In William Shakespeare's version of King Lear, the title character and his daughter Cordelia die. Later adaptations of the play ended with Lear alive and Cordelia happily married, proof that no matter our cynicism, we like happy endings and that man can be redeemed in spite of his misjudgments.
All of this is to say Barry Bonds, now Babe Ruth's equal in the record books with 714 home runs, is not beyond salvage. In many ways, he is just like Lear – a classic tragic hero waiting to happen – and baseball would love nothing more than to see Bonds redeemed.
Bonds seems to fit the outline. The son of Bobby Bonds and godson of Willie Mays, he was born into baseball royalty. He was terribly talented, endowed naturally with a gift, and thus damned with a wretched flaw: hubris, or an overwhelming amount of pride. And it was that conceit, in the form of his jealousy over watching an inferior player such as Mark McGwire blast into baseball lore with his 70-home run season (so says the exposé "Game of Shadows"), that led Bonds to make his mistake.
He took steroids.
And so here is Bonds today, more whipping boy than golden boy. With the McAfee Coliseum crowd peppered with fans of his San Francisco Giants, Bonds received a standing ovation after blasting No. 714 in the second inning Saturday off Oakland's Brad Halsey. The handwringing started immediately: Next is Hank Aaron's mark of 755, so can Bonds stay healthy long enough to reach it, and what would its validity be, and how dare baseball let this happen?
Barry Bonds, hero and villain, not perfect but not evil, either, right in the middle.
"Anyone who understands anything about tragedy gets that it's not a story of an isolated individual," said Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, author of "Will in the World," a detailed look at Shakespeare. "It's about a culture and society and set of beliefs. This is not a story that could take place without an enormous enabling society."
A baseball culture that ignored performance-enhancing-drug use was like fertilizer for the many who, like Bonds, chose to partake. All of those caught have had their comeuppance. Gary Sheffield's numbers are suddenly suspect. Rafael Palmeiro lost his career. Jason Giambi will always play under suspicion.
No one has come close to taking the fall like Bonds, and it's partly because of latent racism and his vile attitude toward media and fans. Mainly, though, it's Bonds standing next to the game's most storied slugger. Ruth was larger than life, his mark of 714 holding for so long, and Bonds himself said Ruth's presence still "hovers."
"If there's something that's tragic," Greenblatt said, "it's what we are producing as a culture. This is taking place not because Barry Bonds is driven by a frantic ambition to break records but because our culture produces it. We sign on to it in lots of ways.
"We want ways to enhance. Kids' attention span so they succeed in school, for example. We have Ritalin. Do we really think it's because they have a curse or affliction? No. It's because they have a goal."
It's generally the pursuit of goals – in Lear's case dividing his kingdom and in Bonds' instance making his mark as the game's greatest player – that bring out the flaw. Everyone can relate: When you set a goal, you want to achieve it and, in many cases, will go to extraordinary lengths while giving chase. There is, in a way, something very noble about that – and something altogether dangerous.
Bonds' pursuit failed when he allegedly engaged in illegal activities and, perhaps, lied to a grand jury about it. Pride, a characteristic so useful on the baseball field, torpedoed Bonds off it.
This should have been a happy moment, one where commissioner Bud Selig presented Bonds with a plaque and fans around the country appreciated his accomplishments. Instead, it's one filled with a twinge of pain. Like, how dare Bonds, an admitted steroid user, according to San Francisco Chronicle reporting on grand-jury testimony, actually celebrate this?
All it would have taken – and, in fact, will take – is the truth. From the get-go, that's what the public wanted. We're comfortable with the past being the past so long as we know what the past was.
That's what makes a true tragic hero: the admission of a flaw, the realization of an irreparable mistake, the understanding of the consequences. Ever since we learned the name BALCO, Bonds has vacillated between an attack and a defense, one day accusing and the next backtracking in a dance of dishonesty.
Perhaps Bonds doesn't want forgiveness. He might not think he's done anything wrong. If so, he will always be labeled a steroid user, and however many home runs he ends up with, whether 714 or 756 or 800, people will remember him for that.
Yet they could also remember him for his speed and his defense and his talent, everything that defined him before steroids. Because the tragic hero, unlike the villain, is not a one-dimensional character. He gets his past, glorious and inglorious, and ultimately his happy ending.
Barry Bonds could use that. And we could, too.
- Bobby Bonds