• Michael Thompson

Selig, Bonds, and Revisionist History

Barry Bonds hit his record-breaking 73rd home run of the season on Oct. 7, 2001, in San Francisco. Harry How/Getty Images

This past week former Major League Baseball Owner Bud Selig was promoting his new book, For The Good Of The Game, that reviewed his time as MLB Commissioner. Full disclosure, baseball is not in my Top 10 favorite sports, so it is doubtful that I will find the tie to read it. Still, I am a sports fan, and baseball still has its moments that catch your attention. Growing up, I would say that I was a casual fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The early-1990s were a great tie to be a Pirate’s fan. Andy Van Slyke, Doug Drabek, Bobby Bonilla, and, of course, Barry Bonds. Three straight division titles, including a heartbreaking NL Championship loss to the Atlanta Braves off a 9th inning hit by journeyman, Francisco Cabrera. I was crushed. After that loss, the Pirates would systematically break-up the team. It was the beginning of astronomical free-agent contracts, and small-market franchises like the Pirates had yet to figure a way to stay competitive with likes of the Yankees and Dodgers.

Bonds left for the San Francisco Giants, a town where his father Bobby played, his godfather the legendary Willie Mays played, and where Barry spent his formative years as the Giant’s batboy. Barry left Pittsburgh as reigning National League MVP and winner of 2 of the previous 3 awards. Unbeknownst to the people of Pittsburgh, Barry’s departure would be the last winning season as a major league record 17 consecutive losing seasons followed. Pirates fans unfairly blamed Bonds, while mistakenly gave a pass to management and ownership. The worse Pittsburgh got, the more despised Bonds became to the city. Bond’s surly and pompous attitude to the media, which he loathed, did him no favors either, as one of the franchise’s greatest players would be treated as pariah whenever the Giants visited Three Rivers Stadium. I may have been the last Pirate’s fan to still root for Bonds. Over the next few years, my fandom kept me intrigued enough to track the outfielder’s progress up the record charts. Year after year I was excited to see Barry’s numbers at the subsequent climb to the top of many statistical categories.

Then came the 1994-1995 lockout, or baseball’s attempt at suicide. Casual fans, such as I, were disgusted. My memory of that ’94 season was that of another great player, Tony Gwynn, who was flirting with the unthinkable - a .400 batting average. Such a feat had not been accomplished since the great Ted Williams in 1941 but Major League Baseball but Gwynn was close. He was at a .394 average when Commissioner Selig led the owners to a work stoppage. They abruptly ended the season on August 12th, 1994 and the World Series was canceled for the first time ever later that Fall. Even as a casual fan I had a loathing for these billionaire owners. I convinced myself that I could never enjoy a baseball game again, however, like most sports fans, I could and would be won back. If there is one constant in sports, it is how great accomplishments draw fans to the ballparks and television. Everyone loves to witness excellence. This phenomenon holds true across all sports. Tiger Woods winning at Augusta this past April after an 11-year drought to the Toronto Raptor’s upset win over the dynastic Golden State Warriors to the United States’ Women’s Soccer Team winning an unprecedented 4th World Cup are just the most recent examples of the hardcore sports fan being drawn to watch greatness. Take even horse-racing which at one time was one of the most popular sports in America and look at the difference in ratings of a Belmont Stakes Race when a horse is attempting to capture the Triple Crown.

Post-lockout was suddenly different for baseball. It had damaged its fan base. When fans started returning they noticed that the players looked different. Just a few years earlier, players like John Kruk, who we will kindly say was on the short, heavy-side were stars. Many fans believed physical fitness played little-to-no role, and that only the God-given ability to hit a rotating ball traveling 60-feet at 90 MPH was all that mattered. Ballplayers were suddenly built like NFL Linebackers, and the balls started flying out of ballparks at alarming numbers. Roger Maris set the record in 1961 with 61 homers and from 1962-1990 only 3 more times was the 50+ home-run plateau reached. Then from 1995 to 1997, it occurred a total of 5 times. Anyone who watched the sport could tell something was different. Then, in the 1998 season, baseball had a renaissance. Just 4 years prior baseball had practically destroyed itself and it was to have a record-setting season for the ages. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa took aim at Roger Maris’s record of 61 home runs. Every night their plate appearances made the national news. Could they break the record? Not only could they, but they annihilated it with McGwire finishing with 70 and Sosa reaching 66. Had these two sluggers not arrived at the perfect time then one could argue that baseball may have been saved from the same fate as boxing, a sport whose best days seem in the past. Baseball may never reach the heights of fandom it once enjoyed but it won over and back enough fans to remain relevant.

The casual sports fan didn’t care why these home runs were happening, whereas the regular sports fan had a fairly good idea what the sudden surge in home runs was occurring. The media and the powers that be in baseball most definitely knew. In the subsequent years, they denied ever having an inkling. They would say, “We thought the balls were wound tighter, or the caliber of play was diluted through expansion,” but the reality is they all knew with some certainty. I have heard estimates that conservatively place the number of steroid users at 50-70% of Major League ballplayers during the late-1990s. Which makes Selig statement from his book,

“We had been caught off guard when McGwire and Sosa passed Maris”

absurd and laughable if it doesn’t make you angry. What a disingenuous statement! Sports franchises, in every league, are famous for their due diligence. They invest millions of dollars in the development and subsequent training of athletes. There are countless stories of teams hiring detectives, putting a player’s entourage on the payroll in return for info, and the establishment of security details made up of ex-law enforcement officers to keep their investments from damaging themselves or the club. Team doctors and trainers try to create as perfect a human-machine as possible. So, it is incredulous to believe that something that was so widespread to where, on the low-end 50% of the players used it, that the powers of baseball had no idea? The fact is Bud Selig and the other owners turned a blind eye and cared more about ratings and revenue. They were just as complicit as the players. During the home run record chase, McGwire was even asked about a bottle of androstenedione sitting on a shelf in his locker by the media. While androstenedione was legal and sold over-the-counter at the time, it shows players were looking for ways to boost their testosterone levels anyway possible.

This blatant wearing of blinders led to other players to performance-enhancing drugs. Prior to McGwire’s and Sosa’s record season, Barry Bonds had already established himself as one of the game’s greats. He was going to no doubt be a 1st-ballot Hall of Famer to Cooperstown. However, and this is just speculation, Bonds wanted more. He was jealous of inferior players, like McGwire and Sosa, receiving all this attention. If they could receive the adoration of fans, endorsement deals, and become the faces of baseball, then surely, he could do it as well, especially if the powers that be in baseball do not care. Unfortunately for Barry, there was a certain demographic of fan who did care and was becoming acutely aware of the pervasiveness of steroids and they were not pleased. These ‘purists’ as they have been called believe that Major league’s records are hallowed achievements and are devalued by those who partook in performance-enhancing drugs for advantage. was clued in that it became an issue. While Bonds spent the next few years breaking both the single-season home run record just set by McGwire and the career home run record (of the beloved Hank Aaron at 755), these purists were becoming very vocal. Media outlets smelled a scandal, and everyone started to direct their anger at the ‘cheating’ players. The snowball was rolling down the hill and it would not be stopped. Bonds, by 2001, was now establishing himself as not only one of the era’s greatest players but as one of the greatest players of any era, and the poster child for the evil of steroids.

Bud Selig, decided to feign ignorance, and distance himself from anyone linked to steroids. He essentially threw Bonds under the bus over the remaining years which is why I find Selig’s comments so worthless. He would have you believe that he and their owners were caught off guard. Just doting old men who were naïve to steroids. The problem is that no one believes that 32 of the most powerful men in the world were just senile and thought that it was all the hard work at practice that caused such inflated home run numbers. Selig later writes

There is plenty of blame to spread around in this sad chapter, and I’ll accept my share of the responsibility. We didn’t get the genie back in the bottle in time to protect Aaron’s legacy. Henry knows we tried, but I’ll always wish we had been successful in implementing testing for performance-enhancing drugs sooner than we eventually were, as part of labor negotiations in 2002.”

What a joke and a liar. Steroids were forced out because these purist fans saw them as toxic and were uncomfortable with hallowed records falling like dominoes. In distancing themselves from Bonds, they have also encouraged others to do the same. While not outright banning him, Bonds has been denied entry into the Hall of Fame, and the rules were changed to make it more difficult for him to be inducted despite never actually having tested positive for steroids. Players have always pushed, themselves to excel and Bonds went to the line that was allowed, and when the public scrutiny and backlash became too intense, he became Selig’s scapegoat and a pariah for a system and culture that he allowed to flourish under his tenure. Now Selig wants us to feel for the difficult time he had in congratulating Bond’s on his many wondrous feats? I have no sympathy for Selig or the broken baseball records. Bud Selig was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017 and apparently does not care that he was not held to the same high standards in hindsight like Bonds. Frankly, I am glad Bonds owns those records, and I hope that one day Selig is forced to accept the same culpability that has been forced upon Bonds. Baseball has attempted to rewrite its history without one of its greatest players, and I am starting to have the same disdain for baseball as I did during the 1994 lockout.

Further Interesting Information –

Bud Selig Interview with Sports Illustrated - https://www.si.com/mlb/2019/07/09/bud-selig-barry-bonds-home-run-record?utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=sportsillustrated&xid=socialflow_facebook_si&fbclid=IwAR24tmcbLTPzE7IaP9wwXMjTcGX9fMoD3lkIeHwEpuckDxnBVz5iMXxABVk

A look at Bond’s greatness through his stats - https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/bondsba01.shtml

Article about a book of the Pittsburgh Pirate’s in the early 1990s - https://www.pittsburghmagazine.com/Pittsburgh-Magazine/June-2017/New-Book-Recounts-Pirates-Rise-and-Fall-in-the-1990s/

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