Here’s something you may not be willing to accept: Barry Bonds is probably one of the five best hitters to ever play professional baseball, regardless of his use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Bill James called him “certainly the most unappreciated superstar of my lifetime.” Bonds was, according to James, by far the best player of his era. It should be noted that Bill James wrote this after the 1999 season—that is, he wrote it before five consecutive seasons in which Bonds had an OPS over 1.100, an OBP of at least .440 (and over .500 four times), and (in)famously set the single-season home run record, with 73 home runs in 2001.
So even if you think Bonds’ numbers from 2000-2004, those seasons in which Bonds’ offensive performance was unmatched by any human being in the history of professional baseball,* are tainted because they were accomplished with the help of performance-enhancing drugs, it’s hard to discredit him as an all-time great. James had Bonds ranked as the 16th greatest player of all-time based on the assumption that his career would end after 1999.
*It is easy to forget because of the cloud of steroids that hovers over those seasons, but nobody—not Ruth, not Williams, not Mays, not Aaron, not Mantle—ever had a five-year stretch that could really even compare to the stretch Bonds had in the first half of the last decade.
And even if he had not taken steroids, he probably would have had some productive seasons after that. Assuming his home run average dropped from the 36-per-year he had in the ‘90s to a more reasonable 26-per-year for six more seasons, he would have finished with 591 home runs—good enough for seventh all-time. And given that Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez are also tainted with PED use, that ought to be enough to give Bonds a very reasonable case for Top 5 candidacy.
Of course, it is possible that Bonds didn’t start taking steroids around the 2000 season, but was taking them throughout his career.* We know, after all, that steroids were around baseball since at least the 1980s, when Bonds debuted.
*Although most of the circumstantial evidence indicates otherwise.
So let’s say, hypothetically, that Bonds was using steroids for his whole career. Would that make his accomplishments unimpressive? It would make them slightly less amazing, of course, but it’s not like Bonds was the only player taking steroids in that time. On the contrary, PED use was more the norm than the exception. Yet not only were Bonds’ numbers among the best in the league throughout his career; for a five-year stretch they were historically unprecedented. In other words, lots of people were taking steroids, but there was only one Barry Bonds.
All of this, of course, brings me to Alex Rodriguez, who finally hit his 600th home run yesterday. Rodriguez became only the seventh player in history to hit as many, and the youngest ever to reach the mark, and yet the occasion seemed to be greeted with funeral bells and not fireworks. As A-Rod approached the mark, there were a plethora of stories about how people didn’t care—it was impossible to ignore how we weren’t paying attention to this pursuit.
And then, after an arduous two weeks in which he was stuck on 599, he finally did it…and everybody yawned and went back to worrying about Brett Favre. Like Bonds, Rodriguez is tied to steroids, which means his career accomplishments are similarly tainted. As Ken Tremendous tweeted, A-Rod’s 600th was really only his 444th non-performance enhanced home run (discounting the 156 he hit during the three years he admitted to taking drugs), so it wasn’t really a big deal.
But, of course, things are never quite that simple. You can’t just subtract the home runs from Rodriguez’s time in Texas. He would have almost certainly hit around the 38 he has averaged per season in the non-PED enhanced years of his career. Conversely, we don’t know for certain that the rest of his career is clean either. Judging players from the steroid era is never as simple as our judgments tend to be.
After Rodriguez hit #600, Bob Klapisch wrote, “If you think even one of A-Rod’s HRs are dirty, then the whole lot is soiled, including the history-maker on Wednesday afternoon.” This kind of thinking is absurd. To quote Obi-Wan Kenobi, “Only a sith deals in absolutes.” Disregarding Rodriguez’s entire career because of steroid use is inane for the same reason ignoring Bonds’ greatness is inane: Like Bonds, Rodriguez has had one of the most amazing careers in the history of the game. Some of it—even, possibly, all of it—was probably aided by illegal steroids, but that doesn’t mean Rodriguez is not great. Rodriguez has more home runs than David Ortiz, Mark McGwire, or Manny Ramirez (all steroid users). He hasn’t had a season with fewer than 30 home runs and 100 RBIs since before Bill Clinton was impeached. He’s a three-time MVP (only Bonds has more), and was probably robbed in 2002.
Perhaps most important is that, like Bonds, Rodriguez was a phenomenal player before steroids. Fans and writers were speculating about him chasing the all-time home run record during his first years in Seattle. It’s easy to forget this, but guys like Rodriguez and Bonds were legendary without steroids. Some of their career numbers are phony, but that shouldn’t invalidate all of their accomplishments.
It’s true that some of A-Rod’s 600 home runs may not have left the yard without the benefit of steroids, but “600 home runs” was never really about the home runs themselves. It’s about the players that get to that threshold, and what it says about careers that, regardless of cumulative numbers, inspire awe. Babe Ruth, who hit more home runs than anyone had thought was possible. Hank Aaron, who was so good for so long. Willie Mays, who brought more joy to the game than maybe any other player. And Bonds, Griffey, Sosa, and now Rodriguez. Players who played when home runs were more common, but who still stood head-and-shoulders above their peers.
A few months ago, Mark McGwire finally admitted to using steroids throughout his career. His admission was criticized because he denied that steroids made him a better hitter. Pretending that steroids didn’t make someone a better hitter was delusional and absurd. But it is equally absurd to pretend that steroids turn people into magical home run-hitting machines. Steroids make players better and more resistant to injuries, but they don’t give you a key to a club as selective as the 600 homers. You have to get there yourself. Plenty of hitters have used steroids, but only seven in the history of the game have gotten to 600. And now A-Rod is one of them.