The price of selling out to greatness

4/15/2011 - MLB

When I was a rookie with the Chicago Cubs, I always got a kick out of listening to Mark Grace and Shawon Dunston argue. They didn't agree on anything. If Shawon said up, Grace said down. If Shawon wound up his rocket arm after a running start from shortstop and threw a strike to first, Grace would still curse him out for trying to handcuff him on a routine play.

However, they did agree that Barry Bonds was the best player they had seen. They fought over who would get the best view when they watched him take batting practice.

It says a lot when a young player could listen to two veteran players talk about the best in the business and then play an entire career and agree with them 15 years later. But that was Bonds, the most talented for not just a year or two but for a decade or two.

In the late '90s, when the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa show barnstormed Major League Baseball, the game was hurting after the strike of '94-95. Their home run race captivated a nation with time-honored records in jeopardy. For the most part, this was exciting to those close to the game, not like the hate that spewed when Hank Aaron approached The Babe's record.

It was a time when baseball seemed to cross over, embracing a diverse world -- Sosa hailing from difficult circumstances in the Dominican Republic, McGwire the All-American ballplayer from USC. They tipped history together, and we were enjoying the ride -- until we got proof of how that ride was fueled.

Yet on the sideline, apparently stewing with jealousy, was Bonds, who reportedly knew something was amiss with this race for the record. He had trained hard; he knew so much about the game to the point where he understood what was possible. Being that he was so good, that he was the embodiment of near impossibility, it seemed he knew a scam when he saw it because no one was as good as he was … and that was only the truth.

Bonds wanted a piece of the action. And after a few more All-Star and MVP years, he got it and then some. He proceeded to lap the best in the game. Manny Ramirez, Rafael Palmeiro, Sosa, McGwire, A-Rod, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte. He was still just better than those players who, allegedly or not, took the extra sauce to excel, recover and cheat aging.

So maybe few care about the verdict that came down Wednesday for Bonds. He dodged perjury charges by baffling the jury to the point where it could not reach a consensus. He played the damsel in distress. Not knowing what he was taking, not asking any questions of his dream team of handlers, not curious as to why he could perform the way he did at an age when everyone breaks down.

Only an obstruction-of-justice charge stuck (aka the crime of interfering with the work of police, investigators, regulatory agencies, prosecutors or other government officials). Maybe it stuck because he said "I didn't know" so many times that the obstruction was from all the work the feds did to figure out what he did know. Obstruction by repetition.

Repeatedly performing like Bonds was a fan's dream. It was my baseball dream even as I lived it. The idea that you can not only play baseball for a living but also be the best in the business for an extended period of time is mesmerizing. His risks paid off; he was highly compensated; he was an All-Star and MVP; he was a breath away from being a world champion. Opponents were in awe of him. They watched him take batting practice with jaws gaping open to marvel at how far and fast he hit the ball. This guy was INTENTIONALLY walked 120 times in a season while instilling fear in the best pitchers in the game.

At one point when the Giants played the Padres late in the season, he hit a home run off one of the Padres' young late-season call-ups. He sat quietly on the bench after his trot and finally said, "Ain't nothing but a bunch of kids over there." No stadium could hold him, and no Cy Young winner had an effective plan against him. In our meetings to go over our opponent, when Bonds' name came up, there was often silence in the room when discussing how to pitch to him. He had no holes.

Forget about the ludicrous numbers he put up in 2001 -- more home runs than singles that year. Or the 232 walks in 2004 (which were more walks than I had in my career) while sporting a .609 on-base percentage. That year I joked that the Giants' home field should have just installed a people mover along the first-base line so he didn't have to walk to first, since it happened so often. Maybe it would have saved him from some hamstring issues.

When you ask young fans about living the dream, Bonds' résumé would qualify high up on a dream fulfilled. You are the best in a major sport. You are famous; you make a ton of money; you break records; you party with the world.

This is what we say we would "give our right arm for." Yet this week has shown us how truly expensive that transaction is. When the glitz or the "success" happens by any and every means necessary, you are left as a shell of yourself. The dream becomes someone else's trashy reality show. The secret mistress is now a disgruntled and shaken ex-lover; every record by which your name is associated with has an asterisk attached to it; the physical toll of your choices has literally shrunken your libido; your marriage and family are in shambles; and outside of the city in which you performed, no one really cares that much about your contribution to the game.

As a player, it is hard to stop an express train when it is moving. Once you taste a magic formula, you do it even to your own detriment. When I had a hitting streak going after staring at the Magic Eye 3-D book, I did it for a month straight, even holding on after I stopped hitting. I probably would have kept going until I had eye damage had it not been for a call-up. You spend so much time trying to crack the code to the perfect swing, the perfect diet, the perfect routine, perfect relationships around you. All are invitations to stubbornness even when they hurt you.

Bonds found that perfect performance formula. But when it involves cutting certain corners, no one tells you that everything else around you dries up. Your relationships, your health, your name, your self-certainty.

So after living the dream of millions who would give their right arm to live, you are by yourself in the middle of a nightmare wondering how your only friend in the world is a guy who is in prison for contempt of court. Worse yet is that there are no more at-bats, no more sold-out stadiums, no more paychecks to fight the emptiness of it all.

I have been collaborating on a soon-to-be released report that examines what we know about sport and its young participants. We discuss the power of rewarding what we value. If we set the bar to value something qualitative and healthy versus that which is less driven by a bottom line or a bank account or a fancy statistic, it becomes a transformational exercise in playing the game and not having the game play you.

Baseball did reward what it valued in the ugly era of steroids. The home run, the power numbers, the catapulting over historical records, the bottom line. And we may have a gift now to be able to see the repercussions of it in a relatively short time. Bonds went to the Giants in 1993. We watched his meteoric rise. We saw him attain accolade after accolade. Then we saw a metamorphosis that has been connected with performance-enhancing drugs. And now we see the price he is paying for those choices. A cycle that takes a lifetime happened in fewer than 15 years (if you go by when BALCO got heavy).

So maybe that is what we are supposed to learn from these great and tainted players. Sure, it would have been nice to learn how to hit a curveball, how to hit the cutoff man and how to wear your hat, but they are offering us much more than those lessons, ones that can be earth-shaking, ones that can be summarized in a Trinidadian motto: "Shortcuts lead to long cuts."

Bonds saga is virtually over. A few more court dates and then maybe some time as a prisoner in his own home, ironically surrounded by all the ice-cold and voiceless metal awards he won with such a fury. Justice has been obstructed, but that is small potatoes compared to what has really been obscured from view. This era cooked the books. It blocked a connection between the boy next door and a linear path to what he can be. It dimmed our senses to have confidence in what we were seeing. It clouded the lenses of a vision for a better future game. It screened the hopes of young athletes to achieve with what drives them from within.

And like any good movie, Bonds may have a chance at a rebirth, a reinvention of self, but it looks as though for a while, he has to stop obstructing his own view of himself in the mirror and separate his lies from his truths.

Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and on the board of the MLBPAA (MLB Players Alumni Association). His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released in May 2010. Click here to buy it in paperback on Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter: