Barry Speaks His Mind
by Glenn Dickey
Mar 05, 2005

BARRY BONDS was in vintage form yesterday as he talked to ESPN bureau chief Pedro Gomez in spring training, touching on everything from steroids to child-rearing.

This is a side of Bonds that you seldom read about. He drives reporters with deadlines crazy because he often refuses to talk or gives short comments when he’s the story. But when the mood strikes him – as it obviously did yesterday – he’ll go on for half an hour or 45 minutes with stream of consciousness rhetoric.

That happened more frequently in his earlier days with the Giants, when they were still at Candlestick. It was not uncommon for him to start talking before a game as writers were just walking around the clubhouse, talking to other players.

It also happened to me when I scheduled a post-game interview one time. With virtually no prompting, Bonds started a 45-minute discourse about the pressure he felt because of his father, Bobby, his godfather, Willie Mays, and his cousin, Reggie Jackson. He had not previously revealed the Jackson connection, so I had a mini-scoop.

Now, Bonds seems irritated by the publicity about steroids, particularly because he’s always the focus, and he came back to this in the Gomez interview, saying that cocaine and amphetamines are also a problem but they aren't being discussed. His reason for wanting a shift from steroids talk is obvious, but his point is still well taken.

The fact is, baseball has always had a drug problem, but it hasn’t always been the same drug.

For most of its history, the drug of choice has been alcohol. Players and managers in earlier times did an enormous amount of drinking, especially when there was nothing but day baseball. Even the best players suffered because of that drinking.

Mickey Mantle admitted in his autobiography that he was an alcoholic. Mantle hit 35 home runs in 1964, when he reached his 33rd birthday in October, but he never again hit more than 23 in a season.

Jimmie Foxx was a rare talent. He actually played for the Philadelphia A’s before his 18th birthday, and when he was 25, he hit 58 home runs; only Babe Ruth, with seasons of 60 and 59, had hit more in a season at that time. But Foxx was a hard drinker and his career path was eerily similar to Mantle’s. His last big home run year, too, came in the year he had his 33rd birthday, when he hit 36; though he played part of five more seasons, his total for those years was only 34.

To complete the comparison, Mantle hit 536 career homers, Foxx hit 534.

In the ‘60s, when “recreational drugs” became so prevalent among young people, athletes mirrored that drug use – and baseball players also started taking amphetamines.

Older writers who had seldom written about the alcohol abuse in the game, probably because they were drinkers, too, came down on the athletes using cocaine as “druggies.” I thought that was hypocritical - though I drink (wine) and have never taken any of the “recreational drugs” or even smoked marijuana.

Much of the talk about steroids now seems equally hypocritical. There is much hand-wringing in the commissioner’s office, for instance, about steroids, but there was a passive acceptance of it in the ‘90s, when baseball was trying to recover from the 1994 strike which wiped out the World Series.

When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing – and eventually obliterating – Roger Maris’s record of 61 home runs, a reporter saw a sample of a steroids-like substance in McGwire’s locker. That substance is banned in other sports leagues and the Olympics, but baseball didn’t ban it because everybody was delighted by the way McGwire and Sosa were bringing fans back.

Some of the reaction to steroids use also seems hysterical, such as the feeling that an asterisk should be placed after the records of those found to be using steroids. Do we then put an asterisk alongside Ruth’s records because there were no blacks in the major leagues when he played? Henry Aaron played the last part of his career in a park which was nicknamed “The Launching Pad”. Do we put an asterisk alongside his statistics?

There’s no way of proving this, but my belief is that the great upsurge in power numbers is more a combination of a juiced baseball and new parks which are more hitter-friendly (with notable exceptions in San Diego and Detroit) than steroids.

My concern is the health of the players. There are legitimate fears that the athletes will suffer health problems later in life from what they’re ingesting now, but the evidence so far is strictly anecdotal. Because steroids are forbidden, athletes can’t admit taking them, although Jason Giambi apparently admitted that did in grand jury testimony.

If steroids were legalized, doctors and scientists could test those using them, at the time of use and later in life, so there would be firm evidence of what happens to users.

And then we could follow Barry Bonds’ advice and move on.


E-mail Glenn Dickey at glenndickey@hotmail.com

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