The home-run king was on a steady regimen of performance-altering illegal substances. No, not Barry Bonds, who whacked No. 756 Tuesday night in San Francisco. I'm talking here about Babe Ruth, whose years of home-run production coincided almost precisely with the years that Prohibition was in effect, during which the liquid portion of his diet consisted chiefly of beer, gin, scotch, rye and bourbon.
So should the Babe's record rate an asterisk, too? Seven hundred fourteen homers, a record possibly affected by a steady diet of what in lesser mortals would have been performance-depressing drugs of incontestable illegality. But for the wear and tear on his stomach lining, and the years he spent pitching rather than playing every day, and the fact that he played when seasons were 154 games, not the 162 they've consisted of since the '60s, he would have hit more.
That, of course, is not the reason a de facto asterisk will cling to Bonds's home-run record. Bonds's prodigious late-career power burst is the product of a bulked-up body and a time when a number of baseball's leading power hitters appeared to transform themselves through the dark magic of steroids.
But Bonds is no mere Mark McGwire, a power hitter turned superpower hitter by the abrupt accumulation of muscle mass. Bonds was plainly the best player in the game even before the bulking began. In his 2001 historical baseball abstract, which evaluated players through the 1999 season, historian-statistician Bill James ranked Bonds the 16th-greatest player ever -- the only active player among the top 25. Bonds, wrote James, was "certainly the most unappreciated superstar of my lifetime" and was by a huge margin the best player of the '90s.
That No. 16 ranking, wrote James, "is based on the assumption that his career ends with the 1999 season."
All this was before Bonds's power burst, before he started putting up seasonal numbers that rivaled Ruth at his best. James assumed that Bonds's career would continue for several years (Bonds was 35 in 1999); he most certainly did not assume that Bonds's greatest years were still ahead of him. On the basis of those calculations -- that Bonds would still have a number of great seasons, but nothing like the astonishing seasons he racked up in the early years of this decade -- James opined that Bonds might well end up "among the five greatest players in the history of the game."
So that, in the judgment of perhaps the most authoritative scholar the game has ever known, was the not-so-grim fate awaiting Bonds in baseball Valhalla. Yet, if we conclude that Bonds did then proceed to bulk up with steroids, it was not a fate that he would settle for. Maybe he bulked up only because he saw lesser players such as McGwire stealing his thunder or because the records he believed he might set would guarantee a still more lucrative future. Or maybe, just maybe, he bulked up because No. 5 wasn't good enough, because he could then have a shot at Ruth's seasonal records or Henry Aaron's lifetime home-run crown. Maybe he wanted to be No. 1, or at least give Ruth a run for his money as the greatest player in the history of the game.
These are not mutually exclusive hypotheses, and the only person who could sort them out for us -- Bonds himself -- is unlikely to do so. But if there's any truth to them, the story of Barry Bonds is less Ruthian than Faustian.
Bonds's tragedy, if that's the word for it, is that he lives on the brink of a Faustian time. The engineering of bodies, whether through drugs or genetics, is well underway, bringing in its train the potential for healthier lives and for ethical dilemmas we can scarcely imagine. Do we really think that 50 years hence, athletes' bodies won't be altered by methods that make today's steroids look primitive? And our ability to predict where science is headed is surely greater than our ability to predict where the laws regulating that science are headed. The only sure bet is that there will be athletes who avail themselves of that science regardless of the law -- just as there are today.
The steroids now in use, of course, not only strengthen bodies but break them down. And using banned substances when his opponents don't gives an athlete an unfair advantage. Bonds's decision to use steroids, if that is the decision he made, was deeply wrong. But Bonds's sins -- the questionable use of science, the raging drive to be No. 1 -- are, we should remember, distinctly sins of our time.