Sunday, March 26, 2006
Updated: April 15, 2:11 PM ET
Great Wasn't Good Enough
By Jeff Pearlman
Thanks to two enterprising San Francisco Chronicle reporters who cast a spotlight into the shadows, we have a pretty good idea of what Barry Bonds did to himself to pump out those big numbers. To illuminate his motivations, we turn to writer Jeff Pearlman. In his upcoming biography, Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero, Pearlman examines why, and pinpoints when, one of the most talented and dominant players in baseball history went over to the dark side.
The concentration of sports and entertainment superstars living in the 800-acre Windermere, Fla., enclave known as Isleworth can make an afternoon stroll down one of its sidewalks seem like a redcarpet rehearsal. Shaquille O'Neal, Tiger Woods, Wesley Snipes-they all flock to this gated community of multimillion-dollar homes. Few spreads match the splendor of the 13,000-square-foot mansion owned by Ken Griffey Jr. Decorated in serene linens and creams, the place features floors of marbled Macedonian stone and a miniature movie theater. Video games line the walls of an entertainment center; outside, a large in-ground swimming pool begs for balmy days.
Griffey's friendship with Barry Bonds dates back to 1987, when Griffey was a 17-year-old Mariners prospect playing in the Arizona Instructional League. Bonds, a young Pirate at the time, was living near Phoenix, and he took the future star under his wing. "Barry would come by and pick me up in his white Acura Legend," Griffey recalls. "He probably treated me to four or five dinners." The two bonded over baseball and the identity crisis that comes with having a renowned parent. "Now whenever I go to San Francisco, Barry takes me out to dinner," Griffey says. "And when he comes to Cincinnati, I'll take him out. I fly my mom in because Barry loves the way she cooks macaroni and cheese and fried chicken. That's the kind of relationship we have. It's not just about baseball."
In the winter following the 1998 season, Bonds brought his family on vacation to Orlando, where he could also visit his longtime buddy. After spending a day toting his two kids around Disney World, he headed to Griffey's house for dinner.
On an otherwise ordinary night, over an otherwise ordinary meal, Griffey, Bonds, a rep from an athletic apparel company and two other associates chatted informally about the upcoming season. With Griffey's framed memorabilia as a backdrop, and Mark McGwire's obliteration of the single-season home run record a fresh memory, Bonds spoke up as he never had before. He sounded neither angry nor agitated, simply frustrated. "You know what," he said. "I had a helluva season last year, and nobody gave a crap. Nobody. As much as I've complained about McGwire and Canseco and all of the bull with steroids, I'm tired of fighting it. I turn 35 this year. I've got three or four good seasons left, and I wanna get paid. I'm just gonna start using some hard-core stuff, and hopefully it won't hurt my body. Then I'll get out of the game and be done with it."
According to others in the room, Griffey was uncertain how to react. At age 29, he was at the top of his game, fresh off a season in which he compiled 56 home runs and 146 RBIs. As the pressure to indulge in performance-enhancing drugs mounted, the man known as The Kid stayed clean. Sure, he too could see the physical differences in many players, including some on his own team. But to him, baseball wasn't important enough to risk his health and reputation. "If I can't do it myself, then I'm not going to do it," Griffey says. "When I'm retired, I want them to at least be able to say, 'There's no question in our minds that he did it the right way.' I have kids. I don't want them to think their dad's a cheater."
Nevertheless, Griffey understood how Bonds felt. For most of the past decade, they had been the sport's two top players. Now, from their point of view, men with significantly less talent were abusing drugs to reach their level. Where was the fairness? The integrity? Griffey didn't agree with Bonds' position, but he certainly empathized.
Bonds' frustration had peaked on Aug. 23 of the previous season. That was the day he crushed a knuckleball from Marlins lefthander Kirt Ojala into the bleachers of Miami's Pro Player Stadium, becoming the first man in major league history to compile 400 home runs and 400 stolen bases. On the scoreboard, "400/400" flashed in bright yellow letters, and most of the 36,701 fans rose in appreciation. Outside the stadium, however, few people cared. Bonds' achievement found its way into every sports section across America-but on the second, third or fourth page.
For Bonds himself, the ultimate statistics scavenger, reaching 400/400 was momentous. He had gone beyond his father, Bobby Bonds. He had gone beyond his godfather, Willie Mays. He had gone beyond Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. In the sort of aw-shucks false modesty he put on from time to time, Bonds told the small number of assembled reporters that he was nothing compared to McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who were in the midst of their epic home run race. "I have nine writers standing here," he said. "McGwire had 200 writers back when he had 30 home runs. What they're doing is huge, phenomenal. Two guys might break the record. I mean, what's the chance of that ever happening again?"
Though Bonds delivered the sentiment with a broad smile, he was in fact feeling unappreciated, grumpy and terribly jealous. Just one day earlier, after the Associated Press reported that a bottle of androstenedione had been found in McGwire's locker, Bonds scoffed. He was well aware McGwire had ingested more than vegetables and vitamin C tablets to become the size of The Thing. "I use that stuff too," Bonds told teammates. "The difference is Mac's doing stuff I wouldn't think of." The belief that McGwire was cheating infuriated Bonds, who-for all his faults-respected the sanctity of the record book.
But despite his protestations that he wanted only to be left alone, Bonds cared deeply about his status. He was already a three-time MVP, widely considered one of the greatest players ever. In his mind, he was the best. Here was a guy who, as a freshman at Junipero Serra High School in suburban San Francisco two decades earlier, had turned to a classmate and declared, "I'm gonna be a superstar." A guy who, as a 21-year-old spring training invitee with the Pirates in 1986, told manager Jim Leyland, "Dude, you're gonna need me around here."
Now, with McGwire and Sosa occupying the center of the baseball universe, Bonds was unhappy. For years he had perfected the art of media deflection, of hiding the fact that he actually liked-no, needed-the spotlight. "Barry yearned to be the Michael Jordan of baseball, the icon of the game," says one ex-teammate. "He knew he was better than McGwire and Sosa, and at that point he was, factually, better. But everyone loved Mac and Sammy, and nobody loved Barry."
By the time Bonds arrived at Scottsdale Stadium on Feb. 25, 1999, he had a new daughter-Aisha Lynn, born Feb. 5-and a new physique. Everything seemed to have blown up: his arms, his chest, his shoulders, his legs, his neck. When asked by Rick Hurd of the Contra Costa Times to explain his physique, Bonds blew off the question. "It's the same thing I've always done," he said. "It's just that I started so early."
Within the Giants' clubhouse, Bonds' transformation was met with skepticism. His face was bloated. His forehead and jaw were substantially larger. "And the zits," says Jay Canizaro, who played 55 games as a Giants infielder in 1996 and '99. "Hell, he took off his shirt the first day and his back just looked like a mountain of acne. Anybody who had any kind of intelligence or street smarts about them knew Barry was using some serious stuff."
Canizaro had firsthand knowledge of the side effects, having used steroids himself while in college at Oklahoma State. Observing from a nearby locker throughout spring training in 1999, Canizaro was almost 100% certain Bonds was using steroids and human growth hormone. Any lingering doubts were eradicated when Canizaro approached Greg Anderson, Bonds' trainer, and asked a simple question: "What's he on?"
Anderson didn't hesitate. "He was calling out Deca-Durabolin and testosterone and all these different things that were steroids and hormones," Canizaro recalls. "Then he told me he could easily put a cocktail together for me, too."
Canizaro was tempted. He was fighting for a job against other players who were clearly using. But then he remembered the acne and the shrunken testicles-and the time he blacked out while injecting steroids into his rear.
"Thanks," he told Anderson, "but no thanks."
Canizaro estimates that as many as a dozen other Giants were taking illegal performance-enhancing drugs. "The Giants that year were really out of control," he says. "It started in the minors. You're in Triple-A, and you think you need that extra boost to make the majors. So you give in and cheat."
What was the motivation not to? True, the possession of steroids for nonmedical reasons is a crime under U.S. law. But who was busting athletes? Not baseball.
"You're a product," says former Giants catcher Brian Johnson. "Teams say they care about their players, but it's only true until you stop producing. So it's hard to see a motivation for having your players stop using steroids if it's working for them."
And in Bonds' case, it seemed to be working. According to the Society for American Baseball Research, the peak age for players with at least 200 career home runs is 27. After 30, a noticeable decline begins. At 35, the decline becomes a steep hill. But here was Bonds, at 35, hitting the ball harder and farther than ever. He started the 1999 season on a tear, leading the Giants with an April average of .366. "One of the things I noticed was how fast he was able to put the bat on the ball," says pitcher Russ Ortiz. "He could recognize the pitch well before he had to swing, and then he would get around so fast, so hard." Equally amazing was Bonds' indifference to fatigue. He could lift weights, play, lift more weights, then arrive early the next morning to pump more iron.
Such are the recuperative powers supplied by steroids. But the body often isn't able to handle the rapid muscle growth. In a mid-April series against the Astros, Bonds began to feel pain in his left elbow. He tried playing and sleeping with a protective rubberized sleeve, but to no avail. The pain became so bad that Bonds needed someone to rub his arm to dull the sensation before at-bats. On April 20, he underwent surgery for, of all things, a damaged triceps tendon.
Bonds missed 60 games in 1999, and he played in only 14 last year due to three surgeries on his right knee. During the five years in between, he hit 258 homers with a .535 on-base percentage, staggering numbers that dwarfed those he himself had put up until then. But he also attracted the attention of federal prosecutors and became the most controversial figure in baseball since Pete Rose.
In the end, Barry Bonds may be the least likely drug abuser baseball will ever see. Going into 1999, he was already the best all-around player in the game, making more than $9 million a year. With or without another five or six great seasons, he was guaranteed enshrinement in Cooperstown.
But it wasn't enough.
Adapted from Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero, published by HarperCollins and scheduled to arrive in bookstores May 30.