My 10-year-old son: Isn't that Barry Bonds?
My 10-year-old son: Didn't he take drugs? Isn't he a cheater?
My 10-year-old son: Then why is everybody cheering for him?
Me: Because he...well...Hmm. Hold that thought...
Don Hooton, I need your advice.
Your 17-year-old son, Taylor, took steroids to become a bigger, better baseball player for Plano West High School in 2003 and wound up committing suicide. In his memory and the wake of the BALCO scandal, we're teaching our kids that steroids are illegal, dangerous and worse than bad. That cheaters never win and winners never cheat. Yet Barry Bonds took steroids, cheated, lied and is now the proud new owner of one of the most hallowed records in all of sports.
It's as though The Joker kicked Batman in the nuts, ripped off the caped crusader's mask and stole the Batmobile, all while ESPN's Pedro Gomez chronicled it as heroic, historic and, gulp, positive.
"With an event like this we're losing sight of the kids who look up to elite athletes," Hooton says. "I fear that until the controversy surrounding Barry is cleared up that they are getting the message it's OK to use performance-enhancing drugs. It's about education, and we're making progress. But the discussion should be centered more on Bonds' felony behavior, rather than simply whether or not an asterisk should be put beside his home run record."
Congratulations, Barry Bonds, you've hit more home runs than any player in baseball. And kudos, you're also the most dangerous, despicable role model in the history of sports.
Nice guys finish last. And in this screwed-up world, Bonds finishes first.
"What should have been a celebration of a historic moment in our national pastime is tainted by the widely held belief that Bonds' achievement was due to the illegal and unethical use of anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs," Taylor Hooton Foundation Chairman Gary Wadler said in a statement released after Bonds passed Hank Aaron with homer No. 756. "The message this so-called home run record sends to our youth will be tragic if they, in any way, are left with the notion that cheating counts."
Says Hooton, "Bonds is playing to a different jury. It's young people, young athletes who can't convict him, but can decide for themselves whether or not to pull out a syringe and be like their favorite big-leaguer. In the end, the only votes that will matter about Bonds will be cast by the kids."
By now, ad nauseam, you know Bonds' story. Entered the Major League in 1986 as a spindly lead-off hitter. Matured into a Hall of Fame player even before 1998, when his ego chafed at Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire grabbing the headlines during their epic home-run battle. So Bonds started juicing. He grew thick muscles and an enlarged cranium and went from 49 homers in 2000 to a single-season record 73 in 2001 at an age (36) when most athletes are well into decline.
Though his personal trainer (Greg Anderson) and business associate (BALCO founder Victor Conte) were convicted on steroid-related charges, the defiant Bonds swears—under oath, mind you—that he never knowingly took drugs. Flaxseed oil, he thought. Some kind of topical cream. Maybe he figured it was the next incarnation of Viagra, or perhaps a cure for his eternally surly disposition.
Yeah, right. And Michael Jackson hasn't had a nose job and Clinton didn't get blown by Monica Lewinsky and Jim Schutze sincerely misses Mayor Miller and steroids didn't kill Taylor Hooton.
He was a popular kid entering his senior year at Plano West. A student with a 3.8 GPA and a pitcher with an average fastball. He took steroids to increase his strength, but the associative psychological problems—violent mood swings and depression—pushed him to make a noose out of two belts and hang himself over his bedroom door on July 17, 2003.
"Four years and it's still like a bad dream," Hooton says.
The Hootons no longer hang Christmas lights because that was Taylor's job. They always hesitate for a reflective second before swigging orange soda, his favorite. But mostly, Don pours his time and energy and sorrow and passion into the foundation.
Despite the accolades misplaced atop Bonds' artificially enhanced head, slowly but surely Hooton's work is beginning to at least thaw Mount Steroid.
Hooton, who received a $1 million grant from Major League Baseball, has testified before Congress and presented programs to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the National High School Coaches Association. Though the NFL has declined to partner, football Hall of Famer Dick Butkus has signed on as a spokesman. And Hooton's "Hoot's Chalk Talks"—a series of youth clinics designed to solve the problem of performance-enhancing drug use through evaluation, education and elimination—recently made a stop at Dodger Stadium, hours before you-know-who took his fraudulent swings at history.
"Serendipitously positive," Hooton says of the delicious coincidence.
With Bonds' exploits, professional wrestler Chris Benoit's killing of his family and self, and the recent Tour de Farce cycling scandals, steroids are consistently wedged into our national dialogue. But even while slugger Jason Giambi apologizes for taking "that stuff" and commissioner Bud Selig salutes Bonds' record-breaking homer with hands in pockets, Hooton refuses to tap-dance.
"What's going on is graphic," he says. "It's needles and syringes with kids injecting themselves."
Hooton's isn't a one-man crusade against Bonds, but rather a lifelong mission to stop young athletes from following Taylor's destructive path. His legacy is looming. This fall Texas is expected to implement the nation's largest and most comprehensive steroid testing of high school athletes.
What the locally initiated Amber Alert has done for missing children, "Taylor's Law" will do for kids considering steroids.
"It's a sad commentary on our society, but for now punishment is the most important deterrent in preventing kids from making the decision to try this junk," Hooton says. "With a more reasonable chance of getting caught, we raise the chance they won't try it in the first place. It's a vital first step."
Hooton envisions a day when coaches willingly lecture their players about the dangers. When athletes rely on hard work rather than hard drugs. When America sees Bonds not as an American hero, but rather a steroid serpent disguised in a sweet swing.
My 10-year-old son: So, uh, Dad, why is everybody cheering Barry Bonds?
Me: Look around, son. Listen closer. I'm not. Your coaches aren't. Your friends aren't. Taylor Hooton isn't.