“If he did it, hang him!” This is what ESPN radio host John Seibel (filling in on the Dan Patrick show) said about Barry Bonds. Is Seibel oblivious that some may take offense to the image of a controversial Black athlete being lynched, or is this just red meat thrown to the worst impulses of his audience? It would be one thing if Seibel was the exception, but the media is in an orgiastic frenzy, lustily tearing Bonds apart and eating him alive. Sports Illustrated this week released excerpts of a new book Game of Shadows, which maps out in painstaking detail the copious steroids that Bonds has allegedly consumed. Prominent columnists are calling for his head on a spit. This is painfully predictable payback executed by a media that Bonds has skewered throughout his career. Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly, for example, said that he would like to talk to Bonds but “He would probably just tell me to cure cancer or something.”
I have always made my feelings clear on this issue and they are unchanged: Barry Bonds is the greatest baseball player since Babe Ruth. He is the only player in history to have 500 home runs and 500 stolen bases. He averaged a 30/30 (30 home runs and 30 stolen bases) for the entire decade of the 1990s, and he is the only player I’ve ever seen who can change the game with every swing. I also am partial to Bonds because I actually LIKE when he tells someone to “go cure cancer.” I like that he asked congress why they were talking about steroids when people still don’t have heat or clean water in New Orleans. Is it self-serving? Sure, but no more self-serving than the writers who sell papers by assessing the size of his body parts like he’s some sort of beast. As for whether or not he took steroids, I still believe in something that may seem quaint in Bush’s America called the presumption of innocence. But if it is actually proven that he took steroids, then I think its not Bonds that should be on trial – in the court of public opinion or elsewhere – but Major League Baseball.
Bonds is currently getting the Gen. Janis Karpinski treatment from the baseball war room. They want to stop the chain of command and make him the symbol of the baseball’s “juiced era” in the 1990s. Then, after Bonds is offered up as sacrifice, the game can move on. Sounds great, but its about as morally just as Rumsfeld still pulling a paycheck. Baseball doesn’t want the scrutiny of why they did nothing as players began to resemble Lou Ferrigno. They don’t want people to look at why steroids were pointedly not even a banned substance until 2003. They don’t want people looking at the Nike “chicks dig the long ball” ad campaigns, or how they used the Mark McGwire/ Sammy Sosa home run race to bring back fans after the 1994 lockout cancelled the World Series. They don’t want anyone to recall the X-men style cartoons they produced of freakishly muscled players to hype the game. They want this to stop with Barry Bonds.
Bonds is a perfect offering to sate the media and anti-Barry fans: he is reviled by the press, he is on the cusp of breaking baseball’s most hallowed home run records, and he is the most polarizing athlete of his generation. But there is an unforeseen problem with this approach: part of polarization is that people also rally to your defense. This process is already beginning. Roger Clemens has called the latest allegations part of a “witch hunt”. Hall of Fame Brooklyn Dodger Duke Snider said, “I think enough has already been said about this. Do you think it is any easier to hit a ball if you use the stuff?”
But perhaps the most stirring defense has come from Giant Hall of Famer Willie McCovey who said,
“He has never been tested positive. We’re supposed to live in a world where you’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty and he hasn’t been proven guilty of anything.”
McCovey also raised the idea that people who call for “hanging Bonds” summarily dismiss: that racism is an unspoken part of this discussion.
“Knowing what I have gone through in sports, there are always those little, you know, racial overtones,” said McCovey, who started his career in the Jim Crow south of the 1950s.
McCovey also pointed out the hypocrisy of how Mark McGwire, even after his sad congressional testimony, was viewed as a tragic figure, not an evil one like Bonds. “I don’t think it would be this big a deal if McGwire was still playing and was in the same shoes chasing that record,” he said. “I don’t think they would be spending all this time to dig all this dirt up on him. [Racism] is a thing that we have to live with that people don’t even realize.”
Even if the 1990s will go down in history as a time when better hitting was achieved through chemistry, that doesn’t excuse the current media attack. They are playing to people’s worst instincts and ideas. They are also being historically dishonest as they wax rhapsodic about baseball’s gauzy past. Anyone who thinks that Mickey Mantle had a big glass of milk before every at bat is kidding themselves. The 1980s was the era of cocaine. The 1960s was when “greenies” or amphetamines were passed around the clubhouse like M&Ms. The era before 1947 was a time when a significant part of the population was segregated out of the game.
Barry Bonds is not the villain in this particular drama. It,s Major League Baseball that needs to be held to account. If the media won’t do it, then fans are going to have to. If Barry Bonds comes to your city, stand and cheer for the greatest player in the game. Then gaze skyward and boo the owners. As guardians of the game, they have failed miserably. Don’t let Barry Bonds be their patsy.
DAVE ZIRIN’s new book “What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States” is published by Haymarket Books. Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.