In October, baseball teams trot out the old guys for another round of applause. And at Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, the San Francisco Giants welcomed Barry Bonds to throw out the first pitch. Bonds gets a warm reception in the Bay Area, but many fans still view the all-time home run leader as the face of the Steroids Era.
BL: Just to be clear, you’re not saying Barry Bonds was innocent. But are you at the point where you can let him off the hook?
I think we ended up turning him into a villain in a way that was disproportionate to others who were clearly using.Michael Powell, The New York Times
MP: Right, well I'm certainly not saying he's innocent. And, in fact, I have little doubt that he did all sorts of things and ended up as bloated as Popeye as a result. But I am saying that he was a part of a bad era in baseball that extended from the players right on up with complete complicity to the owners and the commissioner. So, right, I'm saying if we're going to make a reckoning with that time, then let's include probably the best natural player of that entire era, who is Barry Bonds.
BL: Let's talk about some of the other people who you say are complicit. You describe former manager and Baseball Hall of Famer Tony La Russa as “the Great Enabler.” Make your case.
[sidebar title="Tony La Russa On OAG" width="630" align="right"] Hall of Famer Tony La Russa tells Bill Littlefield about his philosophy for managing a team.[/sidebar]
MP: Sure. I mean over the time that he managed — and I have no doubt that he was a terrific manager. But look, beginning with Oakland where he oversaw both [Jose] Canseco and [Mark] McGwire. If you recall back to that time, again, these guys look like Popeye. And so you wonder, well, you know, "Tony, you're a really bright guy; what did you think when all of a sudden they start hitting 70 home runs?"
Maybe I'm picking on La Russa in a way that I'm arguing we shouldn't do with anyone — in a sense that much of baseball — Joe Torre and the Yankees — oversaw all kinds of players who started putting up just wackadoo numbers. And you start saying, "Well, did you really know nothing or did you choose to be willfully blind?"
BL: Outgoing commissioner Bud Selig also incurs your wrath. Should Selig’s reputation be as tarnished as the reputation of Barry Bonds’?
MP: I would argue yes. There I think the record is very clear. There were people in the medical community who were saying, "Look, this is really bad for people. It's bad for those athletes, but it's also bad for kids at high school and college level who start modeling their behavior on the behavior of pro athletes." And baseball, really until well into 2007, 2008, 2009, really did very little.
BL: Other players from baseball’s steroids era have been forgiven. Mark McGwire serves as a hitting coach for the Dodgers. What has made it so difficult for fans — at least outside of San Francisco — to forgive Barry Bonds?
[sidebar title="A Propensity For Thievery" width="630" align="right"] The Royals are back in the World Series for the first time since 1985 thanks, in part, to their daring work on the basepaths. [/sidebar]MP: Bonds had a reputation for being a bit surly. Maybe more than a bit surly. But I think it probably goes even beyond that because, let's face it, McGwire was not an exceptionally outgoing character himself. Take 'roids out of the picture and you'll still find Bonds is the most preternaturally talented athlete of his generation.
His production went so off the charts when he started to use that it really kind of called the question on steroids in a way that other players didn't, because I would almost look at Bonds as a figure out of Greek myth. Let's use these words advisedly. But in that context he was almost god-like in his talent. And in a weird way I think we ended up turning him into a villain in a way that was disproportionate to others who were clearly using.
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This segment aired on October 25, 2014.