In Defense of Barry Bonds
Over the last few months, writer Joe Posnanski has been counting down his Top 100 baseball players of all-time at The Athletic. Last week, he named Giants legend Barry Bonds at No. 3.
Barry Bonds could be a jerk, yes. But, like all of us, he is not monochromatic. He is complicated. In naming Bonds the third best player of all-time, The Athletic’s Joe Posnanski discussed Bonds’ reputation for being a jerk in the locker room. Posnanski writes the following:
*This personal thing must be said here: Barry Bonds was always nice to me. There was no apparent reason for it. He didn’t know me. He hadn’t read me. I feel sure he couldn’t have come up with my name if he was spotted all the letters except the “J.” But every time I needed to talk to him, probably a half-dozen times before 1998, a few times after, he was always accommodating, thoughtful — and could this be? — friendly. It was the strangest thing. It was like I reminded him of a childhood friend or something.
When I told other writers and people around baseball about this, they shook their heads and promptly told me their own Bonds horror stories. I kept waiting for mine. It hasn’t come yet. Maybe it will. But it would not be right or fair for me to discuss Bonds’ well-known media hatred without saying that he could be, when he wanted, an engaging, insightful and pleasant interview. He has a lot of charm. He dispenses it sparingly.
There are certainly times that all of us acted in a way we wouldn’t want written about; there are times we’ve been rude or mean or lashed out because we were hurt, and it doesn’t get played on loop, or written about 25 years later in an article discussing what a jerk you were when you were barely an adult. But from everything I’ve read about Bonds, he was not only a jerk. He was not a movie villain, hell-bent on ruining the day of everyone around him, every single day. As Posnanski says, he in fact could be polite and charming. That doesn’t excuse the times he was rude, or a jerk — but it must be said.
I think what makes me sad about Barry Bonds is that the people who do not like him dismiss that he seems to clearly suffer from deep insecurities stemming from a childhood and a life spent chasing the affection of a father who would not show it. As Posnanski puts it, Bonds wanted to be the greatest baseball player who ever lived. What Posnanski leaves unsaid is that Bonds felt that becoming the greatest baseball player who ever lived was the way to receive the love and admiration of his father, and of everyone else. And he never got it. He was deeply sensitive as a result. As his college coach put it:
“He wanted to be liked, tried so damn hard to have people like him,” Brock told Sports Illustrated. “Tried too hard. But then he’d say things he didn’t mean, wild statements. I tried to tell him that these guys, 20 years from now, would be electricians and plumbers, but he’d be making millions. … Still he’d be hurt. People don’t realize that he can be hurt — and is, fairly often.”
Bonds was an incredible baseball player before steroids, and for many his numbers after 1998 are tainted. But the tragedy is that The tragedy of Bonds, though, is that for some his numbers before 1998 are tainted, because the steroids taint his integrity. I think that’s deeply unfair. It’s been written before, but Posnanski puts Bonds’ steroid use into the proper context of the time:
Then came 1998. Barry Bonds had an incredible year in 1998. I mean, no, it wasn’t incredible for him, but it was still so remarkable. He hit .303/.438/.609 with 44 doubles, seven triples, 37 homers, 120 runs scored and 122 RBIs. He won his eighth Gold Glove. He led the league in WAR for the seventh time. It was his seventh straight season with a 1.000 OPS.
And that year, he became the first player in baseball history to hit 400 home runs and steal 400 bases in a career. He was the player of his generation.
It should have been the year of Barry, one celebrated by all. It was, to say the least, not the year of Barry. No, 1998 was the year that people marveled at how far Mark McGwire could hit a baseball. No, 1998 was the year that people pounded their chests along with Sammy Sosa as he rounded the bases an astounding 66 times. No, 1998 was the year that Ken Griffey Jr. — so much more lovable — cracked 56 home runs and drove in 146 and won a Gold Glove (in center field!) and stretched the imagination.
And Bonds? Who? He was just this problematic outfielder who played for an also-ran Giants team and couldn’t hit in the playoffs. Yes, all his career, Bonds told people again and again that he didn’t care, he didn’t care, he didn’t care.
But 1998 was the year Barry Bonds discovered he did care very much.
Barry Bonds broke the game. That’s how good he was after 1998. The theory goes that Bonds saw how people celebrated McGwire and Sosa and others, and he knew they were using steroids, and he decided that it was time to go all in.
You can imagine Jack Nicholson’s line from “Batman” playing in his head: “Wait ’til they get a load of me.”
There was no testing in baseball then. There was no outcry in baseball then. It was quite the opposite: The game was thriving! The home run was king! Nike reminded everybody that chicks dig the long ball! MLB even put out a comic book of baseball players with enormous muscles. Muscles were in!
So Barry Bonds got muscles. And he tilted baseball.
Remember: we knew. We all knew! In August 1998, a writer saw a bottle of androstenedione (which was banned in the NFL and the Olympics at the time, but not baseball) in McGwire’s locker and wrote about it. McGwire and Sosa looked like bodybuilders. No one cared. MORE DINGERS! MORE DINGERS!
I don’t understand what an athlete in Bonds’ situation was realistically supposed to do. So many players were using steroids; certainly, not all of them. But so many. It was not being tested for; it was not against the rules. Most importantly, the players using steroids were being celebrated. What kind of message did that send to Barry, and the rest of baseball? Barry Bonds wanted nothing more than to be loved, and his incredible season was ignored because McGwire and Sosa and others were juiced and bashing baseballs out of the stadium at rates never before seen. He was supposed to just shrug his shoulders? That is deeply unfair.
I don’t understand the people who dislike him because he “broke the game.” Posanski touches on this, but it needs to be said: Bonds did not ruin baseball. He was not the first to take steroids. He was not the last. But even if he was, steroids didn’t ruin baseball. In fact, McGwire and Sosa’s 1998 season helped rescue baseball from the post-1994 strike doldrums. So many people made money because players used steroids. The game is more popular than ever, with attendance well above what it was before the 1990s. What gets lost is that baseball is entertainment. There’s no “sanctity of the game.” Bonds was entertaining, both before and after 1998. That’s what we pay money to see. If steroids helped him entertain more and entertain longer, so what?
But the thing I do not understand the most about Bonds, are the Bonds haters who take delight in his pain:
The Athletic’s Andrew Baggarly caught up with Barry Bonds. He found a sad and haunted man. “I feel like a ghost,” Bonds said. “A ghost in a big empty house, just rattling around.”
How you feel about that quote probably says everything about how you feel about him. Are you thrilled that he’s getting what he had coming? Do you feel sad that Bonds, who did so many incredible things, cannot find peace?
Or do you feel a little of both?
From his earliest memories, all Barry Bonds ever wanted was to become the greatest baseball player who ever lived. He paid every price. He ignored every doubt. He raged over every hurdle. He cut every corner. He shut himself off from everything else. He brushed aside every other concern. He made more enemies than friends.
And he became the greatest baseball player who ever lived.
And what was waiting for him at the end? Remember what he said way back at the start of his career: “If I’m supposed to wait for you guys to applaud me, I could be waiting a lifetime.”
Here’s what waited for him at the end: Silence.
He’s not a cartoon character. He’s a human being. Yes, Bonds made lots of money (career earnings: $188,245,322). But money isn’t everything. And what else does he have? He doesn’t even have adulation. He’s cheered in San Francisco, but that’s about it. How can someone read the stories about his father, not connect the dots to the person he was as a young man, and then think, “I don’t care, screw that guy.” I’m not saying he should be completely absolved of his sins. But if you can’t find it in your heart to feel for someone who was so obviously hurting, I don’t understand you. If you can’t find it in your heart to forgive someone for mistakes made 20 or 30 years ago, I don’t understand you.
Bonds does not deserve your love, but he does deserve your understanding.
Thomas O’Brien is a litigation and estate planning attorney in San Francisco. When he’s not busy attending sporting events, he enjoys spending time with his wife and two young children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.