When a prominent athlete hits the front page these days, it’s usually a sordid tale involving murder and mayhem.
One athlete savagely dismembers his wife, another sullen footballer hires an amoral thug to murder a pregnant girlfriend, and on Super Bowl weekend in Atlanta, an NFL poster boy takes part in a bloody confrontation that leaves two dead.
It was very different when the San Francisco Chronicle featured baseball star Barry Bonds on their front page on June 1, 2001. But the only violence in this story was Barry Bonds bruising baseballs during his record-breaking barrage of home runs in the month of May.
Baseball was forever changed by the mighty Babe Ruth — from a bucolic game played on a cow field with a dead u201Cballu201D to a struggle dominated by the u201Chome runu201D — an American metaphor for success.
Bonds, in his sixteenth year in the major leagues as a superstar, was never identified as a home run slugger in the mold of the great Babe or modern bashers like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. In his early years, Bonds was a lithe figure, emphasizing speed and defensive skills.
When Bonds struck his 500th career home run earlier this season, the baseball establishment seemed surprised. How had this interloper entered the legendary domain inhabited by only seventeen baseball immortals? The event was well covered by the media, but Bonds membership in the exclusive 500-career home run club seemed more honorary than earned.
Then came the month of May — and Barry’s shower of home runs. Almost one per game. Unbelievable.
No longer the slender figure, Bonds, mature, solid, but clearly not shaped by steroids, has become a bona fide slugging home-run hitter. He is currently on pace to break all existing single-season records for homers.
Bonds is a baseball aristocrat. His father, Bobby Bonds, was a proven major leaguer with impact of his own upon the record book. It is also widely known that Willie Mays, whom baseball experts rate as one of the three best players ever, is Barry’s godfather.
While growing up, Barry might have had difficulty identifying with Mays, an icon from another time and place, but Mays’ accomplishments were part of Bonds’ family lore.
Barry attended Serra High, a fine Catholic school in San Mateo, a prosperous suburb in Northern California. Arizona State was selected for his college u201Ceducationu201D as the school had an outstanding baseball program with a pipeline to the big leagues.
Baseball, more than any other sport, has a reverence for statistics. During Bonds’ sixteen-year major league career, he has accumulated an impressive array of records and approaches many more. This tornado of statistics makes it impossible for the baseball establishment to deny him superstar status, although some writers consider him an intruder into hallowed territory.
What is it about Barry Bonds that the sports media cannot countenance?
What’s wrong with Barry?
If he were guilty of domestic violence or had succumbed to drugs, and then became contrite and begged forgiveness, would he be embraced by the media?
I don’t think so.
There is one sin the media can never forgive. One sin which drives them into an unrelenting crusade against the perpetrator. This is the sin committed by the star athlete who doesn’t like the media.
Barry learned early in his career how duplicitous the sports reporter could be. With a smile, Barry’s honest comments were solicited and then perverted. Barry would learn that some reporters were snakes and he suffered their venom repeatedly. It was self-defense for him to withdraw, become defensive and aloof.
In one instance, some years ago at Candlestick Park, he hit a soft fly ball along the left field foul line. Barry guessed that the ball would fall untouched in foul territory and did not u201Chustleu201D by running it out. When the ball fell fair, some fans booed. In an interview about the incident, Bonds explained that after years of wear and tear, he has learned to ration his energies to avoid injuries, thereby extending his career.
Barry’s response was perfectly plausible, but by the time the story was recycled, he emerged as lackadaisical and disinterested.
Even ESPN baseball expert Peter Gammons shocked a tv baseball panel when he compared Bonds to the legendary Ted Williams, the greatest hitter of all time. The other sports panelists seemed offended with Gammon’s assessment, and poor Peter backed off his observation by pointing out that what Bonds shared with Williams was their mutual dislike of the media and vice versa.
I fear this deep-rooted dislike of Bonds will endure whatever his final baseball accomplishments. It’s possible, I suppose, that Barry will acquire theatrical grace and be transformed into a media darling. After all, Mark McGwire converted from a surly, unresponsive interview, to a lovable American hulk while pursuing his remarkable 70- home run year.
Will this happen to Barry? I don’t think so.
The criticisms of Bond continue like a mantra: Barry is not a team player, they say. He never performs well under the pressure of post-season play. He doesn’t exhibit the fervor of a Pete Rose, for example. And finally, that Bonds’ home-run accomplishments are due to the era of the u201Cjuicedu201D baseball.
Phew. Where do I begin refuting these phony allegations?
It is true that Bonds is a reserved fellow and not a chum to his teammates. But in the manner in which he plays the game he is the consummate team professional and earns respect, particularly from young players. Bonds stays in excellent physical condition, and now at age 37, works harder at it than ever before.
He leads by example and is acknowledged as one of the all time great defensive players. He is a consistent Golden Glover, a rare quality for a home-run slugger.
As to Barry’s disappointing post-season statistics, it is interesting that Willie Mays’s World Series performances are almost identical to Barry’s, yet where is the criticism of Mays? This is additional evidence of the media bias against Barry.
Regarding Bonds’s attitude, in his sixteen-year history, it is well known he often plays u201Churt.u201D Never before has a slugging superstar stolen 500 bases, risking injury on every hard contact with the ground while at the same time dodging the spikes of enemy infielders. Another rare quality for a home run slugger.
Over sixteen seasons Barry played an average of almost 150 games per year. Even in the year 2000 when he underwent major arm surgery, he amazed the doctors with his recovery, playing the last third of the Giants championship season.
The u201Cjuicedu201D baseball charge is ridiculous. Sure, there’s lots of homers hit these days, but Bonds struck his in the difficult home field confines of Candlestick Park. The new Pac Bell Park may also prove to be more favorable to pitchers. Even Barry’s harshest critic would acknowledge that he would have collected over 600 career home runs by now had he played his home games in any other major league park.
The fans either love him or hate him, but nobody goes to the john or the fridge when Barry Bonds is due up. At the ball park business stops at the concession stands when Barry is at bat. He remains the most dangerous hitter in baseball.
Barry, I’m rooting for you to hit 71 home runs this year, although everybody knows how impossible a goal that could be.
Most important, don’t let the media creeps get under your skin. You are true baseball royalty, and they are unworthy slugs.