WASHINGTON -- Leave it to the good people of Philadelphia, whose football fans once famously booed and threw snowballs at Santa Claus, to come up with the perfect takedown of the most inflated (in more ways than one) superstar in contemporary sport. With the visiting Barry Bonds at the plate and needing just two home runs to tie Babe Ruth's iconic 714 lifetime homers, the banner was raised: "Ruth did it on hot dogs & beer.''
The target of this concise discourse on the roots of greatness has been booed lustily in every Major League city he's played in outside his hometown of San Francisco. The fans' displeasure lies in Bonds' alleged use of steroids. The use of "alleged'' here, though mandatory, is forced and legalistic. After all, Bonds has admitted that he used "the clear'' and "the cream,'' substances he claims he thought were flaxseed oil and some kind of emollient, only later to discover that they were actually steroids.
The idea that an athlete of Bonds' stature, for whom the body is both temple and bank vault, would be mistakenly ingesting substances is implausible, made all the more so by the evidence dredged up by two San Francisco sportswriters detailing Bonds' (alleged) gargantuan consumption of every performance-enhancing drug from steroids to human growth hormone.
But why should we care? What is really wrong with performance enhancement? We say we are against it because it diminishes striving, devalues achievement, produces a shortcut to greatness, etc. But in many endeavors we don't really care about any of that. Medical residents at hospitals have been known to take Ritalin to keep themselves alert on overnight shifts. If it enhances their thinking in the emergency room, what's the objection?
Many public speakers, performers and even some surgeons take beta blockers to literally still their hearts and steady their hands. I've never seen a banner at the opera complaining: "Pavarotti does it on pasta.'' And what about the military, which pioneered some of these performance-enhancing studies to see how they could help soldiers survive the most extreme stresses? Isn't that an unqualified good?
Performance enhancement turns out to be disturbing only in the narrow context of competition, most commonly in sports. And the objection is not cheating nature, but cheating competitors. It's basically a fairness issue.
When everyone has access to technological improvements (graphite tennis rackets, titanium drivers, more tightly wound baseballs) the sport may be transformed, but the playing field remains level. When technology is enhancing the equipment, fans become quickly reconciled to the transformation. (And it can be radical: the transition from bamboo to fiberglass totally changed the pole vault.) But when technology enhances the physiology of the athlete, we tend to recoil.
Interestingly, however, not always. What about Lasik surgery? Tiger Woods had it and said it made his game stronger than ever. I have yet to see a banner at the Masters saying: "Nicklaus did it by squinting.''
Vision enhancement is even more helpful to baseball players trying to follow the flight of a ball approaching at 90 mph. Hitting requires hand-eye coordination. Bonds turns his arms into tree trunks, and boos rain down. Change the physiology of the other part of the equation -- the eye -- and no one cares.
Why? Because Lasik is legal, common and available to all. Steroids are not. True, baseball had no steroid ban until 2005 (an informal policy began in 2002), and management looked the other way. But since 1990, nonprescription use has been illegal in the United States. Most players didn't use steroids. Many considered it cheating.
So is Bonds a villain? No more than the other highly pumped sluggers such as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa who only yesterday were the toast of the nation. Bonds' sin appears to be that he did it better and longer than others, and did not break down physically as early from the side effects.
But that's only part of it. No one cared terribly, no nasty banners were hung, when he surpassed contemporaries like McGwire. The deep distaste that arises now is that he is challenging two sacred figures of the past: the great Ruth and the elegant, pioneering Hank Aaron. When the competitor is historical, playing in a totally different technological era, the playing field is decidedly unlevel.
Bonds (allegedly) used artificial enhancers. They were internal and physiological. And they were taken clandestinely and illegally.
Put an asterisk beside his records? No. A home run is a home run and not one was challenged at the time. In any case, asterisks are removable. Bonds' records carry a taint that will long endure.