On the John
A Frankenstein monster for our times
Originally completed August 8, 2007
Why, exactly, do we feel the way we do about Barry Bonds?
That was my question Saturday night as I watched Bonds stride to the plate in San Diego to lead off the 4th inning. Two innings prior, the most reviled man in sports had launched his 755th career home run into the left field stands at Petco Park. Fans near the ball struggled to secure it. His family cheered and hugged each other. Commissioner Bud Selig looked casually amused.
Now, two innings later, the fans at Petco were abuzz with…what, exactly? Many booed, and yet many of those same fans held up their phones in hopes of capturing a photo of the record-breaking blast. Fans across the country have expressed their distaste for Bonds and his chase of Hank Aaron. And yet, in the three seasons following Bonds’ record-molesting 2001, the Giants finished 5th, 3rd, and 3rd in road attendance percentage. In 2005, when Bonds played in only 14 games due to injury, that ranking dropped to 14th. And this season, despite being in last place and fielding arguably their worst team in over ten years, a healthy Bonds and his San Francisco Giants trail only the Red Sox (1st in AL East), Mets (1st in NL East), and Yankees (Yankees) in road attendance.
Clearly people are interested in this guy.
And why not? He’s really, really good at baseball. Strip away the steroids—allegations or otherwise—and the less-than-less-than-friendly attitude towards fans and the media, and what we’re left with is the preeminent ball player of our time. Among the great sluggers of his era, Bonds is the best. Better than Griffey, Thomas, Sosa, McGwire, Palmeiro, Ramirez, Gonzalez, or Belle. Among all ball players of his era, his status in the game’s history will be rivaled by only three: Clemens, Maddux, and Alex Rodriguez. And among all sports stars of his era, he is with Gretzky, Tiger, Magic, Bird, and Shaq, a select group of athletes who trail only Jordan in Bigness.
And let’s not forget: of those six, Bonds is the only one with more detractors than fans.
That is very significant when trying to understand the current climate that surrounds Bonds.
What a fascinating character this man is! He is, to approximate the famous words of Ice Cube, The Ballplayer Ya Love to Hate. Ain’t that the truth. And yet…why? Why is Barry Bonds so disliked?
Well for starters, his outward demeanor has always been one of skepticism, superiority, and general annoyance towards the majority of the people interested in him and his deeds. And I suppose we’ve all taken that to mean that Barry Bonds is a mean, cold-hearted human. This may well be true. Or it may be that Bonds has always felt it necessary to be cold towards strangers or anyone whom he believes does not have his best interests at heart.
It is that cold, cocky demeanor that is at the root of the Bonds hate-fest. The steroids backlash has always been secondary. I do not believe for one moment that the majority of people who have taken up against Bonds and his chase do so purely for moral or ethical reasons. Most do it because…
…the home run is the most awe-inspiring act in sports, thus making the home run record the most sacred record in sports. “And now this cheater/jerk is going to break the record…”
…they’ve never really liked Bonds, whose public persona has not changed much during his career (the famous Sports Illustrated cover headline I’M BARRY BONDS AND YOU’RE NOT is already 14 years old), but because he had never done anything criminal or immoral on or off the field, fans had to bite their collective tongues. Many disliked Bonds, but it was always at more of a Roger Clemens level. (Imagine if Clemens had been pegged in a BALCO-type scandal two years ago, and was now approaching the career strikeouts record…) Now, the baseball fans who never liked Bonds to begin with have an excuse to go after him.
The sanctity of the home run record and Bonds’ outward demeanor and persona: those are the two biggest reasons why we have been so quick to turn on Bonds. For comparison, consider Mark McGwire, the other top tier slugger of the steroids era. Why didn’t we turn against Mac as we did against the Giants’ slugger?
First off, McGwire was never a serious challenger to Aaron’s record, nor was he an active player during the steroid controversy. His legend flamed up fast and burned out in a flash. In 1997, he was a terrific ball player with only 387 career home runs to his name. Two years later he held the single season home run record, was 10th all-time with 522, and had become an iconic figure in American sports. Two years later his career was over. By the time the senate hearings began in March of 2005, Big Mac had been out of baseball for three seasons; he seemed more like a guy being dragged back into something he was done with than an active participant.
Secondly, McGwire was a well-liked player. He was a fan-favorite around the country. His 70 home run season was cause for national celebration. He was like a g-rated Babe Ruth for the new millennium, and so when he fell he received not our wrath, but our pity. “What a poor, sad old man…”
Now certainly there are some who simply oppose Bonds because they view steroid use as cheating and an affront to sports ethics. But there is no denying that the fan and media negativity towards Bonds has been more aggressive and angry than it would have been if, say, Bonds had McGwire’s image.
There is another famous athlete who comes to mind when examining the Bonds Response, and that is Michael Jordan. When Jordan was winning titles for the Bulls year after year and giving Chicago international recognition, there was nothing he could do that would alter his fans’ opinion of him. Bonds is constantly referred to as a bad teammate; he is said to be selfish and rude, and he demands special treatment due to his superstar stature and on-field performance. Jordan’s legacy as a teammate is as the consummate “guy who makes everyone around him better” guy, and on the court there is no debate. But was he a great teammate? A guy who got into fist fights during practice? A guy who constantly teased the team’s GM for being fat, oafish, and uncool? A guy notorious for hazing struggling players? Can you imagine being hazed and yelled at and cursed out by the most famous man on the planet? Nothing ever hurt Jordan’s image. Not the scathing anecdotes in The Jordan Rules, nor his gambling controversy in 1993, nor his push-off on Bryon Russell in Game 6.
Even now, his playing days over, his image is still unbreakable. More than any other athlete, Jordan’s relationship with his family has always been integral to his persona and marketability. We knew his parents, his brother, his wife, and his children. And yet in late December 2006, when we heard that Michael and Juanita Jordan were filing for divorce after 19 years of somewhat iconic marriage, and when we heard that a large catalyst for the divorce was the fallout from M. Jeff’s long-time affair with a woman who claimed to be the mother of his child (which turned out to be false)…well, when we heard all of that, did we care? Of course not. We hardly even took notice.
Now look at Bonds. What do we know about him? What do we really know? We know that he is a “jerk,” and yet we also know that he has always been warm and appreciative towards his fans in San Francisco, the only group of strangers that adore him unconditionally like Chicago (and much of the country) adores Michael. He has always seemed to genuinely cherish his time spent with his children. And as for his teammates, I have heard as many guys praise Bonds as have slammed him. His best-known teammate fight was with Jeff Kent, a notorious ball-buster himself.
So if Bonds is a jerk, he is a jerk mostly to us, the vast number of baseball fans who do not know him or love him and are thus more prone to turn on him at the first sign of a flaw or mistake. And so all we can really say about him is that he is very, very wary of strangers. And if a jillion strangers knew my name and face and had an opinion of me, and if that opinion was formed primarily from the words of another large group of strangers whose job it was to make judgments of me, I would probably be very, very wary of strangers as well.
So Bonds fears stranger danger. What else do we know? We know that before 1999 he was on the short list of the greatest outfielders in Major League history. We know that after 1999 he became INSANELY better at hitting, evolving from among the game’s greatest outfielders to simply among the game’s greatest.
We also know that Bonds has been heavily suggested in the current steroid controversy. We know the effects performance-enhancing drugs can have on a ballplayer, and based on an honest evaluation of Bonds’ performance from 2000 through 2004, we probably know that Bonds used some kind of performance-enhancing drug at some point, one that to some degree enhanced his performance.
But we also know that performance-enhancing drugs were legal in MLB until 2003. And we know that Bonds has never failed a drug test. And even if he did fail a drug test, we still would not know the exact portions of Bonds’ performance that the drugs enhanced or when or for how long Bonds was taking them.
And so perhaps—just perhaps—Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs while they were legal, and then stopped using them once baseball made them illegal and he came under suspicion in the BALCO case.
That scenario is entirely plausible and makes as much sense as anything else, and so we have to ask: what are we really mad about, and with whom?
At its core, this entire national discussion about steroids is, sadly, only about one thing: the MLB career home run record. Looking ahead, it is easy to understand why so many fans shiver at the prospect of Bonds holding such a sacred record: they do not want to raise their children in a world where a steroid-using jerk-face like Bonds sits atop Hank Aaron. But a record is just that: a record of what happened at a certain time in history. And when we talk about the records, we tell the stories that come with them. The telling of Pete Rose’s hits record will always lead into the story of his gambling and ban from baseball. That is Rose’s story. Aaron’s record is the story of American racism, of one man’s struggle to overcome hate. Ruth’s record is the story of a sports icon and legend who out-homered entire teams.
And when our children ask us which ball player has hit the most home runs in the whole wide world, we will ignore Sadaharu Oh and say: “Barry Bonds.” And then we will tell our children how Bonds was a great player who probably took steroids in an effort to gain every possible competitive edge, and we will tell them that Bud Selig allowed steroids to affect his league until 2003, and we will tell them that Bonds is one of a number of players who sullied the game, or who cheated, or who bent the rules, or who took advantage of stupid rules, or whatever else it is we may wish to tell them. And they will burp, and say “oh,” and run off to play with their toys, and we will realize that our kids don’t really care at all that they live in a world in which a steroid-using jerk-face like Barry Bonds is the career home run record holder. They just wanted to know, because they are kids, and kids are curious.
As for us, I feel that if we are going to unleash our collective extreme distaste on a stranger, it should be a stranger more worthy of that distaste, like a corrupt politician or a corrupt school superintendent or even a corrupt librarian or something. Loathing Bonds to the point of booing him simply for picking up a bat is rather silly, considering that we are greatly responsible for creating the sports climate that lead to athletes’ desire to use steroids.
Barry Bonds is responsible for his own actions and decisions. That much is clear. But it would be foolish to focus all of our frustration and anger solely on Bonds while ignoring the many other circumstances that led to his behavior. And it is silly to have such a strong personal dislike for a person whom we do not know. The public’s strong negative feelings towards Bonds as a person are as misplaced and misguided as are their strong positive feelings towards Jordan. We do not know either man, and certainly cannot make a reasonable character judgment within the confines of massive celebrity.
So yes, Bonds should be held accountable for his decisions, and yet when I listen to fans and commentators as they discuss him with scorching words and thoughts, I often feel as if Bonds is the monster in a monster movie, a home run-hitting Hannibal Lector perhaps. Or better still, he is Frankenstein’s monster, which makes us Dr. Frankenstein, his naïve creator, a man who at story’s end leads a lynch mob in hopes of destroying the now-dangerous and frighteningly powerful beast that he created. Yes, yes. That sounds about right.
Copyright 2007, jm silverstein
Bonds and Steroids, PART I, 09-21-05
Bonds and Steroids, PART II, 04-05-06
Bonds and Steroids, PART III, 05-08-06
Bonds and Steroids, PART IV, 06-10-07