ortiz (2)
12. Rafael Palmeiro (2)
13. Juan Gonzalez (2)
14. Jose Bautista
15. Carlos Pena
16. Alfonso Soriano
17. Derrek Lee
18. Andruw Jones
19. Adam Dunn
20. Adrian Beltre
21. Todd Helton
22. Shawn Green
23. Luis Gonzalez
24. Troy Glaus
25. Jeff Bagwell
26. Greg Vaughn
27. Vinny Castilla
28. Jose Canseco
29. Larry Walker
30. Andres Galarraga
31. Brady Anderson
Whew. No matter how many different ways you put together the home run list since the 1994 strike, it boggles the mind. And, as you can see, many of the players on the last list have either admitted steroid use, tested positive at some point or were implicated in some way. And many of the others are strongly suspected — so strongly suspected, in fact, that it has affected their Hall of Fame cases. With home runs so dominating the era, and the players hitting home runs at a pace unmatched in baseball history, we want to know what’s real and what’s unreal.
In this, the Bonds trial will not give us any satisfaction. The only satisfaction will be to those who want to see Bonds punished or to those who want to see the government case fall on its face. And that’s not much satisfaction at all.
Baseball has a flawed history. Until 1947, African Americans and dark-skinned Latin players were barred from the Major Leagues. Until the mid-1970s, players were basically the property of the teams and relied almost entirely on the generosity of owners to make their living. Great pitchers scuffed and spit on the baseball. Great hitters corked their bats. Players took amphetamines to jolt them through the long seasons. Some bet on their games, some even tried to fix those games. “Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it,” Leo Durocher rather famously said, and that philosophy, as much as any, has governed the game.
So the steroid era is not really out of character for baseball history, no matter how many old-time players say it is. Players found that using steroids could make them stronger. Baseball did not test for it — which was like an open invitation to use whatever you wanted. Baseball was coming off a devastating strike and pro football had long before surpassed baseball as America’s pastime and everyone wanted — needed — the games to be more exciting than ever before. Players from every single era, given those circumstances, would have widely used steroids. I believe that wholeheartedly. As the ultra-honest Buck O’Neil said: “The reason we didn’t use steroids is because we didn’t have them.”
We don’t know how much of a role steroids played in the power numbers. We may THINK we know. But we don’t, not really. Sure, we know they played a significant role … but there were other factors too like smaller strike zones, better home run parks, harder bats, expansion, perhaps a livelier ball. Everything was geared toward home runs and bringing people back to the park. For a long while, America celebrated baseball’s glorious new era of extreme power. Comic books were made. Commercials were filmed. Chicks dig the long ball! Baseball dominated the summer of 1998 like it had not dominated a summer in decades. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were heroes — so much so that they were on the cover of SI as ancient Olympians.
It seems to me, that it really wasn’t until Barry Bonds started hitting home runs like mad that feelings really turned. Bonds, throughout his career, was almost like a cartoon villain. He could be arrogant. He could be unfriendly. He could seem a bad teammate. I often compared him in his younger days to Ted Williams, who was also a genius of a hitter and also widely despised. I had this weird relationship with Bonds (though “relationship” is overstating things) where it seemed like whenever I needed to talk with him for a story, he was friendly and helpful and thoughtful. He could be like that. Most of the time, he was not. Anyway, when he started hitting so many home runs that managers simply stopped pitching to him, everyone seemed to agree at once that this steroid thing had gone too far. It was one thing when lovable Sammy Sosa and titanic Mark McGwire were hugging. But Bonds … no, that was too much.
So I would say Barry Bonds, more than any other player, formed the public and media sentiment on steroids in baseball. He hit 73 home runs, often to boos. He passed Henry Aaron on the all-time home run list to almost unanimous boos and angry columns. He offered some cockamamie story to the grand jury about having taken steroid-type substances from his friend (and convinced steroid distributor) Greg Anderson but he insisted that he did not know what it was, and he insisted that only his doctor actually gave him injections. Anderson has since gone to jail — and he is going back to jail — rather than talk about it.
And so, the federal government — particularly the seemingly obsessed Jeff Novitzky — has gone hard after Barry Bonds. Now, they have Bonds in court. They may get him thrown in jail for a while. They may not. They will undoubtedly embarrass him. Bonds meanwhile counters with a high-priced defense team that will stop at nothing to protect their client. They may get him acquitted. They may not. They will undoubtedly embarrass the government.
And the whole thing will end, and we will be right back where we started when trying to figure out the Selig Era. Well, we won’t be right back where we started … we’ll all be a little sadder. And then, we can look forward to Roger Clemens trial this summer.