Skip to main content

I was there, that June at Wrigley, when the fever caught Sammy. See, that's me and the three kids in the bleachers that weekend he rocked five out of the cathedral and the great home run chase was on.

I was there, that July in San Diego, when Big Mac took one into the second tier. Look, that's the lawyer I met up there, the guy proud to own the head struck by Mark McGwire's 43rd.

I was there, that September in St. Louis, when the fever caught us all. There, handing out hundred-dollar bills like sticks of stale gum just to get inside the coliseum and sit where the record long balls would land. There, alongside a Korean housewife who'd dreamed she would snag number 62 off Big Mac's bat, and a scrap-metal salvager and a psychiatric nurse and a Japanese chef and an 87-year-old guy in a wheelchair, wearing an oxygen mask and a baseball glove. Standing on my seat and pounding my own glove and screaming my lungs out—see, that's me and my fishing net just before that damn usher took it away.

When that magical summer of '98 ended I went home, put all these photographs into an album, etched captions beneath them so that one day someone else would understand the significance of what I'd seen and felt ... then sealed my moments beneath protective plastic so they'd never be smudged.

I look up from the pictures. My God. It's Sammy and Big Mac, six and a half years later, together again ... at a table in the Rayburn building on Capitol Hill, facing a firing squad of cameramen and of congressmen asking terrifying questions. McGwire clenching back tears, refusing, on his lawyer's advice, to answer questions about anabolic steroids. Sosa denying he used them ... but boy, oh, boy, that body language and those brief, mumbled replies....

For 11 savage hours Congress asks the players, the commissioner, the general manager, the union chief, the lawyers and the medical advisers what they're going to do now. Funny. Everybody but us.

I stare at the photo of me in the crowd wearing the glove and the big grin. What am I going to do with this scrapbook full of memories and the story I used to tell?

My eyes shift to the other faces in the snapshot. Another summer full of moments will soon begin, the biggest home run record of all ripe to fall. What will we do, each of us, now that we know?

I walk out of my house. I cross the street. A professional problem solver lives there. A 51-year-old man whose job, as general counsel and professor of legal studies at College of Charleston in South Carolina, is to find solutions to disputes and crises that arise on campus. And, on the side, to teach a course called Baseball, Mythology and the Meaning of Life.

Andy Abrams has strolled all around baseball's cesspool, stared at it as lawyer and lover both. "O.K.," he says. "We can't prove that Bonds intentionally took steroids, even though everyone knows he did. So let's say we take him at his word that he unknowingly did. It's still an unfair advantage. Compare it with what we'd do if someone took a Kaplan course to prepare for the SAT, and one of the practice tests he got the answers for turned out to be the real test. Even if he didn't intend to cheat, his score would still be thrown out. The result must be addressed, even if there's no penalty.

"So how do we, as a society, address the result here? Bud Selig won't act. Congress can't do much about the records. It's up to the fans and the media.

"We shouldn't even talk about home run record holders anymore. No one holds the records now. With Bonds, since he's still playing, we should use the Amish approach. Shun him. From here on, when he hits one out, just call them asterisks. 'Bonds hit his 756th asterisk last night.' That's it. One line in the newspaper. Because if you glorify it, you reinforce it. Just asterisk his ass. This is what you wanted so badly, Barry? O.K., you got it. But guess what, Barry. Maybe it's not what you thought."

I call a Sunday school teacher, who happens to be a sportswriter, to ask if he and his media colleagues could asterisk Barry's ass. A lovely idea, says Terence Moore, columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but it will never happen because, for one, reporters shouldn't make or influence the news, and second, editors would fear alienating a public hungering for much more than one sentence about Barry Bonds's blasts.

But Terence, who has taught teenagers about values on Sundays for the last 15 years, will take a stand. Rule 5 on his Hall of Fame ballot instructions states: "Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character...." and so the names of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds will never appear on Terence's ballot.

"This is worse than the Black Sox scandal," Terence says. "That was several players fixing one World Series. This is a much larger group of players fixing records that may last for decades. This story has become baseball's Watergate. It started as a minor break-in and just kept growing, week after week.

"McGwire's obviously guilty. There's been a huge feeling in the black community that everyone was going after Bonds while McGwire was getting a pass, but people can't say that now.

"I'd love to see the crowd respond with silence when Bonds passes Aaron. But there will be 50,000 people in San Francisco going wild. Poetic justice would be, Bud Selig's not there when it happens, because remember where the commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, was when Aaron passed Ruth? He was in Cleveland talking to the Indians' fan club. In Cleveland addressing the Wahoo Club."

I wonder, out loud, what sort of family dinner tables all these ballplayers sat around as kids, and then about the family dinner tables of all the people—41% of those under 30 years old, according to a New York Times poll—who don't care if pro athletes use steroids. What would've happened to Barry, I ask Terence, if he'd sat at your dinner table?

"Ohhh, boy," says Terence. "You see, my mother and father both had nine siblings, and all but two of the 18 lived in South Bend, where I grew up. Moral authority was everywhere I turned. My grandmother's leather strap; he might get that first. Then my grandfather would come in from the farm and thump him with one big finger—I mean, thump him so hard, he'd fly across the room. Then my mom would get her switch from the willow tree. Then Dad would come home from work with his belt. If Barry Bonds sat at our dinner table on a Sunday afternoon, oh ... my ... goodness."

I DIAL A Catholic priest. Someone who knows what happens when an institution holds its silence as the cesspool rises. Someone who has seen the cost when loyalty to the brotherhood somehow becomes the higher law, more important than even, say, the life of a kid.

Father Jim MacDonald, a 65-year-old Giants season-ticket holder, sits in the upper deck behind home plate. The perfect perch for the spectacle of a Barry Bonds bomb: near enough to see and hear that karate-chop explosion of maple against horsehide, far enough up to take in the majesty of the ball's journey toward the coliseum's rim. But what does the kindly curate do now?

"I do not know that he took steroids," he says.

But, Father, even if you just take what he said in his grand jury testimony—

"They claim Babe Ruth drank a lot of whiskey."

But whiskey wouldn't help him hit a baseball farther, Father. In fact, it would probably—

"I don't know the medical effects of steroids. They do not increase bat speed from what I know."

But, Father, what's the message we send if we stand up and cheer when he passes Aaron?

"Anybody who hits 756 home runs, baseball should celebrate."

But as a matter of fairness, Father—

"I haven't thought about fairness."

So even as a priest, you—

"As a priest I recognize that people are human and make mistakes."

So then you do realize, Father, that—

"Look. You're talking to a fan. An irrational Giants fan. I'm sad for Barry if he did it. But I still think he's a wonderful baseball player."

What about the heartland? All those people around me on that climactic Labor Day weekend in St. Louis, vowing that they'd return the ball if it fell into their hands because Big Mac's and the game's integrity meant more to them than the hundreds of thousands of dollars to be reaped by selling those balls ... and then, one after another, living up to their word? How must they feel now?

It occurs to me that I could ask them, that I'd scribbled down names and phone numbers back in those innocent, intoxicating days, then tucked the notepads away in the rafters of my garage.

I call Deni Allen. He was just out of college when he snagged number 60, the one that tied the Babe's single-season record, and the words poured from him that day. He's a 29-year-old corporate sponsorship manager for the St. Louis Rams now. "I'd do the same thing again," he vows.

But what about Canseco's book, I ask, and the needles in the backside in the bathroom stall?

"I prefer to make no comment."

I call 61. Mike Davidson, the fan who retrieved the homer that tied Roger Maris's single-season record, delivered it to McGwire and then hurried home to bed so he could arise at 4 a.m. for his job slicing cold cuts and vegetables. He was 28 then. He's busy now putting to bed the son born later that year. "I'd still give it back to Big Mac," he says. "I met the man. I looked him in the eye. I still consider him the home run king. He's not like Barry Bonds."

Even now? After Big Mac stonewalled Congress and essentially pleaded the Fifth?

"It's no big deal. Like he said, it's in the past. It really doesn't matter."

What will he tell six-year-old Vincent, with his two Big Mac posters on the wall?

"It doesn't matter. The first game I ever took him to, Barry Bonds hit a home run. So, he likes Barry Bonds."

I call 62. Tim Forneris, a former altar boy, was the young man on the Cardinals' grounds crew who grabbed the record-buster behind the leftfield wall, who had permission from the team to do with it as he wished, who had a million bucks in the palm of his hand at age 22 ... and handed it to Big Mac.

He still mans a bullpen gate for the Cards on summer nights and spends his days as a public defender working on appeals for poor people in St. Louis who've been convicted of rape, murder and theft. "I can't speak for Mac," he says. "If I'd done steroids, I'd have talked about it at the hearings and taken the repercussions. If I were commissioner, I know what I'd do about the home run records, but I'm not, so I won't comment.

"But I'd still give that ball back. The amount of kindness I've received for giving it back is unbelievable. People said it was worth a million dollars—I've had close to a million experiences. You can't take those memories away from me. You can't take out of me what's already in me. You can't look back at Christmas Day when you were six and think any less of that moment, no matter what you learned later."

I call 70. Philip Ozersky, the Cardinals' fan who had a job in a Washington University lab in St. Louis charting DNA maps of the human genome when he snatched Big Mac's 70th and final homer that year ... and sold it for three million dollars. He's 32 now, still in the lab blueprinting chicken and chimpanzee DNA while his investments fatten and the charities to which he donated 10% of the money aid youth and fight disease.

His arms aren't quite long enough to slap himself on the back. "But what we're learning has reaffirmed my decision to sell that ball," he says. "Everyone who gave his ball back was doing what he thought was the fair thing to do. But was McGwire?"

I call Todd McFarlane, the guy who bought that 70 ball for $3 million and then watched a leftfielder who claims he thought he was rubbing flaxseed oil and arthritis cream on his body punch out number 73 three years later and lop, oh, a couple of million bucks off the value of Todd's purchase. And then watched Big Mac swallow his tongue on TV ... and there went, oh, a couple of hundred grand more.

So, will Todd—who promotes his toy manufacturing company by buying and displaying significant home run balls struck by Sosa, McGwire and Bonds—keep buying if the balls keep flying? "Look," says the 44-year-old, who was born in Calgary, "I was a little skinny guy playing centerfield at Eastern Washington University, and if someone had said, 'Pop this and we'll get you a major league contract,' I'd have said, 'Gimme two' and not asked questions till I was bleeding from the rectum. That's why we've got to make sure there's never an adult there holding out those two pills. So if you've got a vial of urine on Bonds, I'm with you. Get as harsh as you need to be."

But....

"But if Bonds is going for number 756 in Phoenix [where Todd lives], I'd probably try to buy most of the bleacher seats so I could get the ball. I'd be cheering. I'd be that blur you see in the background, and I'd get to talk s--- the rest of my life.

"Look, he'll pass Ruth early this season. There will be a cloud over it. But he may not pass Aaron until a year from now, and I don't know if we can work up that much moral outrage again. We'll be burned out, and people will say, 'Dammit, I'm just a baseball fan!' because ultimately, most us like to party.

"Baseball can't get pompous about it now. It turned a blind eye to its steroids problem. Fans can't start being hypocritical now. Same ones complaining today were standing and cheering for Sosa and Big Mac six and a half years ago. No one stopped to dissect the moment because we were in the moment. Right now we're out of the moment, but get to 755 and we'll be right back in it. We can all be moral again two days later."

So he won't even consider sending a message, keeping his wallet hand holstered at the auction for Bonds's 756th ball?

"Look, 756 isn't the ball I really want. I want the last one he hits. For me, it'll be simple—does Major League Baseball say it's a record ball? I'll be blinded by that one fact. You can have all your buts, but when you're done with your buts, I'll get my but: It's still the record ball."

I follow the money: the agent who brokered the sale of all those tainted taters. That's Michael Barnes, a 34-year-old former altar boy and product of the same Jesuit education at Saint Louis University as Tim Forneris, Mr. 62.

"For me, it doesn't diminish that summer," says Michael, "because what I'll remember is me and my son together in front of the TV when he was four and him jumping off the sofa screaming whenever Big Mac or Sosa hit one. That's the summer his love of baseball was formed. That's the summer I began underhanding Wiffle balls to him in the yard. That's what's in his room now: A bobblehead of Mac and Mac's baseball cards in plastic stand-up sleeves. All that's worth more to me, that connection we'll always have, even if cheating brought it about. It's too sweet.

"Yes, I thought there'd be more outrage. Baseball's the one sport that had standards you could compare across generations, and that's been eroded. But the reaction's been more as if some major singer has been caught lip-synching—it's fodder for gossip and controversy, but it's not shameful.

"I'd pay to see Bonds hit his 756th. I'd stand and cheer. Especially if my 10-year-old son's with me. Even if I think the record is tainted, it's good for all kids to have heroes and goals. Baseball has to celebrate it, and the commissioner should be there. It sounds so amoral, but it's history. I'd wait and have the moral talk with my son when we're on the way home."

What if the fan who catches number 756, I ask the broker, is like that Chinese guy who stood in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square? What if he flings the ball back on the field or pulls out a lighter and burns the ball in moral protest—against the hitter for his fraud and against the game's caretakers for failing to take care of our treasure—rather than bequeath it to the Hall of Fame or place it in Michael Barnes's hands to find the highest bidder?

He sighs. "My heart would sink," he says. "I don't know what it would solve. If he held a press conference to explain that there was a lesson behind it, I'd applaud him. But I'd think he was crazy as a loon."

I turn to a guy who didn't see Big Mac's 62nd, Bonds's 73rd or any home run or any congressional hearing, ever. A guy I'd heard of who was born without eyes, a guy whose principles couldn't be compromised by the power of an image, a picture in his scrapbook or the memory of, say, a white orb and 50,000 people rising as one. And yet a guy who loved what he couldn't see so deeply that—through blood, sweat, tears and technology that would all take an hour to explain—he actually broadcast minor league baseball as a color man for a dozen years. But now....

"I'm devastated," says Don Wardlow, 41, who recently left the booth because of his wife's health and now takes rental car reservations in Goose Creek, S.C. "I spent all those years sacrificing and sweating blood for a god that turned out to be false. A god that takes steroids. It's not anger I feel. It's a sick-in-the-stomach feeling. I can't give baseball up. But I'm pulling back. I'll be listening to music or a book on tape instead of a Rockies-Giants game at 1 a.m. But it doesn't seem like that many other people feel this way. Maybe it's more personal for me because my father had emphysema and had to take steroids. Maybe because I heard his groans and know what they did to his insides for 14 years before he died."

What if he could take an injection or a pill, I ask, an illegal one with risky side effects that would allow him to see? Would he? "For one day," he says, "so I could do two things: Look into my wife's eyes, and see a Yankees–Red Sox game. Just one day. Then never again."

I turn next to a cheater. A 35-year-old bookkeeper who was caught red-handed in ninth-grade advanced algebra and suspended from school 20 years ago, one who understands the temptation that might have overcome Barry Bonds, maybe, if you believe he took steroids, which Cory McPherson of Sonoma, Calif., of course does not.

How does he know? Because Cory has been watching Giants games since he could crawl, and Cory has his Barry poster and Barry warmup jacket and Barry baseball cards by the hundreds—20 Bonds rookie cards worth $50 a pop, lovingly preserved in photo albums, none for sale; you don't sell out family. Even now.

"You can't fight this when it's in your blood," Cory says. "It's blind loyalty. Blind love. My dad had Willie Mays. I've got Barry. I'm going to feel as great as ever this season when he hits a 500-foot homer. Baseball has to celebrate it when he passes Aaron. It'll be a great moment. It'll be our moment—forever.

"I need an admission from Barry before I'll ever reflect on him in a negative way. I'm clinging to that. I haven't heard it from him."

Maybe I’m just like everyone else. Maybe I didn't want to see what I was seeing. I saw the numbers and the necks ballooning. I saw Big Mac's dread as the media surrounded him—green eyes blinking like a cornered ox, I scribbled in my notepad that July—as if he knew where the klieg light's glare would inevitably turn.

We all knew how to react to the East German swimmers, the Bulgarian weightlifters and the Jamaican-Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson. But this, this is like learning as an adult of some pathetic and embarrassing flaw in your father. Maybe it's easier just to pretend that it didn't happen or doesn't really matter than to stop and look it in the eye.

I call a 58-year-old TV writer, Marshall Goldberg, who remembers the scandal in the late '50s when a contestant, professor Charles Van Doren, was fed the questions beforehand on the quiz show Twenty One. "Watching Bonds now would be like watching Twenty One after you know Professor Van Doren has the answers," he says. "I don't care how many people in America today are saying, 'They're entertainers, let 'em entertain.' If 40 million people think a stupid thought, it's still a stupid thought.

"My daughter gets it. She's 17. When she was asked in her college interview whom she admired most, she said without hesitation, 'Roberto Clemente. He died helping the earthquake victims in Nicaragua.' I won't walk across the street to watch Bonds hit number 756, and if I did, she'd tear into me.

"I think the old-fashioned fans are offended, and they're going to pour it on him. I'm one of those. I think all the players should come out to the white lines on Opening Day, put their hands on their hearts and take an oath of integrity. I just have a feeling there's going to be revulsion from the older people, and if not—if people just clap and act like this is legitimate—it'll kill my interest in the game. It'll be like, Oh, man ... do I really want to be a part of this?"

Old people. That's who I need to call. I buzz the Windsong Village Convalescent Center in Pearland, Texas, where the oldest ex-major leaguer—100-year-old Raymond Lee Cunningham—resides. Gulped two cups of coffee with the Cards as a late-season call-up in 1931 and for part of '32. Stood 5'7". Weighed 150. Tore the bush leagues to shreds but hit only .154 in the Show. "I don't know what to think or how to think," he rasps. "I might cheer Bonds—but I wouldn't honor him. I might've taken that stuff if they had it back then, but I won't say I would. Right now I wouldn't."

Hmmm. Guess I need somebody older. Frances Wormser, a 101-year-old baseball fan in Ventura, Calif., is what Google spits out. A former Broadway actress who, it turns out, used to bowl beside Babe Ruth in the early '40s in a New York City hotel. "He would take a swig of whiskey before he bowled," she tattles. "He didn't care about bowling a spare or a strike—he was just interested in winning, and he always won. He was such an ugly man."

But what about the juice, what about now? "Baseball's wonderful," she says, "but it's a stupid game. A player sits there for God knows how long not doing anything—and then he's supposed to get up and hit a home run? So I'm sure all of them have been taking something. It's not just baseball. It's young people. Everybody's trying to get a fix, everybody wants to be a star, everybody wants to be on television. But there's nothing anybody can do. I love the game. I'll put up with anything."

Okay, not just any old-timer. One who knows long balls and Anabols both. That's former minor leaguer Tex Warfield, who cranked 40 back in '51 at Elizabeth City, N.C., and bench-pressed 260 just the other day. Still pumping iron at age 76, still pumping bodybuilders for info. "No dog days!" barks Tex. Say what? "All these people who say that steroids don't help you hit a baseball, don't help hand-eye coordination, here's what they're missing: There are no dog days of summer when you're on steroids! As long as you stay on 'em, you stay strong, you have an abundance of energy every day. You feel the same in September as you did in April. Barry Bonds hasn't had dog days in four years.

"People don't understand the dog days. Home runs come from hitting the ball out in front, but by September, even when I'd drop from a 35-ounce bat to a 31, I'd be catching the ball a foot behind. What was a homer in May would be a can o' corn in August.

"I'm totally disgusted. I'm not going to watch anymore. I'd put an asteroid next to all their records. McGwire made a complete fool of himself. Sosa? He's a user, and he's going to get away with it. Bonds? I'll cry when he passes Ruth. I'll cry when he passes Aaron. This is the biggest bunch o' bullcrap ever to come down the pike."

I ring up an old romantic. One who believed so much in the game's purity that he wrote a novel about an Iowa farmer who carved a ball field out of a cornfield so that Shoeless Joe Jackson could rematerialize and play again, three decades after dying and 63 years following the Black Sox scandal that blackened his name.

"Baseball, to me, had a magical quality that no other sport did because of its open-endedness, its infinite possibility," says 69-year-old William Kinsella, whose novel Shoeless Joe became the basis for the movie Field of Dreams. "No confined boundaries, like other sports. Two foul lines diverging forever, eventually to take in the entire universe."

Possibility? Gone. Salvation? See ya. Something died inside William during baseball's 1994 work stoppage, and the steroids scandal is just one more kick in the crotch of a corpse. "People have grown too cynical to be outraged," he says. "Maybe that's what baseball's counting on ... but to baseball that should be the scariest thing of all."