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Manufacturing a Villain

Sports Illustrated’s Vilification of Barry Bonds

by CHARLES MODIANO

It was a vintage picture of Hammerin’ Hank Aaron. No, this wasn’t the aging 1970′s Atlanta version in that indefensible god-awful uniform. This was the lean-mean Milwaukee version in the authentic gray flannel which you wish today’s players still wore. The shot was simply classic. Hank was standing in the batter’s box with hands clutching the end of bat, his no ear-flap helmet was OVER the cap creating that cool "double-bill" look, and he exerted laser-like focus as he was undoubtedly ready to tear the ensuing pitch into the left-center outfield gap in the worst case scenario. So when I pulled that cover picture of Sports Illustrated (SI) out of my mailbox this past week, a big smile spread across this baseball history fan’s face. Barry Bonds ascent to 755 would be a reason to pay homage to a former great just the way it oughtta be.

And then I read the cover’s title ("The Heart of 755") and became a bit suspicious. Then I read the author’s name below it (Tom Verducci [1]) and became downright skeptical. And then I immediately opened to the story to see the article’s title ("The People’s King") and any remaining doubts were removed. Oh, here we go again. This was not going to be a well-deserved Aaron tribute based on the merits of his career; it was yet another Sports Illustrated anti-Bonds article. And this time SI used the great Aaron as the latest vehicle to bash big bad Barry. And SI, which on the surface was attempting to hail Hank, actually cheapened his legend in the process. As I read on, it became clear: Hank was reduced to a mere device a tool a prop a ploy Such disingenuous usage of Aaron’s legacy in mainstream media has already been pointed out by others including these two fine pieces on Slate and on The Starting Five. But what distinguishes Sports Illustrated from other media sources is that this is part of a long series of Bonds-biased coverage that goes back at least 15 years! That’s right. Before the allegations of "performance enhancing drugs", before BALCO laboratory raids, and long before elaborate government investigations chose to target a man who makes his living hitting a ball of string with a piece of wood, Sports Illustrated most definitely had it in for Barry Bonds.

The Sports Illustrated Cover Significance: If a fresh-off-the-spaceship alien requested a crash course on the last 50 years of American sports, you would surely begin with a review of the covers of Sports Illustrated. SI covers chronicle our greatest sports times, events, moments, history, teams, and individual player achievements. When it comes to SI, you CAN judge a book, or magazine, by its cover. Only a handful of American athletes in the last 50 years have rose to a level of historic greatness that puts a GULF between themselves and the next best athlete in their respective sport. They are Michael Jordan (40+ covers), Muhammad Ali (30+ covers), Jack Nicklaus (20 covers), Tiger Woods (19 covers), Wayne Gretzky (12 covers) and then, Barry Bonds (3 covers pre-PED allegations; 4 covers post-PED allegations) [2].


A) THE SKINNY BARRY YEARS (1990s)

SI Cover Debut: The Sporting News named Barry Bonds Major League Baseball’s "Player of the Decade" for the 1990′s. Bonds won three MVPs in landslide votes, was also robbed of the trophy in 1991 [3]; won eight gold gloves; and in 1996 became only the 3rd player in MLB history to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season. During this time Bonds landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated just two times. The first cover on May 4, 1992 read: "Bonds Away!" The article itself was about the Pirates and only really devoted the following to Barry: "Leftfielder Barry Bonds continues to go long, like an Oscar acceptance speech, seemingly every time he steps to the plate". Not impressed? Well, you should be. With 20/20 hindsight this would be one of the best Bonds cover story articles that SI would ever print.

A Villain is Born: One year later, and just three weeks after SI published its cover story, "Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?", it unwittingly found his modern day version by turning its lonely eyes and pens to a well-written but unflattering cover story: "Im Barry Bonds and You’re Not". Just like Joe D., Bonds in 1993 was a "five-tool" player without weakness; had a flawless swing; was a picture of grace in the field; and could be a major-league jerk off of it (contrary to popular Dimaggio myth-making). The article did not question his superb skills, preparation, and dedication to the game as Bonds was in the midst of his then-finest season (46 HR, 123 RBI, .336, Gold Glove, & 103 team victories). One of the multiple quotes describing Bonds’ excellence comes from teammate Royce Clayton: "I’ve never seen anyone like him … Barry is like Magic Johnson-he makes everyone around him better". Clayton was undoubtedly referring to other players not sportswriters. The article’s author, Richard Hoffer, was more interested in discussing the "complaining", "rudeness", and "insensitivity" of Bonds. In the article, Hoffer reveals what may be Bonds most egregious crime:

"A writer might spend the first three days just trying to establish the possibility of an interview. Bonds might fail to look up or register any recognition during conversations with the would be interviewer, might pick at imaginary scabs on his arm and repeat "Whatever, dude" over and over. The next phase might be a series of decreasingly vague promises by Bonds as he warms to the idea of the interview. This part of the process also includes actual recognition of the interviewer. The third, most tantalizing phase includes specific appointments, at first broken and later delayed. Day Seven: Aw, dude! I forgot about stretching!" on Day eight Bonds finally sits down, as he promised so long ago."

Hey, do you think that Hoffer might have been one of those "would be interviewers"? The author’s commentary not only tells us about Bonds’ poor treatment of the press, but also sheds light on some of the reasons behind Sports Illustrated’s COVERage of Bonds for the following 15 years. In the article Hoffer also states:

"And then, of all the people he might have chosen to present his second MVP award-his father, his manager-he chose Mays and singer Michael Bolton. It was an odd scene at Candlestick Park before this year’s home opener: Mays handed the trophy to Bolton, who handed it to Bonds. What was wrong with this picture? It was as if Bonds, who had met Bolton when he played in one of the singer’s charity softball games, were saying that his personality could no longer be contained by baseball. He would henceforth like to be identified with entertainment supernovas. Obviously, Bonds doesn’t fight fame with all his heart."

Hoffer’s most interesting psychoanalysis sees the Bolton invitation as Bonds subconsciously desiring fame all the while he disingenuously claims that he is running away from it or something like that. But how about THIS potential explanation: Michael Bolton invited Bonds to a charity game. Bonds graciously accepted. Who knows, maybe, just maybe, the given charity had special meaning to Bonds. He became friends with Bolton or at least admired his singing enough to show his appreciation through the gesture of the trophy ceremony. Many folks might interpret these actions as two separate good deeds on the part of Bonds. But cynical reporters who get routinely blown off see the glass differently and often report that glass differently. Potential good deeds now become character flaws. Bonds maltreatment of intrusive reporters now becomes the story of how Bonds treats EVERYBODY. And any story that confirms this will be sought out, while stories that contradict this will be ignored for the next 15 years.

Finally, if the first passage reveals Bonds’ overall disdain for the press, then the second one might tell us WHY Bonds or any athlete might have that very disdain. Moral of story: Bonds is certainly no angel, but neither are the writers that cover him. The difference is that Bonds at least dedicated himself to his own craft. Or as Hoffer begrudgingly conceded: "He prepares well (whatever you do, don’t ever try to talk to him before a game), and he plays hard. He does not let the game down." Now in a perfect world such commitment to both the game AND pre-game interviews would be quite lovely. But if forced to choose between a fully-prepared-but-petulant Bonds, or a jovial-but-allergic-to-a-treadmill Tony Gwynn who sacrificed the end of his career­ and a potential run at 4000 hits­ in favor of double-interviews and double-cheeseburgers this sports fan is choosing Bonds any day of the week. Nice guys are a dime a dozen, but dedicated baseball genius ala Barry is a once in a lifetime proposition. The reality is that by 1993, Bonds blew off one too many less-dedicated Sports Illustrated reporters and he would pay dearly for it. "The player of the ’90′s" would not grace another SI cover for the rest of the decade.


B) The BIG BARRY YEARS (2000-2003: Still Pre-BALCO Raid):

Although a very serious stretch, one might explain away the 1990′s Bonds SI treatment as just one of those cover quirks[4]. However, such an explanation could not begin to explain the next phase of the SI cover "freeze-out" as anything other than indefensible anti-Bonds bias. Shockingly, the best baseball ever witnessed in the history of the game [5] only garnered one single obligatory cover [6]over the course of four years. That was back in 2001 as Bonds approached the single-season HR record. But forget 2001, even his arguably superior regular season of 2002 [all-time record .582 OBP] was not enough to do it. Furthermore, in 2002, Barry Bonds also had perhaps the greatest individual POST-SEASON performance in, please excuse the redundancy, the history of the game. It included EIGHT total post-season home runs and a World Series 7-game on-base percentage of .700 (no, scout’s honor, that is not a misprint). Sorry Barry, your team lost that 7th game. Try harder next time. At least Babe Ruth knew how to pitch!

C) Sports Illustrated COVERage Recap (1990 ­ 2003: Pre-BALCO Raid Years)

Barry Bonds, the greatest player of his generation and, arguably, of all time, lands on three Sports Illustrated covers.

During this same time span at least 10 other baseball players land on MORE covers of SI [7]. This list includes Mickey Mantle and, most ironically[8], Ted Williams both of whom retired in the 1960′s!

Of Bonds two 1990′s SI cover stories, the "good cover" (1992) contains one sentence on Bonds. The "bad cover" (1993) contains nine pages mostly dedicated to how "Barry can be aloof".

Bonds is granted his third cover in 2001 for breaking the single season home run record set three years earlier by Mark McGwire. In 1998, SI devoted five separate cover stories to McGwire including this really cute and cuddly one giving noogies (sp?) to his son.

By securing that one cover during his historic 2000-2003 run, Bonds joined that year’s elite SI company of Bret Boone and Matt Lawton.

All of this documented SI COVERage on Bonds was BEFORE any BALCO-laboratories raid ever existed.

Since 2004, SI has posted FOUR cover stories in which steroid allegations are the central theme.

Final Bonds SI Cover Tally through July 2007: 22 years in league = 2 Positive Stories, 4 negative ones, 1 balanced[9].

DON’T EVEN TRY IT!: While the pre-BALCO Bonds was destroying baseball’s record books from 2000-2003 players gaining more SI covers during that span included Roger Clemens and Jason Giambi. These individuals are notable since the former has since been confronted with steroids allegations and the latter has since been proven. Any claim from Sports Illustrated that they froze out Bonds because they suspected his use of performance enhancing drugs would simply fall flat in the face of these and other blatant contradictions (the 1990′s in general and Mark McGwire in particular).

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: No, not "performance enhancing drugs" (PEDs), this "Part 1< article is about PRE-PED allegations. The OTHER elephant: RACE. While race has surely played a role in how mainstream media covers Bonds and other African American athletes, Cosellout simply lacks adequate information to make such a specific claim about SI despite reasons for pause [10]. While not accusing nor dismissing the possible influence of race as factor, this article focuses on SI’s failed obligation to remain objective in the face of an unpleasant personality. A commonly heard refrain is that "Bonds doesn’t get treated bad by media because he is black, but because he is a jerk". While a very strong argument can be made that "black jerks" receive far greater scrutiny and attention than "white jerks", this false-choice statement assumes that biased journalism is still somehow acceptable if reporters don’t like the athletes they cover. Journalists, like doctors, police officers, teachers, and athletes have a responsibility to do their job without personal bias. If a player wouldn’t play hard for their coach because they disliked them, fans would exert outrage. Well, SI clearly "plays when it wants to play" and fans should not accept this from Randy Moss or Sports Illustrated. Bonds has been baseball royalty, but treated like a pawn. The only difference between Mozart (a well-documented jerk) and Bonds (pre-allegations) is that Wolfgang’s symphonies could be heard unfiltered, straight from the CD, and with no sportswriter chaser.

CONCLUSION: SI’s COVERage of Bonds has been personal in nature for a very long time. Perhaps, Barry told one too many SI writers to "get lost", "go away", or "beat it". Or maybe he didn’t put a "please" before his sentence, a "thank you" afterwards, or say "pretty please with sugar on top". Or possibly, he neither felt nor expressed enough "gratitude" for being able to earn millions playing a kid’s game or the adequate appreciation to garner the daily attention of an older, wiser, and whiter sports journalistic community. While it is hard to say for sure, one thing is definitely clear: For more than 15 years, Sports Illustrated has cheated the institution of journalism and its readers long before any accusations surfaced of Barry Bonds cheating the game of baseball and its fans. Because of petty grudges, it has substituted objections for objectivity, "payback" for professionalism, and retaliation for responsible reporting. Its treatment of Bonds is akin to the Oscars committee not nominating "The Godfather" for "Best Picture" because Marlon Brando blew off a couple of its committee members (which is well-documented by the way!).

SI talks about the game’s integrity, but has sacrificed its own long ago. Don’t be fooled by SI’s smoke and mirrors, by their disingenuous claims that their Bonds coverage is merely a response to BALCO allegations, or by their transparent pseudo-tributes to legends like Hank Aaron. Such claims should insult the intelligence of those fans who demand fairness in reporting. The truth is that when the offices of BALCO got raided in September 2003, it was exactly what Sports Illustrated desperately desired. Steroid allegations may have been bad news for Barry Bonds, baseball, and its fans, but it was a godsend for SI. Now they got their man! If proven true, SI could be absolved for 15 years of deliberately biased reporting. The BALCO evidence (which will be discussed in Part 2) and the "Game of Shadows" book were SI’s two tickets to moral paradise. So fair warning to all readers as you join SI on their self-righteous anti-Bonds beach: read with extreme caution or you just might get sunburned.

This Article is Part 1 of a 2 Part Series on SI’s COVERage of Barry Bonds: Part 2 will offer the author’s take on the Barry Bonds allegations, but more importantly SI’s Cover stories from 2004 to present including SI’s 2006 Game of Shadow’s book expose, senior writer Tom Verducci’s anti-Barry campaign, and that so often-cited "credible witness" named Kimberly Bell.

CHARLES MODIANO writes for the new sports media watch website COSELLOUT" and can be reached at: modi@cosellout.com."

 

[1] Let’s just state that Tom Verducci does not care for Barry Bonds (before or after allegations of performance enhancing drugs) and leave it at that for now. Verducci’s record will be reviewed in the upcoming Part 2 of this series.

[2] No football entries have been added as no one qualifies using the "GULF" criteria. And while Roger Federer’s tennis greatness has been unforgivably ignored by SI, this has a lot to do with SI’s unwillingness to cover foreign athletes.

[3] Pendleton won in a very close vote despite Bonds having 30 more RBIs, 33 more stolen bases, a .410 to .363 advantage in OBP, and a Gold Glove. Both teams also made the playoffs. This would not be the first time that sports writers exercised their power to punish Bonds. While a good argument can also be made for Bonds as MVP in 2000, unlike the Pendleton vote, it is still more than reasonable for writers to have awarded teammate Jeff Kent with that MVP. And while Bonds did win 7 MVPs, in not one of those years did Bonds have a close competitor.

[4] A skeptic might argue that in the ’90s: Bonds had no postseason success (see Derek Jeter); accurately state that baseball players generally get less cover attention than other sports, or that it usually takes HISTORIC seasons to guarantee an SI cover. While such an argument doesn’t seem probable, at the same time, it isn’t implausible.

[5] It is hard to overstate the on-field accomplishments of Barry Bonds from 2001 – 2004. It is not just the famous 73 home runs in 2001. Students of the game are even more mind-boggled by his all-time record .863 slugging percentage that same year; his all-time record .582 on-base percentage in 2002; and the fact that he broke that same record in 2004 aided by receiving 120 intentional walks. His greatest feat is the fact that no hitter in baseball history, not even Babe Ruth and we suspect Josh Gibson, was more respected, more avoided, and more feared by pitchers than Barry Bonds. With the possible exception of Wayne Gretzky there is no other athlete in team sports, not even Michael Jordan, who so completely mastered their craft like Barry Bonds.

[6] No, we do not count these tiny little token "inserts" at the very top of a page as making a cover. But for the record, this happened twice during this span.

[7] Besides Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, this list includes Roger Clemens, Cal Ripken, Derek Jeter, Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey, Jr., Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, and Alex Rodriguez.

[8] Ted Williams was also quite combattive with the media and punished for it in the form of MVP robberies. His story tells us that sports media may have ALWAYS been a collectively an unprofessional group exerting personal bias. His latter day media adulation also suggests that Bond’s media legacy 40 years from now may be much more favorable than it is right now.

[9] Only the last of the four ("Living with Barry") is written in a balanced fashion.

[10] The disparity in treatment of Bonds vs. Roger Clemens is a concern. Clemens, a surefire HOFer, has a history of steroid allegations, on-field misbehavior (see bat-throwing Piazza incidents), and yearly contract negotiations but has received relative kid-glove treatment from the press versus Bonds.