Fifteen years ago, Barry Bonds broke what used to be one of the most hallowed records in American sporting life. He hit 71 and 72 home runs in a single season.
When, in 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa launched their epic chase to breach Roger Maris' 61 HR mark established in 1961, the nation rejoiced. America began falling back in love with baseball its ugly strike led to a 1994 season with no World Series. Even when most of us recognized something deeply suspicious about the Hulking physiques of these sluggers, we all smiled and kept watching.
Three years later, the greatest (and surliest) player in recent memory hit bomb after bomb in a whole new world. Steroids were perceived as the worst destructive force the game had ever seen. The luster of the home run was gone. And outside his home park in San Francisco, fans mostly watched Bonds with begrudging eyes.
I, instead, marveled. Sure, Bonds had enhanced his body dramatically. That seemed de rigueur in that era. I didn't hold him more responsible for steroid use than any other player. His excuses of using the BALCO derived "cream" and "clear" without knowing what they were seemed absurd and childish though perhaps they were a necessary fiction. The reality is that no one else was pursued for using steroids in quite the way Bonds was. Far more than his newfound power, Bonds' disdain for reporters and media etiquette was always his real crime.
Let's remember, baseball is a game that requires exquisite timing and nearly instantaneous decision making, especially in the batter's box. Due to Bonds' unprecedented hitting acumen he was the recipient of astonishing numbers of walks, intentional walks and pseudo intentional walks. (This pattern only grew. In 2004, Bonds reached base 376 times on only 373 plate appearances. NOT a typo.) Despite seeing so few pitches because of the (understandable) desire of pitchers to avoid him, he maintained an unbelievably high rate of success.
Now that the dust has settled and Bonds has been fired from his only post-retirement job in baseball, let's please take a moment to acknowledge the real life history we were able to watch a decade and a half ago. Let's remember when the greatest player since Willie Mays did what no one has ever done in the history of baseball. And enjoy it.