ON MAY 22, 1998,
the San Francisco Giants arrived in St. Louis for a three-game series with the
Cardinals. That weekend, Giants All-Star leftfielder Barry Bonds got a
firsthand look at the frenzied excitement surrounding Mark McGwire, baseball's
emerging Home Run King. � Bonds had recently remarried, but on this trip he was
accompanied by his girlfriend, Kimberly Bell, a slender, attractive woman with
long brown hair and brown eyes whom he had met four years earlier in the
players' parking lot at Candlestick Park. Bell had been looking forward to the
trip, and it was pleasant in many ways--a big hotel room with a view of St.
Louis's famous arch; a wonderful seat eight rows behind home plate; and even
tornado warnings, which were exotic to a California girl. But Bonds was sulky
and brooding. A three-time National League MVP, he was one of the most prideful
stars in baseball. All that weekend, though, he was overshadowed by
Even by the
standards of the modern game, the Cardinals' first baseman was a player of
exceptional size and power. That summer the 6'5" McGwire weighed 250
muscular pounds and was hitting balls that traveled in long, soaring arcs. The
season was less than two months old, but he already had hit 20 home runs and
was ahead of both Babe Ruth's and Roger Maris's record-breaking paces. Players,
fans and the media were already eagerly anticipating that McGwire would break
baseball's most storied record, but Bonds's mood remained irretrievably
On that trip Bonds
began making racial remarks about McGwire to Kimberly Bell. According to Bell
he would repeat them throughout the summer, as McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the
buff, fan-friendly Chicago Cubs slugger who also was hitting home runs at an
amazing rate, became the talk of the nation.
letting him do it because he's a white boy," Bonds said of McGwire and his
chase of Maris's record. The pursuit by Sosa, a Latin player from the Dominican
Republic, was entertaining but doomed, Bonds declared. As a matter of policy,
"they'll never let him win," he said.
As he sometimes
did when he was in a particularly bleak mood, Bonds was channeling racial
attitudes picked up from his father, the former Giants star Bobby Bonds, and
his godfather, the great Willie Mays, both African-American ballplayers who had
experienced virulent racism while starting their professional careers in the
Jim Crow South. Barry Bonds himself had never seen anything remotely like that:
He had grown up in an affluent white suburb of San Francisco, and his best
boyhood friend, his first wife and his present girlfriend all were white. When
Bonds railed about McGwire, he didn't articulate who "they" were, or
how the supposed conspiracy to rig the home run record was being carried out.
But his brooding anger was real enough, and it continued throughout a year in
which he batted .303, hit 37 home runs, made the All-Star team for the eighth
time and was otherwise almost completely ignored. The home run chase,
meanwhile, transfixed even casual fans, in the way that a great pennant race
used to do in the old days.
McGwire hit number
62 on Sept. 8 in St. Louis, amidst a wild celebration and before a national TV
audience, and then continued hitting bombs: five of them in his final 11 at
bats, including two on the last day of the season, to finish with 70, four
ahead of Sosa.
On the West Coast,
Barry Bonds was astounded and aggrieved by the outpouring of hero worship for
McGwire, a hitter whom he regarded as obviously inferior to himself. Bonds was
34 years old, had played in the big leagues for 12 years and was known for an
unusual combination of speed and power. Before the 1993 season he had signed
what was then the richest contract in the game: $43.75 million for six years,
and he knew he was on his way to the Hall of Fame. For as long as he had played
baseball, Bonds had regarded himself as better than every other player he
encountered, and almost always he was right.
But as the 1998
season ended, Bonds's elite status had slipped a notch. The game and its fans
were less interested in the complete player who could hit for average and power
and who had great speed and an excellent glove. The emphasis was shifting to
pure slugging. As McGwire was celebrated as the best slugger of the modern era
and perhaps the greatest who had ever lived, Bonds became more jealous than
people who knew him well had ever seen.
To Bonds it was a
joke. He had been around enough gyms to recognize that McGwire was a juicer.
Bonds himself had never used a performance enhancer more potent than a protein
shake from the health-food store. But as the 1998 season unfolded and, as he
watched Mark McGwire take over the game--his game-- Barry Bonds decided that he,
too, would begin using what he called "the s---."
He began working
out with a real gym rat, a trainer who spent 12 hours a day pumping iron in a
gym on the San Francisco peninsula.