Picking Splinters: Mark McGuire & Barry Bonds

Let’s face it. Forgiveness is one of this country’s specialties. Whether it’s due to some deep compassion within our national spirit, or simply because our short-term, news-cycle driven memories let slip the sinister details of past misdeeds, it’s what we do. Just as we can excel at casting blame (Is Tiger Woods on the cover of the New York Post again?!?!), we also excel at granting our collective pardon (Michael Vick heard a lot of cheers this year, didn’t he?).

So when news breaks carrying athlete apologies, as well as athlete transgressions, it’s interesting to see how the public reacts.

Mark McGwire’s return to baseball and his subsequent admission of steroid use present an interesting case for the forgiveness paradigm. Since his confession, the response has largely been supportive for the slugger. But is that right? Are we all okay with accepting that the home run chase of 1998, one of the greatest baseball seasons ever, was a fraud? And are we all okay with what appears to be a double standard on the forgiveness front?

Barry Bonds must be seething somewhere for several reasons. The first relates to an article I read about Bonds’ use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) a while back from ESPN The Magazine. The article cited the recollection of Bonds’ then-girlfriend as saying he was infuriated by watching McGwire and Sammy Sosa chase after Roger Maris’s record in 1998, and the adoration that was showered upon them. Bonds firmly believe the pair were juicing and that’s when Bonds allegedly began his relationship with BALCO and his pursuit of the record (read: PED use) in earnest.

Now, while Bonds broods in his lair claiming he was blackballed from baseball, he’s watching McGwire tearfully admit to transgressions we still hold against the all-time home run king. And while McGwire is welcomed back as the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, Bonds remains in the shadows.

This must be utterly indigestible to Bonds. Even if Bonds wanted to take the same route as McGwire, he likely can’t. Given the legal implications of Bonds’ case, having stated under oath that he never used PEDs, he would purger himself to now admit it. Contrition, even if it was genuine, is likely off the table.

Second, much like the reported jealousy in 1998, it must kill Bonds that we, as the sporting public, are willing to forgive McGwire. After all, Bonds has known very little sympathy when it comes to PEDs. Even as he chased the record, stories were printed linking Bonds to steroid use and as he stalked both Maris’s and Hank Aaron’s records. He was greeted with vast skepticism, rather than the wonder we assigned to the McGwire-Sosa chase.

So, when it comes to forgiveness, what’s the difference between McGwire and Bonds? First, more time has elapsed in McGwire’s case. It’s a cliché, but the phrase, “time heals all wounds,” exists for a reason. Since McGwire’s exit from the game we’ve learned that other players, clubhouse attendants, hot dog vendors, ballpark organists were all using PEDs. The “everyone’s doing it” argument may not satisfy your mother’s “if everyone jumped off a bridge … ” counterpoint, but it makes the behavior understandable.

McGwire has also enjoyed a number of nationally known character references, namely Tony La Russa and Bob Knight, vouching that he’s a good and decent man. Those sort of endorsements really help. Just look at what Tony Dungy’s support of Michael Vick accomplished. Bonds, on the other hand, likely has far fewer people willing to vouch for him. Why? Because in addition to his reputation as a steroid user, he also carries a reputation as a Grade A jerk. If there’s a line of high-profile people willing to publicly back Bonds, it might be shorter than the Slurpee line in an Anchorage 7-11 – in January.

So, where does this leave Bonds? Probably in limbo. Just like your mother after you broke her favorite vase, the American public is waiting for an apology, one Bonds may not be able to give – even if he wants to. The public still scowls at the unapologetic Roger Clemens – who blamed alleged HGH use on his wife, rather than take the hit himself – and it will forever frown on Bonds until he can come clean.

So, double standard? I don’t think so. It’s merely that while McGwire’s situation left him with an avenue of escape, Bonds has backed himself into corner he may never be able to leave.