It wasn’t easy to select an excerpt from Howard Bryant’s new book “Juicing the Game,” because so many of them are excellent. But I think that one of the most insightful and powerful sections focuses on Barry Bonds, the greatest player and most controversial figure of his era. So for your summertime reading pleasure, please enjoy Chapter 17 from “Juicing the Game.”
(Part One of Two)
The problem was Barry Bonds. The BALCO testimonies combined with the commotion and compromise that led to a strengthened drug policy, one baseball executive thought, provided baseball with a special opportunity. The sport could start fresh and begin a new era of enforceable drug testing while allowing the suspicion and doubt that plagued the previous decade to slowly recede into history. Bonds, however, would not allow baseball such a clean break from the steroid era.
The problem was that he was too good. To the discomfort of some baseball officials, Bonds would soar so high above anyone who ever played the game that no one would ever be allowed to forget this difficult decade, for he was no longer one of many great players, but arguably the best ever. Bonds already owned the single-season home run record and was set to break Hank Aaron’s career record in 2005 or 2006. In addition, between 2001 and 2004 he hit for four of the top twelve slugging percentages of all time, breaking Babe Ruth’s eighty-one-year-old record in 2001, and, over the same four seasons, recorded four of the top eleven on-base percentages of all-time, breaking Ted Williams’s single season record in 2002 and then demolishing his own record by becoming the first man to reach base more than 60 percent of the time over a full season in 2004.
The result was a bitter irony to that spoke to the odd and unprecedented state of baseball: Instead of celebrating the greatest player the sport had ever produced, numerous baseball officials entered 2005 lamenting the notion that they were being handcuffed by him. Bonds stood as the symbol of the tainted era, of its bitter contradictions and great consequences. Jason Giambi’s was a more open scandal, but Bonds was more emblematic of the larger complexities. If baseball suffered from the conflict of reaping the benefits of high attendance and unprecedented mass appeal while its players individually fought the taint of illegitimacy, then Bonds’ continued ascension, first past his peers and then past every iconic standard in the game’s history, served as an eternal reminder of all the sport did not do to protect its integrity when it had the opportunity. By shattering Mays, eclipsing Ruth, outdistancing Aaron, and putting the single-season home run record even further out of reach, Bonds and the era in which he played would always be present.
Thus, the enormous specter of Barry Bonds loomed, not because of his guilt or his innocence, but precisely because of the impossible question of how much of his phenomenal achievement (and by extension the feats of his peers) was real, how much was due to his use of anabolic substances, and how no one, for or against, friend or foe, could ever discuss the greatest player of his generation or the greatest records in the sport without in turn discussing the drugs that contributed to them. Not only would the decade from 1994 to 2004 be forever associated with steroids, but so, too, would the record books. There would be no escape, either for Barry Bonds or the sport that made him famous.
* * * *
In the recent history of modern sport, no athlete owned a more complicated relationship to his game’s machinery than Barry Bonds. Much of the Bonds legend was due to his immense presence, his baseball bloodlines, and his incomparable achievements. Bonds was a step beyond, the signature player of the millennium playing at a distance that did not feel contrived as much as it did inevitable. Yet Bonds created his own monument on his own terms, for his own reasons. Watching Bonds the superstar was not an experience to be shared in the traditional sense. According to convention, a legendary player would produced legendarily, becoming a defining symbol of his generation, like Mays or DiMaggio. Then, as he faded, he would allow himself to be celebrated. He would soften and the public would soften around him. He would grow old and they would age with him, the daily warfare of the past receding, or even transforming into nostalgia. His brusqueness becoming a virtue, both he and the public would lower their swords, wounds healed by his coronation as an immortal. Such was the case with Ted Williams, who fought bitterly with his public and the men who covered him and played his final game in front of a little more than 10,000 fans. Williams left quietly, on his own terms, only to be revived in the years following his retirement, living the last 40 years of his life as a legend, an American icon nurtured and sustained by the generation which he represented and for which he spoke, the very generation whose daily clawing once kept him distant.
Barry Bonds rejected this ritual. If there had been a fear that rising salaries would forever distance the players from the fans, then Bonds was that fear becoming a reality. He was single-minded in his pursuit of his potential and did not care to be claimed. He approached baseball as if he were a legendary actor whose talents were to be admired. From the nationwide audience he was protected by celluloid. From the live audience before which he performed nightly, Bonds expected the reverence given to a great Broadway thespian; he could be watched, he should be awe-inspiring, but he was not to be approached. He shattered the myths that were so comfortable to baseball and was unapologetic about his feelings. One never heard Barry Bonds blather on about the importance of the fans or the press, as did other superstars who understood their roles to be inclusive. To Barry Bonds, there were those who actually had the ability to play the game, and those who were privileged to watch them. He did not play for the public, which once it had hurt him would never be given another opportunity for reconciliation. It could watch or it could not. As one teammate said, “When Barry says ‘Fuck you,’ he actually means it.”
Bonds would not play the hero game. If Michael Jordan and other more affable stars were cognizant of the hypocrisy that came with being a megastar in a billion-dollar industry, they nevertheless were shrewd and politic enough to go along with both the public’s yearning to feel close to them as well as the league’s desire for them to elevate it as surely as they elevated themselves. Most athletes eventually learned to dismiss the negatives in their lives—the fans, writers, executives that did not favor them. Conversely, most were aware of their supporters and were grateful to them.
To Bonds, it did not matter either way. What those on the outside thought did not change the details of the job he had to do. His admirers didn’t have to play the game; he did. They did not have to sweat, fighting fatigue, pain, and time. If he did not play well, he thought, those admirers would not be admirers for long. On the surface, he did not seem to seek the fans’ love, which made him all the more hated by a public that felt rejected.
Bonds often talked about the day he would leave the game. He would walk away from baseball, he said, and never be seen again. He was once asked what he would say at his induction speech when he entered the Hall of Fame, and instead of focusing on any of the thousands of moments that composed the Everest of his career, he immediately focused on the critics too preoccupied with his image. Bonds decided he would tell them, “You missed the show.”
To view Bonds as the greatest player in baseball was to compare his accomplishments against those of his peers. Doing so would be statistically fulfilling but wholly unsatisfying, for the components that made Barry Bonds the singular figure of his time went far beyond his slugging percentages and home run totals. There were varying ways to measure Bonds, and each approach produced a different and more fascinating picture than the last. It spoke to his complexity. He was equally revered and hated, by teammates, managers, coaches, executives, and writers. He awed them with his great skill, hard focus and grueling dedication, yet angered them with his confounding, combustible combination of unyielding confidence and insecurity. His greatness was beyond question, and yet there existed in Barry Bonds an almost pathological desire not only to be better, but for his peers to know he was better than they were.
Bonds’ condescension to the less talented—which was to say virtually everyone in baseball—was as legendary as his bat. There was a point during one season when Bonds had struggled through a terrible slump, but the Giants were winning, in no small part because his teammates had been hitting well. One, Shawon Dunston, was on a particularly hot streak. Dunston played eighteen seasons in the majors, was a two-time All-Star and had gained the respect of his teammates on every club of which he had been a part. An African American, Dunston was well-regarded for having the rare ability to break down cliques thanks to a personality so likable that he could easily hang out with players in every group. During his hot streak, which happened to coincide with Bonds’s struggles, Dunston was approached by Bonds in the clubhouse. Loud enough for the entire clubhouse to hear, Bonds said, “Hey Shawon, ain’t that a bitch? You’re hitting like me, and here I am, hitting like you.” It was a hurtful and offensive thing to say, and it angered Dunston. The two had words, and Dunston never forgot that side of Barry Bonds.
Once, a young San Diego Padres center fielder named Mark Kotsay had summoned the nerve to talk to Bonds, asking him about a difficult element of the hitting process that Bonds seemed to do so effortlessly. Kotsay had grown up idolizing Bonds, and it seemed he was on the verge of a memorable moment listening to the master. “It wouldn’t do much good,” Bonds explained somewhat coldly. “I mean, I could tell you what I do, but you’re not me.” It was a line Bonds used frequently.
To Bonds, even the most sympathetic nonplayers were still outsiders, but when he was criticized by his peers, his response tended to be the same: “I’ll never attack another ballplayer.” At least in front of outsiders, this was true. Thus, Bonds was confounded when Jose Canseco went public with what he knew about the steroid problem. The baseball fraternity is only as ironclad as its members’ desire to stay quiet, and Bonds always believed that only players could understand the special pressures of the life. In 2002, when Canseco said he thought that 85 percent of baseball players used steroids, Bonds’s reaction was, “Why would he say those things about other ballplayers?”
Yet the two had an encounter in 1997, at a made-for-television home run derby in Las Vegas, that spoke volumes about Bonds’s insecurity. Canseco was no longer the great player of his youth, but Jose Canseco could always hit home runs and arrived at the derby looking particularly muscular. Bonds, who was also participating in the event, saw Canseco, and yelled out in earshot of the other big-league players, “Dude, what have you been taking?” To some, it was classic Bonds. He gave the impression that he was always supremely confident, but needed to feel superior, needed that edge on people at all times. It was a true alpha male moment. Bonds had sniffed out Canseco as a threat and treated him cruelly. It was also an example of his mean streak. Bonds would always talk about the brotherhood among players, yet he personally set out to embarrass Canseco in front of the other ballplayers. One player who remembered the story wondered what Bonds, who in later years was considerably larger physically than in his earlier years, would have done had another player said the same thing to him.
For the bulk of his career, Bonds kept himself at a distance from the rest yet was infuriated when teammates and the public did not understand him, and wounded during the rare instances he unsuccessfully sought their affection. In the San Francisco Giants’ clubhouse, the giant recliner in front of his locker was an infamous and telling contrast to the short stools owned by the rest of the players. He was impenetrable, an intimidating, towering figure, who defied easy description, if any at all.
To Ellis Burks, a former Giants teammate, there was a particularly telling moment during the 1999 season that typified Bonds. After a road game in late July, Burks had gone back to the hotel and by chance learned it was Bonds’s birthday. Not a single player on the team had even dared approach Bonds. To some, Bonds did not deserve special acknowledgement because he seemed to be so uninterested in the personal lives of others. To Ellis Burks, this was absurd. It was a guy’s birthday, and that was special. Birthdays always meant something to Ellis Burks, who in later years would be conflicted because his fell on September 11. After the terrorist attacks in 2001, Burks thought he could never celebrate his birthday again. “It was a terrible tragedy, and I kind of didn’t know how to feel the next couple of years after. But I started to think: it was my day before, and it always has to be. I just couldn’t let that be taken away from me.”
In the lobby, Burks and infielder Charlie Hayes saw Bonds sitting by himself. They promptly took Bonds out and the three men had a great time. “I honestly think he would have sat there and not done anything,” Burks recalled. “But that was Barry. He’s not going to let you in, even if it costs him the chance to enjoy himself. He won’t come to you, but that doesn’t mean he wants you to come to him, either. You’ve got to take your chances. He’s got his walls, but that’s who he is.”
As his career wound to an end and Bonds passed the age of forty, he became more fierce than ever, and the public responded in kind. Mark McGwire was contrite about using androstenedione, Jason Giambi embarrassed about using steroids, and Gary Sheffield angry for having gotten involved with BALCO and Bonds in the first place. Yet Barry Bonds refused the larger argument, the implications and the consequences that went beyond him. He was convinced the press, and later the federal government, had targeted him, but the fact was that his personal roots with Greg Anderson, a key figure in the BALCO case, focused the attention on him. He had demanded and received the superstar treatment from the Giants. He wanted his own security person and received it. He wanted his personal trainers to have access to the Giants’ facilities and the team accommodated him. He made it perfectly clear to the Giants that they worked for him as much as it might have been the other way around. It was also true, however, that it was exactly this star treatment that made Bonds the connection between baseball and BALCO. Greg Anderson was his childhood friend and was allowed access to the Giants’ clubhouse as his personal trainer. It was Bonds with whom Anderson was traveling when he met Jason Giambi in Japan, a fact that both frustrated and haunted Giambi as his troubles mounted. In November 2004, Bonds won his seventh Most Valuable Player Award, his fourth consecutive one. He had never been able to escape the shadow of BALCO, and responded to his growing part in the steroid scandal with defiance. “I don’t owe anyone a response to anything.” Two weeks later, Bonds’s testimony that he had unknowingly used steroids appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. The dance was a mesmerizing, albeit unfortunate one, the passion surrounding him heightened by the polarizing forces of his steroid use and his complete dominance over the game of baseball.
It took a real leap of the imagination to understand completely what Barry Bonds had become. At the end of the 2004 season, he stood at 703 career home runs, only 53 shy of Hank Aaron’s all-time career mark of 755, and would likely pass Babe Ruth’s 714 in the spring of 2005. These were numbers that defined baseball like Mount Rushmore. The reason that Barry Bonds had so outdistanced his peers was that he had done something that, with the exception of Ruth, was previously thought impossible: he had mastered the game. In 2004, he walked 232 times in 147 games. By contrast, the entire Pittsburgh team walked 415 times. He owned the top three single-season marks for walks, the top two seasons for on-base percentage, and the single-season high for slugging percentage, all of which he recorded between 2001 and 2004. Once, during an All-Star game, Bonds sat in the National League dugout, calling out the type of pitch just as the ball left the pitcher’s hand as his incredulous All-Star teammates watched in amazement. Bonds was the greatest player of all time. He was better than Ruth, Cobb, and Gehrig because they played in a segregated era and did not have to face black and Latino players who may have been as good or better. He was better than Mays or Mantle, Williams or DiMaggio because his numbers not only eclipsed theirs, but also dwarfed those of his contemporaries. Unlike those greats, Barry Bonds, in the first five seasons of the twenty-first century, suddenly had no peer.
By towering over both his contemporaries and the lords of the game, he had entered a space occupied only by Ruth. That kind of dominance had occurred in other sports. Wilt Chamberlain literally had no peer in terms of his dominance. The same was true for Wayne Gretzky, who won hockey’s Most Valuable Player award eight straight seasons. Baseball, with its rhythms, its checks and balances, its expectation of a certain degree of failure, was supposed to be different. Like golf, it couldn’t be mastered. The elements of every play in baseball were too different too often, the variables too unpredictable. Barry Bonds had rewritten the conventional wisdom.
Bonds no longer competed against his contemporaries as much as he did the ghosts of the game, but Bonds was still best seen through the eyes of the players who played against him. The macho, competitive world of Major League Baseball, with its cliques, and biases and super-charged egos, was almost universally deferential to Bonds. “When I’m home watching the game, and Barry Bonds comes up, everyone in my house has to shut up. No one can speak,” said the flamboyant Red Sox power hitter David Ortiz. “I tell my kids, my wife, everybody, to be quiet while he’s up. You ask them, and they’ll tell you. When Bonds is hitting, cállate!” The players, with all of their tens of millions of dollars and deep conviction of their own considerable abilities—and of the superiority of these abilities to the abilities of those around them—succumbed to the greatness of a peer. That clubhouse toughness and bravado disappeared because Bonds was so much better a ballplayer than everyone else. In a world in which challenge and confrontation was a way of life, Bonds was the player the rest of baseball did not want to challenge, one whom only the baddest pitchers wanted to confront. In his office at the Oakland A’s spring training complex in Phoenix, Billy Beane and his assistant GM Paul DePodesta computed a formula measuring a player’s on-field performance against his salary. It was an exercise Beane undertook periodically to depress himself by counting the number of players his financially challenged Oakland club could not afford, as well as laugh about how overpaid even the best baseball players were, except for one.
“Barry Bonds is on another planet,” said Beane. “He’s so much better than the next closest player that you could legitimately pay him $50 million a year and it would be a bargain.” Not only was Bonds the single most valuable player in baseball, Beane thought, but there was no second. He stood in a league of one. “Bonds is so good,” Buster Olney said, “that now I have an idea of what it must have been like watching Ruth.”
* * * *
Barry Lamar Bonds was born on July 28, 1964 in Riverside, California, and while his skills would one day be heralded as extraordinary, what separated him from every other player in the history of the game was his baseball lineage. A unique figure in the history of the game, Bonds was third-generation black baseball royalty. His father was Bobby Bonds, who combined exceptional speed and power to become one of the most gifted five-tool players of the 1970s. With the Giants from 1968 to 1972, Bobby Bonds was mentored by his legendary teammate Willie Mays, who in turn became young Barry’s godfather. Growing up in Riverside, Bobby Bonds was a childhood friend of Dusty Baker. Baker’s father coached young Bobby through Little League. Like Bonds with Mays on the Giants, Dusty Baker, as a young outfielder with the Atlanta Braves, was mentored by the great Hank Aaron. As contemporaries of Jackie Robinson, Mays and Aaron were two of the most prominent forefathers of integrated baseball. As a child, Barry Bonds learned baseball directly from his father, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron. No black player of Bonds’s generation would own such a personal connection to the roots of the integrated era, nor would any of his contemporaries be more closely linked to the major league black experience.
Not only did Barry Bonds grow up in the game of baseball, but his experience was not unlike that of a privileged member of a political dynasty. When Bobby Bonds played for the Yankees in 1975, Billy Martin, then the manager, would constantly have to run the eleven-year-old Barry off of the field during batting practice. Years later, after Bonds signed a record-breaking contract to join the San Francisco Giants, his on-field performance would help Dusty Baker become the most influential and successful African American manager in baseball history. Baker would be Bonds’ manager for his first ten years with the Giants. Baker’s hitting coach for the first four of those years would be Bobby Bonds.
It was almost as if Barry Bonds was destined to become not only a big-league baseball player, but an elite, important one. His life was like something out of a movie. His mother Pat recalled that, even as a boy growing up in San Carlos, a suburb thirty minutes south of San Francisco, Barry was such a devastating hitter that she was a regular at W.J. Bank, the local glass store downtown. She replaced so many windows from Barry’s hitting that if she went longer than six months without stopping by, someone from the store would call the Bonds house. “They’d say, ‘You haven’t needed any glass lately, Mrs. Bonds.’ And I’d say, ‘No, but I’m sure I will soon.’”
Barry Bonds excelled at every level. In his three years on the Serra High School varsity baseball team he hit .404, after which he was a second-round pick of the Giants in the amateur draft. Bonds chose college instead and became a legendary performer for three years at Arizona State, twice guiding his team to the College World Series while hitting .347 for his college career. He was then drafted by Pittsburgh in the first round of the 1985 draft and, from the start, was forecast to be a great major league player. Bonds had adored his father and idolized Mays since he was a child and would always say he didn’t just want to play baseball, but wanted to play it a certain way, in the mold of his father and of Mays. In Pittsburgh, he even chose Mays’s number 24.
As a major leaguer, Bonds’s battles with the press were legendary. He had inherited from his father a suspicion of the writers that was tied to a large degree to race. During his playing days, Bobby Bonds suffered through a difficult relationship with the writers and team executives, and he often warned his son to be cautious of the press. There would always be a distance between the players and the writers, he would say. Part of it is inevitable; it is your job to play, and their job to judge. But while the writers should be treated with respect first, Bobby Bonds believed, very few could be trusted.
To Bobby Bonds, what made the relationship especially volatile was the element of race. The overwhelming majority of the writers were white, and very few seemed willing to take the time to understand the special circumstances that existed for black players. In a sense, the relationship was no different than the black-white relationships that existed in the society at large. There was a certain unfairness to it, but that made it no less true: Whites could live their entire lives and never know or care to know anyone black. Yet it was impossible for a black person to be successful in America without knowing how to deal with whites and navigate the white world. As a result, there was a critical imbalance to the way white reporters would interpret the actions and personalities of black players that made it a virtual certainty that the black athlete would be portrayed inaccurately, if not unfairly. There was, especially when Bobby Bonds played, a type of conduct white reporters expected from black athletes. As much as the black player who was generally outgoing would receive fairly favorable coverage, the black player who showed any type of independence or intensity was met with an almost open hostility from the white press corps. There were a few reporters who would take the time to be fair, but most would not, and because they were the primary liaison between the player and the public (not to mention their connections to the upper reaches of club management), the writers could make life very difficult for a black player.
Despite his father’s warning, as he emerged as first a good player and then a potentially great one, Barry Bonds attempted to be accommodating. In those early years, he was affable, insightful, and considerably introspective when dealing with the press. To the men and women that covered him, however, the Pittsburgh years shaped the Barry Bonds who would make for a formidable interview.
If it seemed that Pittsburgh would have been the perfect place for Bonds, appearances were quite deceiving. It was true that with the exception of St. Louis in the 1960s, Pittsburgh was the one organization that gravitated toward players of color. The Pirates of the 1970s were the most integrated team in baseball, combining the talents of Phil Garner, Richie Hebner, Tim Foli, Steve Blass, and Kent Tekulve with those of Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Manny Sanguillen, Al Oliver, Dock Ellis, Bill Madlock, Dave Parker, and Bill Robinson. They were also successful, winning their division in five out of six seasons from 1970 to 1975, and winning the World Series in 1971 and 1979. The Pirates also had a recent tradition of embracing black players as the face of their organization. It had begun with the great Roberto Clemente, who was a black Puerto Rican, and continued through the 1970s with Willie Stargell. Nicknamed “Pops,” Stargell became the father figure of the 1979 World Championship team best remembered for their disco rallying cry, Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” From the outside, Bonds’s arrival in Pittsburgh in the mid-1980s, especially coupled with the Pirates’ resurgence in the early 1990s, seemed the perfect marriage.
Pittsburgh, however, was not as racially harmonious as its ballclub. It was more emblematic of the traditional blue-collar eastern city. For all the winning and multiculturalism on the field, the Pirates were never a big draw. From 1970 until 1979, the Pirates finished as low as third just once yet were never better than a middling team in terms of attendance, never surpassing twenty thousand fans per game in any single season during the decade despite playing in a stadium that held nearly forty-eight thousand. Clemente became an iconic figure after his tragic death in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972, but for years his pride had been wounded because he wasn’t accepted as he believed a player of his talents should have been. It was a slight that defined Clemente’s world view as much as his determined play. Stargell was truly a signature figure in Pittsburgh, but his way was more relaxed, less edgy, and easier for the average white customer to accept. As was the case in most cities, white fans and press tended to have a much more difficult time decoding a complicated black athlete.
Things only got worse for black players in Pittsburgh following the cocaine scandal of the early 1980s, which centered mostly on Pittsburgh and Kansas City and involved many black players, including Pittsburgh’s Dave Parker, who suffered a steep decline in his production before departing as a free agent after the 1983 season. At the time of Bonds’s arrival in 1986, there was a feeling that the city was in the throes of a backlash.
To Bonds, Pittsburgh was a city that craved white stars, and it galled him that white players of lesser ability were granted special dispensation. It was a racial double-standard that tore at him at every level he had played. When the Pirates finally returned to the playoffs in 1990 and Bonds won his first Most Valuable Player Award, it was clear to him that merit only went so far. White players were not only more accepted by the Pittsburgh fans, but also by management and the press. In Pittsburgh, he referred to centerfielder Andy Van Slyke, a talented but inferior player whose popularity far outstripped his ability, as “The Great White Hope.” Van Slyke, Bonds believed, could do no wrong either with the Pirates organization or the overwhelmingly white Pirates fan base. It was a bitter reality to an athlete as proud and driven as Bonds. “Mr. Pittsburgh,” Bonds said mockingly of his teammate one day. “Anyone touches Van Slyke on this club and he gets released.” Lead by the killer B’s of Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, the Pirates of the early 1990s were perhaps the most talented young team in baseball, and like their predecessors, did not draw. They won 95 games in 1990, 98 in 1991, and 96 in 1992, winning their division each year, but never averaged more than twenty-six thousand fans per game.
Those Pirates were a great, but not particularly deep team. After the 1991 and ’92 seasons, their stars, Bonds, Bonilla, and Doug Drabek, were due to become free agents and earn significant contracts. The Pirates, struggling to compete financially, knew they could not pay all three players and eventually lost all of them to free agency. The situation of Pittsburgh, an original member of the National League resigned to being a small-market team unable to retain its best players when their salary demands rose, was one of the sober financial realities that drove both the disastrous owner summit at Kohler and the 1994 player strike. The Pirates, fighting for survival, were one of the most hawkish teams pushing for a salary cap.
Bonds was a dazzling young player, who in winning the 1990 MVP award was the first player in baseball history to hit .300, score and drive in 100 runs, hit 30 home runs and steal 50 bases all in the same season. He was living up to everything forecast for him. That sort of production combined with Gold Glove defense (he won the award eight times from 1990 to 1998) meant he was playing the all-around game on a level that only his godfather Willie Mays once had. As a result, Bonds, along with Jose Canseco and a young centerfielder who played for Seattle named Ken Griffey Jr., was recognized as one of the most complete players in baseball.
In 1990, Canseco signed the richest contract in baseball history, but Pittsburgh continually balked at Bonds’ salary demands. Arguing over money became a yearly ritual. For three consecutive years, Bonds and the Pirates would enter into salary arbitration, a contentious process whereby a player and his club take their respective cases, and salary demands, to an independent arbitrator, who, bound by the rules of the collective-bargaining agreement, cannot split the difference between the two figures, but must chose one over the other. The result was a bitter and dangerous proceeding in which a club was forced to argue that its best player did not deserve the salary he had requested. Arbitration was the battleground where hard feelings surfaced.
Barry Bonds would lose his arbitration hearing every year from 1990 to 1992, and his relationship with Pirates ownership soured. Bonds would be a free agent after the 1992 season and told the team that he wanted a multiyear contract worth $4 million per season. The Pirates rejected that, too. During the 1992 season, his last with Pittsburgh before free agency, Bonds said he wouldn’t re-sign with the Pirates for $100 million, a position that began to turn the city against him.
The constant disputes over salary heightened tensions between Bonds and team management. The most famous incident occurred during spring training of 1991, after Bonds had lost in arbitration to Pirates management for the second time. During a drill with Pirates instructor Bill Virdon, Bonds made a wisecrack that Virdon, a thirty-year baseball man, did not like. The two got into a shouting match and Jim Leyland, the Pirates manager, raced out to meet Bonds and berated him in front of reporters and news cameras. “One player’s not going to run this club. If you don’t want to be here, get the hell out of here,” Leyland shouted. “If guys don’t want to be here, if guys aren’t happy with their money, don’t take it out on someone else.”
It was an embarrassing moment, one that Bonds later regretted. Leyland had been Bonds only manager at the big league level and Bonds had been fond of him. Leyland was a tough, chain-smoking man who had started his managerial career in the minor leagues in 1971, but he had a genuine affection for Bonds and his potential as a player.
As his relationship with Pittsburgh disintegrated, on a few occasions Bonds sought to explain himself. Each time, he found himself caught in the trap his father had warned him about years earlier. “If I’m quiet and don’t talk, then I’m sulky and moody, but when I do say something, it’s not written they way that I say it, then all of a sudden it’s said I’m talking too much,” Bonds once said. “I don’t know where the medium is. I hope someone will come up to me and let me know, because then I will know what direction to go.”
“I don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Oh, boy, this is a great day to be a total ass.’ My problem is that I haven’t found that diplomatic middle ground, and I’m not blaming people for it. What I’m saying is that it’s half their fault and half my fault. A lot of times I can come across as a bad person. But a lot of times it’s because I’m doing things that get Barry Bonds prepared for the game. I wake up in the morning, play with my kids all day, then I go to the ball park, find out who’s pitching, then work myself up, in anger, thinking I want that pitcher. Then guys will come around me, I’ll say ‘Leave me alone’ and all of a sudden it’s, ‘What’s your problem? Every single day you come in mad.’ Then, on the days I come in laughing, then it’s, ‘You’re not applying yourself,’ or, ‘How come you’re not focused?’ I don’t understand it. Certain people can basically say what they want and get away with it; they have that ability. Some of us don’t. I guess I’m one of the people that don’t have that ability.”
Bonds was aware of his place in the game as well as the stinging fact that white players would always be afforded certain allowances by the fans and press that black players would never attain. Even worse for someone as confident as Bonds was the belief held by most black players that in order to enter become beloved, a black player would have to act like a clown, someone less serious, less professional, and more forgiving of whites. He had learned from his father’s example that baseball was not quite interested in a serious and intense black player.
When Bonilla, one of Bonds’ closest friends, returned to Pittsburgh for the first time in 1992 after signing a lucrative contract with the New York Mets, the Pirates fans showered him with boos, debris, and obscenity. The anger of the Pittsburgh fans toward Bonilla was palpable, making for a legitimately dangerous situation. The common thought was that Bonilla was the victim of a backlash for signing a $29-million contract. “Don’t kid yourself that it’s about money,” Bonds said. “It’s a black thing.”
Years later, when he was clearly the best player in the National League, if not in baseball, a poll in San Francisco reported that if one of the two had to be traded for financial reasons, Giants fans would have rather the team kept third-baseman Matt Williams and traded Bonds. “I don’t know if he was hurt by that, but you figure he would have to be,” said one National League player. “He’s the best player in the game and the fans would rather trade him and keep a player who was not nearly the player he is. It would have to get to you, and I think Barry made it a point not to let people get close to him at all.” Giants general manager Brian Sabean offered his opinion on the matter by trading Williams to Cleveland after the 1996 season.
After Bonds’s last year in Pittsburgh, some of the reporters who covered him thought he had given up on trying to communicate with the media. His father was right. The writers were going to say what they wanted to. They weren’t going to take the time to understand him because they had already chosen the side of management. The stalemate would grow over the next decade and a half into open warfare. In his first year in San Francisco, Sports Illustrated put him on the cover, with the headline, “I’m Barry Bonds and You’re Not.” The article savaged Bonds. He did not speak to the magazine for seven years.
Barry Bonds did not always connect with other black players, and oftentimes was considered snobbish and completely self-absorbed. There was a moment before the 1993 All-Star Game, in Baltimore, when a group of black players that included Barry Larkin, David Justice, Marquis Grissom, Gary Sheffield, and a few others were sitting around a table talking. As Justice recalled, it was the black network keeping up with one another. San Francisco was the hottest team in baseball that summer and was leading the National League West by nearly ten games over Atlanta. Bonds walked in, and immediately zeroed in on Justice, the Braves’ right fielder. “I always liked Barry,” Justice said. “Not everybody did. I knew that he talked about himself all the time, but I didn’t care. It was just Barry being Barry. Barry walked in and started talking shit, about how we weren’t going to catch them. You know what? Within five or ten minutes, everybody at that table peeled off. It was like a cloud over his head. A lot of guys just didn’t like Barry. He was cocky, always talking about himself, but we brothers, we have a fraternity. I mean, when was the last time you saw two brothers fighting on the field? But that day, everybody just got up and left. Nobody could stand him. But you know what? He was the truth on the baseball field.”
A former friend, Gary Sheffield, often said “Barry’s not black,” the implication being that Bonds did not live the traditional African American experience and by extension did not identify with the particular circumstances that came with being black. He attended private schools, including the legendary Serra High School, which produced football players Lynn Swann and Tom Brady and baseball players Jim Fregosi and Gregg Jeffries. After high school, Bonds did not go directly into professional baseball, but instead went to college, a route to the majors few blacks took.
It was a charge that Dusty Baker did not like. “Barry’s of two worlds,” Baker said. “Let’s not forget that he spent the summers with his grandparents and Riverside was a predominately black and Latino city. I have a lot of respect for Gary Sheffield, but you can’t fault a guy for where he’s from.”
Sheffield did not quarrel with Bonds’s upbringing. He broke with Bonds because he believed Bonds had violated the decades-long tradition of blacks in the game looking out for other blacks. Veteran black players were supposed to be available, accessible to the next generation of black players coming through the ranks. When younger black players came to a given city for road games, the senior black players in that city were supposed to reach out. It was part of the tight black network that had existed since Jackie Robinson. Robinson was an eternal source of support for any black player struggling with the rhythms, culture, and pitfalls that came with being black in the game, and continued to be so long after his playing days ended. Robinson was the first black player in the major leagues, in 1947. When Pumpsie Green joined the Boston Red Sox in 1959, completing the integration of baseball, Robinson had already been retired for three years. Yet Pumpsie Green received a warm phone call from the legendary Robinson. Bonds saw this network of support up close with his father and Mays and Baker and Aaron. To break that chain, thought Sheffield, was to break with the greatest tradition of brotherhood among black players, for the black experience in baseball was a special one. It was a responsibility Gary Sheffield took seriously, for he understood the harder road that came with being black in the big leagues. Sheffield had himself been saddled with a reputation for being difficult, one that was born out of his natural personality, which could be intimidating. As a young player in Milwaukee, Sheffield had made a comment that insinuated he once committed an error on purpose. In 2004, as Sheffield completed his seventeenth major league season, he still hadn’t lived down the remark. Gary Sheffield moved with an unvarnished intensity, one that could be off-putting to white executives and press. He did not flinch from racial subjects, even as his interviewers or teammates did, and he took seriously the black heritage in the game, a history he saw declining. He said what he believed and did not consider how uncomfortable his responses might be to a baseball world that was often self-satisfied. People who asked Gary Sheffield a question received a direct answer. He had earned the right of candor. “You’re not supposed to look down your nose at the guys coming up,” Sheffield said one day at Legends Field, the Yankees’ spring training home. “You’re supposed to be there for them. Once this generation of black players retires, that will be gone, because too many guys think because they make a whole lot of money, they don’t have any responsibilities to the other guys. They think its okay to look down on the guys who aren’t as fortunate.”
Sheffield believed it was his responsibility as an elite player to be outspoken on racial issues that affected black players. He understood that the black player who did not have the protection of a .300 batting average or 40 home run power could not often defend himself. The reprisals against vocal blacks were historically swift. Bonds wanted it both ways, Sheffield thought. He wanted to be heard when racial issues affected him, but on a daily basis, where reputations inside the game are made, Bonds did not pay much attention to how those same issues might have affected others around him.
“As for us, should we be surprised?” asked Dusty Baker. “Everything that we’ve been taught, whether you’re black, white, or whatever, for the past thirty years has been ‘Look out for number one.’ We don’t seem to put a premium on looking out for each other anymore.”
Yet another side of Bonds revealed a man with a great sense of the complexity and frustration that came from being black first in a contemporary society that tended to believe that money, fame, and progress had nullified the historical grievances of black Americans, and assumed that the few blacks who had achieved affluence did not experience racism. To some of the African American players around him, Bonds may have once believed that himself, but was swiftly disabused of the notion by a series of stinging racial incidents over the course of his career.
The truth was that Barry Bonds raged at the injustices he saw directed at his race and his family. He was of the black baseball aristocracy, and no one had a better view of the unfairness experienced first by his father, Mays, Robinson, and Aaron. The difference was that unlike historians, writers, and even fellow ballplayers, Barry Bonds did not have to interpret third-hand how Willie Mays or Hank Aaron or Bobby Bonds felt about their place as black stars in baseball. Bonds heard the stories directly from the men themselves.
It was a mistake to view Bonds’ obdurate demeanor as a sign that he had not been profoundly affected by a society that was clearly racist and whose racism inflicted considerable damage on people whom Barry Bonds loved. He did not advertise his hungers, for there certainly would be no advantage in it for him, but Bonds sought redress through his play. There would come a time when he would have a chance to avenge the slights, both small and large, that contributed to his father’s alcoholism and bitterness. To Monte Poole, when it became clear that he had an opportunity to reach the elite milestones in the game, Bonds began to sharpen his focus. His evolving black conscience paralleled his rising place in the game. He did not want to break Hank Aaron’s record, he said. What he wanted to do, he once told Poole, was to erase the white men who played in the segregated era from the top of the record books. They were leaders because they were great players, but only in part, Bonds believed. The other reason was that they did not have to compete against a significant part of the baseball-playing population. It was not lost on him that the great black players of the Negro Leagues were cheated out of their moment in history by racism, and that many white players became legends at their expense. It was also not lost on him that despite his incredible natural talents, he, too would have been denied the opportunity to compete against the white players who would become icons had he been born in the segregated era. He was fueled to a large degree by addressing this historical racial slight.
Bonds was also driven by how baseball treated his father. Despite wonderful, revolutionary skills that should have been celebrated, Bobby Bonds endured a difficult existence in baseball. The elder Bonds was not only a talented player, but also a speedy power hitter, who was taken under the wing of Willie Mays while playing for the San Francisco Giants. That could only mean that Bobby Bonds had to be the next incarnation of Mays. Otherwise, he was not living up to his potential. It was a label that haunted Bobby Bonds, and in a sense was used as a convenient excuse to treat him rather shabbily. He was a leadoff hitter, and his power gave a new dimension to the position. He was the first leadoff man to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in the same season, and just the fourth player ever to achieve the feat (following Mays, Aaron, and the Browns’ Ken Williams). After seven seasons with the Giants in which he hit 186 home runs, stole 263 bases, and outproduced the average right fielder in nearly every offensive category, Bonds would never again know stability. Beginning in 1975, after the Giants had traded him to the Yankees, until the end of his career in 1982, Bonds played for seven teams in seven seasons. He would produced well and suddenly find himself expendable.
To Barry Bonds as well as many black players of his father’s era, Bobby Bonds’s changing teams so often was immediately attributable to race. A player as talented and versatile as Bobby Bonds was certainly would have been treated with more dignity had he been white, Barry told intimates. The league simply did not appear to be ready for him. The press was suspicious of him, unable to gauge him as a person. That is not to say that the majority of writers tried. Bobby Bonds, like his son, would be fiercely independent and not easily describable. There were lessons about race that Bonds would learn himself as he ascended in baseball, but the first one came by watching what baseball did to his father, about the price a strong black personality paid in a game that did not encourage independence.
When Barry Bonds became a great player, he was not unaware that his family’s place in baseball, the part that really mattered, was unassailable. Yet during the 1990s, when Bonds had already been a three-time MVP and had clearly solidified himself as one of the top players of his time, he saw his father struggling to remain a coach with the Giants. That the father was never properly celebrated bore a hole through the son. He also bristled as the celebration of the game’s generations did not include him and his father. The truth was that there was no greater father-son combination than Bobby and Barry Bonds. He was aware of the slight early, and before the 1990 playoffs began, Bonds revealed his vulnerable underbelly.
“You hear all this talk about Ken Griffey Jr. and his father, and the Ripkens. But they haven’t done anything compared to us. It’s crazy. It’s almost like my father is finally getting the recognition now because of my accomplishments, and that hurts me. My dad is regarded as one of the greatest players in the game. He should be in the Hall of Fame. What Ken Griffey’s done, what Cal Ripken’s done, that’s nothing. We’re in the history books, man, for the first father-son to crack 30-30 . . . they never did my dad right. They never gave him the respect he deserves. Why should I believe things will be any different for me?”
Fueled by these slights, Barry Bonds set out not only to fulfill his greatness but to do it a certain way. He played and spoke with a sense of grievance that was taken more as arrogance and less as what it really was, the manifestation of a driven personality to a large extent created by baseball’s historical callousness toward Bobby Bonds and the black players that came before him. Rarely did Barry Bonds speak about race, for he understood that the hero game worked both ways. So he kept his feelings contained, using his talent to create that distance from certain aspects of the game as well as the public. No player was more of baseball than Bonds, and yet no other player chose not to play along with its hypocrisies. In a way, it made sense that a black player would be the one to throw the false give-and-take with the public and the writers in the garbage. The writers didn’t understand him, anyway. When he was a young player, he tried to cultivate them and they responded by mangling his words. It was then that he made the fundamental decision that anything outside of playing the game of baseball was not going to matter to him.
Bonds went through the decade consistently dominant, amassing staggering numbers, yet paying a price for his freedom. For despite his brilliance, something remarkable happened: The game started having fun without him. The best player in the game was not its most celebrated. Bonds may have been the best player in the National League, but he nevertheless seemed to be diminished by the home run fiesta that took place in the poststrike years. While Bonds smoldered, the story was Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. To Jon Heyman, watching Sosa and McGwire led Bonds to a fateful choice to transform himself into an incredible hulk of a baseball player, which led him eventually to use steroids. “I think he got mad when he saw lesser players like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa getting all the attention, and he said to himself, ‘Let’s level the playing field,’” Heyman said. “And when he leveled the playing field realized he was two times better than everyone else. He literally became twice as good as anyone else playing baseball.”
Part Two will appear tomorrow. To download Will Carroll’s interview with Howard Bryant for Baseball Prospectus Radio, click here.