Barry Bonds should be basking in the moment. The San Francisco Giants outfielder has just passed Hank Aaron to become the all-time home-run king of Major League Baseball. With 756 home runs, seven most-valuable-player awards and eight gold gloves, he should be trotting into the twilight of his career in a hail of hosannas as the finest ballplayer of his generation. But expect no laurels, parades or calls from President Bush.
Like the gentleman in the White House, Bonds will leave baseball a polarized place with popularity charitably described as microscopic. Games away from the friendly confines of San Francisco have become celebrations of vitriol with fans screaming at pitchers to “throw at his head” and “end his career.” Death threats against his family and person have become commonplace. Sportswriters such as Jeff Pearlman for ESPN write articles with leads such as, “Barry Bonds is an evil man. A truly evil man.”
He has been turned into Barry bin Laden: The easy symbol for – altogether now – “everything that is wrong with sports.”
The question worth asking is why? Why is a pro athlete being treated as if he has committed crimes against humanity? The first answer given forth by even the casual sports fan is that “he is a cheater,” in their eyes, an obvious habitual user of steroids. Sports Illustrated, after selecting an all-time all-star team determined by “a panel of experts” excluded him from the squad because his statistics “are not to be believed.” (Their concern for the statistical integrity of Bonds career didn’t stop them from including players from before 1947 when the sport denied participation from anyone with dark skin.)
The problem with the argument that his numbers “are not to be believed” is that the man has never failed a drug test. Many players who have failed tests don’t garner anything close to the public flogging that Bonds endures.
But whether or not Bonds ever put anything anabolic in his body, there is something particularly disingenuous about putting an entire statistically dubious era on the shoulders of one man.
The “juicing of the game” is not a question of players with syringes in men’s room stalls, but an entire industry from owners, to trainers, to fans, to reporters, all turning a blind eye, if not aiding and abetting a process that saw baseball players begin to resemble pro wrestlers.
When New York Yankee Jason Giambi attempted to draw attention to this last month, saying, “What we should have done a long time ago was stand up – players, ownership, everybody – and said, ‘We made a mistake.’ ” The response from Major League Baseball was to announce that Giambi was going to be investigated.
As one player said to me, “It’s crazy that punishment is an individual issue, but distribution has always been a team issue.” They want to keep this a discussion about it being “an individual issue” and no player attracts more individual attention than Barry Bonds.
But steroids alone are not the reason Bonds carries this weight. He has throughout his 23-year career committed the ultimate sin in the eyes of the media, namely he isn’t friendly to the media. Bonds’ complete lack of interest in filling their notebooks, has made him their foil long before there were any questions about steroids.
There is no question Bonds isn’t the most cuddly of players, but once again he is hardly alone in this. When actors are less than press friendly – think Sean Penn – they are branded eccentric artists. But in athletics, if you don’t define yourself, you become defined. Barry Bonds has been defined as the enemy, with little regard to who the man is behind the definition.
All of this has created an open-season atmosphere at the ballpark.
Seeing the nightly sports highlights of majority white fans letting it all hang out against the most prominent African-American athlete in the sport, has led many to draw their own conclusions about the source of the anti-Bonds rage. According to an ESPN/ABC News poll released in May, African-American fans are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to want Bonds to break Aaron’s record of 755 homers (74 percent versus 28 percent) and nearly twice as likely to think that the slugger has been treated unfairly (46 percent versus 25 percent). Baseball, the national pastime, potentially a source for unity, has instead through Bonds, become yet another staging ground for the divisions that crisscross the land.
The shame of it all is that the sports world is so busy demonizing Bonds, it is missing out on a piece of sports history. In many ways we all are. There is an expression, “Trust the art not the artist.”
Barry Bonds is an artist with a bat in his hand. But it’s hard to concentrate on the art, with a gathering din in the background.