One of the perhaps defining moments of Major League Baseball’s steroid era occurred in relative obscurity on the night of April 16, 2004.
The San Francisco Giants hosted the Los Angeles Dodgers in an early-season contest notable primarily for its rivalry implications. A straightforward affair progressed to the bottom of the ninth with San Francisco trailing 3-0.
Eric Gagne, the fire-breathing French-Canadian Cy Young winner of the previous season, came in to close for Los Angeles.
His task was the heart of the Giants’ batting order, with the indomitable MVP winner of the previous three seasons, Barry Bonds, due third.
And so the leadoff man walked and the next batter flew out, bringing together what was at the time baseball’s unstoppable force, Bonds, and its immovable object, Gagne. The heretofore sleepy ballpark, lulled by a mostly uneventful game and a typically chilly San Francisco spring evening, sprang to life.
That was the magic of Bonds at the time. He could electrify a crowd – and I mean electrify – merely by stepping to the plate. That it was on top the hated Dodgers, and on top of that Gagne whom he was facing, made it all the more frenzied.
With a 2-2 count Gagne ran a fastball inside, clocked by the stadium radar gun at 101 miles per hour, and Bonds turned on it immediately, impossibly, and pulled it into the McCovey Cove waters beyond the right field wall. Foul.
Undeterred, the right-hander Gagne doubled down and delivered another heater, this one clocked at 102mph, right down the heart of the strike zone. And Bonds smacked it, ahead of it again but a fraction of a second less this time, so that it soared not beyond the right field foul pole but instead into the right-centre field seats for an utterly unforgettable home run.
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The Giants still lost that game, 3-2. But that was not what mattered.
What mattered was that it was a moment, an example of baseball, unlike any before it and likely any to come.
Now, the stadium gun was outpacing the broadcast readings, Eric Gagne was a now-admitted performance enhancing drug user and Barry Bonds was and is, well, Barry Bonds.
So was it an organic example of baseball? No. Let’s not kid ourselves, it need not be qualified with “almost certainly” or “very probably”. It was not that.
In light of the circumstances, it could be considered as pure a distillation of the excesses of its era as could be consolidated into a single moment.
But it did happen. I know, not only because record and video if it exists out there, but also because I was there and I saw it.
And it was unequivocally, unreservedly, unabashedly incredible.
Bonds took up a post as Miami Marlins hitting coach last week. He was, as always, asked about his Hall of Fame case.
He is asked this because he has not yet been awarded the honour of Hall of Fame recognition by baseball’s writers, the voters for the honour and by extension the gatekeeprs of the institution.
He has not been awarded this honour because, plainly, he is being punished for the use of performance enhancing drugs during his career.
He said, in full: “I don’t really have an opinion about it. I know that I’m a Hall of Fame player.
I don’t really need to get into that. I’ll leave that to you guys [the media] to make that determination. That’s not my fraternity.
“But in my fraternity, Major League Baseball, there’s not one player that ever could sit there and say that I’m not one, and there’s not a coach that ever coached me that said I’m not one.
“And until you guys decide to make that final decision – that final decision can be made on your terms.
“But in my heart and soul, and God knows, I’m a Hall of Famer.”
This is, objectively speaking, of course true. By any conceivable measurement of baseball achievement, Bonds clears the Hall of Fame standard not just by leaps and bounds, but by more than any other player in baseball’s history.
How much of that can be attributed to the effects of PEDs and how much can be attributed to the natural, prodigious gifts he possessed even before it is presumed he started using, is impossible to say.
But it should not matter. What Bonds did on a baseball diamond happened, and there will never be any changing that. And what Bonds did on a baseball diamond was more than any other player ever.
Baseball’s writers association cannot in perpetuity pretend it will be able to write a clean ending to a dirty chapter in the sport’s history. Bonds can be barred from the Hall of Fame, but all of his home runs cannot be un-hit.
And so this charade should come to an end. The Hall of Fame as an institution is meant to catelogue the best players of the game of baseball. That this also includes some of worst people the game has known, moral failures the likes of which make Bonds being a drug cheat look positively sunny, has not before stopped the institution from acknowledging reality.
However it must be qualified, whatever scarlet asterisk must be applied, do it and have it be done.
The moments Bonds created, the memories he provided, the singularly towering level of the game he reached, all happened. In the real world.
The real world is messy. The Hall of Fame, to not reflect that by deeming certain infractions too grave and shutting certain guilty parties out, ceases to reflect history. It stops being a museum and starts to become a baseball theme park. One without any rides, at that.
And if one wants to argue that the Hall of Fame is not a museum and is a baseball theme park, then I will argue that is a perverse distortion of what the Hall of Fame should be. And that they should start building some rides.
But it should be a museum. The unparalleled force with which Bonds for a time took baseball and bent it to his will, artificially or not, should be acknowledged in that museum.
Because Bonds was the best his sport has seen. How clean he was is irrelevant to the historical fact that the level at which he played baseball outstrips any before or since.
And to deny him a place at all in the Hall of Fame is to continue to attempt to ignore that. To deny the best performance of baseball the sport has witnessed. It cannot be.
By whatever terms you want to come to accept that, as Bonds himself said, you may.
But come to it already.
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