JUST HOURS apart last Thursday, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez were asked to respond to the lies that are their baseball careers. In San Francisco, Bonds pleaded not guilty to a federal indictment charging that he perjured himself when he told a grand jury he never knowingly took steroids. Earlier that morning in Miami, Rodriguez was asked by SI senior writer Selena Roberts to respond to information she obtained that he had flunked a 2003 steroid test. Though it held no legal authority, Rodriguez's plea joined "flaxseed oil," "I'm not here to talk about the past" and "misremembered" among baseball's nolo contendere instant classics.
"Talk to the union," Rodriguez said.
And with that nondenial Rodriguez, once foolishly considered the antidote to Bonds, revealed what has long been their symbiotic connection. The home run leader and his heir apparent were more alike than we knew.
Sure, they were partners in whacking away at the legends of Aaron and Ruth, and even partners in business. (In 2004, a year in which they earned $40 million between them on the field, they charged fans $7,500 a pop just to meet them at a private event, and $1,050 more the next day to get autographs.) But who knew they were partners in Primobolan?
Rodriguez and Bonds are Shakespearean tragedies of the same pharmacology. It isn't just that they cheated the game and perverted its history, which Rodriguez finally admitted to doing four days after being questioned by Roberts in Miami. It's also that each of them was blessed in abundance with every baseball skill—and that still wasn't enough for them.
Bonds already had won three MVP awards and eight Gold Gloves by the time he reportedly went rogue, after the 1998 season. Former Rangers general manager John Hart said Rodriguez inspired the greatest scouting report on a high school player he has seen in 40 years in baseball.
On Monday, Rodriguez told ESPN that the pressure to live up to the 10-year, $252 million contract he signed with the Rangers drove him to take steroids from 2001 to '03. In May 2002 I sat with Rodriguez in his hotel suite in Chicago and asked him about steroids in baseball for an SI cover story I was writing that included Ken Caminiti's groundbreaking admission that he juiced for six seasons, one of them his MVP year with the Padres. Rodriguez was in his second year with Texas, where he'd been a teammate of Caminiti, Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro, John Rocker and Ivan Rodriguez—who have all been linked to performance-enhancing drugs. Yet A-Rod said he never even heard of anybody using steroids and asked me questions about what they do. I left regarding such naiveté as chilling as feathers stuck between the teeth of a purring cat.
No matter that former Rangers pitcher Rick Helling and outfielder Chad Curtis had alerted top union officials to what they described as a major steroid problem in baseball, only to be met with little concern. Couple such unresponsiveness with last Saturday's SI report that union COO Gene Orza tipped Rodriguez about upcoming tests, and you're left with the image of the union as facilitators of the Steroid Era. Little wonder a superstar raised on entitlement would invoke the union, not innocence, in initially defending his baseball life.
Like Bonds, Rodriguez is a product of his times, not just his greed. If power, as Henry Kissinger observed, is the ultimate aphrodisiac, in baseball it comes by the mg. Linked to drugs are two thirds of the MVP winners from 1995 through 2003, five of the top 12 home run hitters of all time and three of the four players ever to smash 50 homers in a season more than twice.
And it is in part because of Bonds that the government gained possession of Rodriguez's positive test. After raiding BALCO in September 2003, federal investigators sought baseball's steroid test results for Bonds and nine others linked to BALCO, which led to the feds seizing documents that included Rodriguez's positive test. At least Rodriguez became less Bonds-like on Monday by coming clean—if indeed he confessed to the full extent of his use.
In a coincidental wink to their connection, on Aug. 4, 2007, Bonds hit his 755th homer, tying Aaron, and Rodriguez belted his 500th. Asked about the steroid allegations tainting Bonds, Rodriguez rushed to his defense, saying, "That's too bad because Barry's such a great and unique talent." He added, "Studying him is like studying Picasso."
It was Picasso himself who once said, "Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth." Surely there was art in Bonds and Rodriguez at their best. The truth within, we know now, is an ugly one.
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It isn't just that A-Rod and Bonds cheated the game and perverted its history. It's also that they were blessed with every baseball skill—and that still wasn't enough.
ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER