Despite Keith Olbermann, I Still Dig Barry Bonds
By all accounts, Barry Bonds’ short stint as a Giants spring training coach went well. “I thought he had some good information that he shared with us,” Buster Posey told the Bay Area News Group.
“I learned a lot of things from him, and just having him here was exciting,” said Pablo Sandoval. “He’s one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball.”
Yes, great hitter. But, you may be wondering, now that the legally relevant portion of Bonds’ career appears to be over, is it safe to fondly remember his glory years in polite company?
Well, maybe within a 20-mile radius of the Willie Mays statue at AT&T Park. Last week, for instance, Keith Olbermann got all Keith-Olbermanny on Bonds, and while he does not necessarily speak for the average fan, he probably does represent the average Bonds hater.
“We begin tonight with the shame of the San Francisco Giants,” Olbermann soft-pedaled in the segment below. He went on to call Bonds “the man who hit more home runs and in all likelihood more PED-nullifed home runs in Major League Baseball history, scorned or dismissed or laughed at in every baseball town except San Francisco.”
“You cheated the game; you dishonored the game. The game has been better off with you forgotten, with you in the wilderness, with your statistics as meaningful as video game numbers.”
Reacting to Bonds’ comment that “things had calmed down a little bit” in terms of his legal circumstances, Olbermann said: “If you think things have calmed down, if you think this is right, you are not only a cheat and a liar, sir, you are a fool.” At that point, I thought he was going to challenge Bonds to a duel, but he settled for calling him “disgusting” and communicating his personal satisfaction that Bonds’ failure to make the Hall of Fame would torment him for the rest of his life. He ended with, “I have advice for you: Get lost.”
Personally, I don’t feel qualified to condemn a man to a lifetime of anguish for cheating at baseball — only God and TV news hosts can do that. It should be noted, however, that Bonds’ on-field transgressions are only part of the story in terms of his most-hated-man-in-baseball status. San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter Scott Ostler addressed that aspect last week in this column….
It was weird to watch Barry Bonds at his comeback news conference talk about his old alter ego, Scary Bonds. Barry explained that the condescending and contemptuous lout who ruled the Giants’ clubhouse from his reclining leather throne was an act. He created that character in order to play baseball better….
Barry wants us to believe he made himself Scary for two decades (he was a jerk in college, too) so he could hit more homers? That he allowed himself to sink so deeply into his character that he willingly carried that personality into his everyday life, inflicting it on teammates, family and “friends”?
If that’s true, man, you talk about selling your soul.
I have no doubt Scary Bonds was real. One local sportswriter I met in my personal life basically described the slugger as one of the worst human beings he’d met in his entire life.
But at this point, I’m going to risk condemnation by the Internet community, which comprises a decent portion of the human race, by saying that I remained a huge admirer of Bonds well after I was reasonably certain he had embarked on his better-hitting-through-chemistry approach. It’s just amazing what 73 home runs will do to a fan’s moral compass. I remember talking to someone, a doctor, who said, “I know Barry, he wouldn’t do that,” referring to the slanderous notion the man was enjoying a little extra PED-enabled oomph. Yeah, I know him, too. He hits like a real paragon of virtue.
But that’s not the only reason I liked Bonds. The fact is, I’d met him personally, and the experience belied everything I’d ever read or heard about him.
This was back in the ’90s. How long ago was that? Well, the World Trade Center was still standing, Afghanistan was a country no one could locate on a map, and a great deal of money could be made in the stock market by investing in random ticker symbols. I mean, this was so long ago, Yahoo, where I worked, was the No. 1 Internet company, and when most people heard the word google, they thought you were imitating a baby. Yahoo’s biggest competitor back then was something called Excite.com, now long defunct. Both companies fielded softball teams in a Silicon Valley league, and I was our squad’s first baseman. One day, arriving at the field for a big intra-company game, I ran smack into a mysteriously dense wall of spectators.
“What’s going on?” I asked a teammate.
“Excite’s playing Barry and Bobby Bonds against us,” he said, nonsensically.
Huh? I waded through the crowd to the diamond, and there indeed stood Barry and his father, Bobby, warming up alongside the Excite team. Awash in cognitive dissonance, I soon discovered Bonds had signed a promotional deal to make an appearance on Excite’s behalf. Bobby was just along for fun. Excite had also brought a photographer and a PR dude to chronicle the surefire shellacking they were going to administer to us Yahoos.
The upshot of the event, as it is permanently etched in my mind:
- Barry hit a ball that almost tipped the top of my glove at first base, then kept rising to shoot out over the fence in right field.
- We won the game, despite the presence in the opposing lineup of one of the game’s great hitters.
- Barry Bonds couldn’t have been more gracious, hospitable, friendly and relaxed.
Yep, Bonds treated our little softball game with respect. He proceeded to sign autographs, pose for pictures and chat with us for close to an hour. Sure he was being paid, but that shouldn’t have been enough to prevent him from acting like an ass; we were just a bunch of local fans, after all, swarming around him trying to get a little face time.
I even shared a moment with Bonds alone. He came to bat one inning, and we intentionally walked him. (Major League Baseball pitchers soon routinely imitated our strategy.) I smiled at him, and he grinned back. Then I shook his hand, and he smiled wider. The 12-year-old fan in me went all oogly.
Bonds’ demeanor impressed everyone. And that night, one could argue, this sports superstar, a local boy who’d played high school ball in San Mateo, was a genuine part of the community.
So what can I say, Keith Olbermann? Isn’t the heart of the matter that we see some sports hero on TV or in interviews, or if we’re lucky play against him in a meaningless softball game, and we think we have some insight into him? Or even “know” him? And in our childish identification, we choose to know him as a friend?
I still like Bonds, and I was glad to see him back in the Giants’ fold.
This essay was published in another form in 2010.