Barry Bonds might soon re-emerge in Major League Baseball as a hitting coach after an eight-year hiatus from the game, igniting the usual social media torrent of snark, jokes, and hand-wringing. We have yet to grow tired of needle jokes, flaxseed references, or questions about a hat size suited for a watermelon.
Bonds is poised to join innumerable former stars on the field who have later come back to serve as coaches, executives, broadcasters, or managers. That’s always been a part of baseball, with guys who have “Been There” imparting their wisdom and knowledge to new generations while serving in various capacities off the diamond. Now that players of the Steroid Era have largely exited the playing stage of their careers, it’s fair to ask if we can, or should, welcome them back like we did with players of previous generations.
Jason Giambi signed a monster deal with the New York Yankees in 2001 after several years as the power-hitting leader of the Oakland A’s. Bay Area fans felt betrayed, and then two years later it was the Yankees fans’ turn to hate him when he was outed as a chronic user of PED’s. Injuries that were rumored to stem from his steroid use sapped his power while he was collecting huge paychecks. He was a cheater who no longer excelled now that he was making the big bucks, and the fans did not let him forget it.
Giambi returned to Oakland when his contract expired in New York and then spent two seasons each in Colorado and Cleveland. It was in those years that he evolved into a respected elder statesman, and very nearly got hired by the Rockies to be their manager in 2012 even though he still had two years to go as a player. By the time he got to Cleveland in 2013, he was there less for his bat than for his role as a mentor to younger players. It was a far cry from his days in the Bronx when he apologized, but couldn’t say what he was apologizing for due to legal or other practical reasons. Giambi retired before the 2015 season and has only been away from the game for a year, but it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he comes back as a coach or manager. He had his (PED-influenced) highs and hit incredible lows during his long career, and it all adds up to a valuable wellspring of knowledge that he could pass along to younger players.
Matt Williams was a great power hitter in his day and might have broken Roger Maris’s home run record in 1994 if not for the catastrophic strike that ended the season that year. He was exposed as a steroid user a few years after his career ended in 2003, but in 2010 he was hired as a coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks before moving on to manage the Washington Nationals. He had incredibly mixed results there, winning the Manager of the Year award in 2014 before getting run out of town for mismanaging the team the following season. He’s back in Phoenix now, working his old job coaching third base for the Diamondbacks. If he never gets another managerial job, it would be due to the way he flamed out with the Nationals and not because of any steroid use in his playing days.
The list goes on. Mark McGwire came back after seven years from the game to be the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, at which point he came fully clean about his steroid use while hitting record numbers of home runs. No one was surprised, the Earth kept spinning on its axis, and the Cardinals kept winning ballgames.
Manny Ramirez, whose career never resumed after his second PED suspension in 2011, is now a batting consultant for the Chicago Cubs and (publicly, at least) is highly regarded by General Manager Theo Epstein. Brady Anderson, whose name still elicits smirks two decades after hitting fifty home runs in a season despite never hitting more than twenty-four in any other season, is now a high-level front-office executive for the Baltimore Orioles. He has never been formally linked to steroid use, but people have their suspicions.
A special case, as always, is Alex Rodriguez. He’s still an active player and we all know his deal, highlighted – or lowlighted – by being suspended for the entire 2014 season. As a longtime Yankee fan, I was furious when the team traded Alfonso Soriano for him, and then went nearly blind with rage when they bid against themselves to give him even more money when he exercised the opt-out part of his contract in 2007. When I was at Yankee Stadium this past season, I even sat on my hands in grim silence when he blasted a home run that tied the game. Then A-Rod appeared as a TV analyst on Fox during the World Series and you know what? I was impressed.
A-Rod the Player aggravated me to no end with his preening, cheating and lying, but I found myself actually enjoying A-Rod the Analyst. His entire playing career might have been an elaborate fraud, and he was punished for it with a suspension and much condemnation in the court of public opinion. I had no beef with him as an analyst, though. He was smart and informed and his presence improved the broadcast, and he might well end up as a well-respected broadcaster when his playing days come to an end.
These players all experienced amazing highs on the field and were then brought low because they were caught cheating during their careers or were strongly suspected of doing so. The steroid consequences, positive and negative, made their careers different from those of the many players who came before, but it doesn’t disqualify them from being able to teach others how to play the game. Sure, we can joke about how Coach Barry Bonds would get the best PED’s or how Mark McGwire could slip a little something-something to a batter who’s slumping.
Those guys have earned the mockery. It’s part of their baseball identities now, but it doesn’t mean they’re not entitled to pass on their knowledge and serve the game they love in new capacities. These guys paid their dues as players, then suffered the consequences of real or perceived cheating – we haven’t even mentioned Hall of Fame voting here – and if they still want to hang around the game in non-playing capacities, they can. When I first heard about the possibility of Barry Bonds becoming a hitting coach, one of my initial reactions was to joke about Roger Clemens coming back as a pitching coach. He might or might not ever be wholly respected by fans or get enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but he’d probably be a terrific pitching coach. Steroids, as far as we currently know, don’t make you less knowledgeable about your craft.