“I think we have other issues in this country to worry about that are a lot more serious. Talk about the athletes that are helping Katrina victims….You know what? There are still other issues that are more important (than steroid use in baseball). Right now people are losing lives and don’t have homes. I think that’s a little more serious, a lot more serious.”
So said Barry Bonds in Washington DC last month, hours before crushing a home run in cavernous RFK stadium. The seven-time MVP was back in fighting form with his whipsaw bat and scabrous tongue after spending the season more hidden than Jimmy Hoffa. For those of us who love Barry Bonds, we do so precisely because he is so unlovable. He possesses more than intergalactic talent. He is one of a select few modern athletes with a fearless comfort telling uncomfortable truths. He is the Sean Penn of Major League Baseball, a Sean Penn in a Tom Hanks world.
Predictably, the anti-Bonds furies – surely Tom Hanks fans all – went to work immediately. Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press sniffed, “The man is a phony, believing that smacking a ball 450 feet gives him latitude to talk smack about his enemies — real or imagined. Bonds still doesn’t understand that he alone created the environment of distrust that engulfs him.”
David Whitley of the Orlando Sentinel wrote, “When he faces New York media, Bonds will say people should be more concerned about 9/11. In Pittsburgh, he’ll defer to the memory of the Johnstown Flood. By July, he’ll be traveling with Cindy Sheehan. If only Barry’s persecution complex allowed him to feel shame. He’s reached a state of denial previously occupied only by O.J. and Michael Jackson fans.” [Whitley’s lumping Bonds in with an accused murderer and child molester is actually tame compared to some of what is on the blogosphere which seems to have been ghostwritten by David Duke.]
But with every barb as the season winded down, Bonds seemed to grow in strength. He led the San Francisco Giants to an unlikely playoff run, putting heat on the pitiable San Diego Padres in the National League West. In a fourteen game stretch, the seven time National League MVP rolled out of bed to hit five home runs with a monstrous .670 slugging percentage. All on knees a team doctor described as “cartilage on bone.”
Bonds’s success was both startling and satisfying. Startling because you just aren’t supposed to slug .670 after not playing a whole year and being on the wrong side of 40. Satisfying because he looked terrific doing it. Many a dime-store pundit had gleefully predicted Barry would be a physical shadow of his former self. Since steroid testing kicked into full gear, several players came into spring looking like they spent the winter in a sauna. Bonds, they crowed, would show up resembling Jimmy “J.J.” Walker. Instead he came back even bigger, a happy roll of proud middle-aged flab coating his muscled frame. Bonds looks like he has spent this off-season spending far more time with olive oil than the flaxseed variety. He was smiling and talked openly about chasing down Babe Ruth’s magic 714 home runs early next season.
His state of mind seems miles from the Bonds six months ago who seemed on the verge of retirement when he said to reporters, “I’m tired of my kids crying… you wanted me to jump off a bridge, I finally did. You finally brought me and my family down… so go pick on a different person.” That Bonds was a defeated person, guilty before proven innocent. He was treated like anabolic carrion by a cadre of media vultures. The sports radio harpies, who know less about medicine than Dr. Pepper want Bonds buried. [I’m not saying steroids aren’t harmful. I just believe we need to stop treating “Mike and the Mad Dog” like they represent the American Medical Association.] This should be an affront to every fan in the game. They want to bury the only living player with 500 home runs and 500 stolen bases, a player who averaged a 30/30 for the entire decade of the ’90s; a player who has never failed a drug test; a player whose home town fans in the Bay have his back by the thousands; a player without peer. They want to bury him, but Bonds is proving to have more lives than Freddie Krueger. Now every spiteful reporter, congressional jock sniffer, and – it must be said – racist “fan” who doesn’t want to see the mean Black guy pass the Babe, gagged on his late season success.
The icing on the cake was the comment from Dave Marin, the spokesman for House Government Reform Committee chairman Tom Davis, who is leading the congressional steroid media circus. Marin heard Bonds’ comments and said, “It’s the type of response folks on Capitol Hill hear all the time from those who wish attention was focused on other things,” Actually, Mr. Marin, it’s the type of response that is desperately needed. It’s frankly criminal that your attention is not “on other things.” A government able to destroy and occupy other countries but unable or unwilling to repair levees should probably get their heads out of the damn sports pages. If there is any justice in the world. we will see George W. Bush under the congressional hot lights long before Barry Bonds.
DAVE ZIRIN’s new book “What’s My Name Fool, Sports and Resistance in the United States (Harmarket Books is now available. Email the author back at firstname.lastname@example.org.