I wrote this piece for another site and I warn you it’s long for a blog. But it’s a slow sports news night and I thought I’d post it here for those interested in the subject of Barry Bonds.
A few weeks from now Barry Bonds will break Hank Aaron’s record. It’s a foregone conclusion. He’s healthy, swinging the bat better than he has in a few years (despite his recent slump) and has the look of a man who knows he’s about to achieve something spectacular. He’s never made much of the record but look closely at the man as he straps on his elbow brace and saunters towards the on-deck circle and you’ll see the fierce determination in his eyes. And this is who Barry Bonds has always been- a competitor.
He’s played at a consistently high level for over 20 years. No one can ever take that away from him. Did he lie to the
Grand Jury? Possibly. Did he use performance enhancing drugs? Probably. Is he an arrogant misanthrope who has done much to taint his own reputation? Without question.
But ponder this as well…
Is he the greatest baseball player most of us have ever seen play? I say yes. Is he the greatest left fielder of all time? Again yes. Should he be maligned for breaking Aaron’s record. No. He should be applauded. There should be parades and ceremonies and a celebration of all that baseball can be. This is a record that rewards not only longevity but absolute excellence. Bonds has been the best for a very long time.
In a poll conducted by ABC News and ESPN 37 percent said they are rooting for Bonds to break the record, while 52 percent hoped he fell short. 11 percent had no opinion. Twenty-eight percent of white respondents and nearly 75 percent of black respondents said they were hoping Bonds succeeds- a huge discrepancy between the two groups. Leaving the steroids issue aside for a moment, is this an example of racism?
Interestingly, as Hank Aaron moved closer to breaking Babe Ruth’s record he received racist hate mail and even death threats from angry whites unable to cope with the fact that a black man was about to break a white icon’s record. Not only a record but THE record. The most storied record in all of sports. Obviously, this time the issue is different. Perhaps the racism is fueled by the difference in public perception between Aaron and Bonds. Aaron is perceived as a quiet, dignified statesman of the game while Bonds is seen as the obnoxious provocateur. That perception is wrong.
At times Aaron was wrongly portrayed as an Uncle Tom. He wasn’t. Not by any stretch. Aaron was much more vocal in his protest against racist behavior in baseball than Bonds has ever been. Several times throughout his career, Aaron lashed out at social injustice.
In an October ’65 interview with famed baseball writer Jerome Holtzman, Aaron discussed the lack of blacks in managerial and front office positions. He also spoke out many times over the years about the deplorable spring training conditions that black players endured. In 1964 the Milwaukee Journal published an article entitled "Move to Georgia Peachy? Not to Aaron" about the slugger’s concern with the Braves imminent move to the southern city of Atlanta.
Bonds, on the other hand, only really spoke of racism in MLB once. That was in 1998 when McGwire was annointed the home run king and Bonds and Sosa were overlooked.
Another reason for the discrepancy between blacks and whites might have to do with the way the two groups view the scales of justice. Having suffered through false arrests, suspicious police stops and a legal system which- and the numbers bare this out- has not always been equally balanced, blacks may be more willing to consider Bonds innocent until proven guilty.
And why is Bonds so incredibly villified? Yes, it’s true he hasn’t been kind to the media and there have been anecdotes regarding his behavior in the locker room that depict him as less than cordial towards some of his teammates as well as team officials. Is Bonds a jerk? I never met him. Negative stories about Bonds certainly sell books but I feel there must be a decent side to him. You can’t play that well for that long without having the support of the team and the manager.
And, of course, if Bonds really is that nasty a person he has plenty of company in the "despicable player" club. Mark McGwire was hated by many teammates and could be very surly with the media. Ted Williams was despised by the media and even some fans. Yet neither of them are viewed the way Bonds’ is. Racist? Perhaps.
Personally I’m thrilled to see Bonds breaking Hank Aaron’s record. Almost as thrilled as I was on that night in April 0f ’74 when I was 10 years old and watched Aaron go deep against Al Downing on our old 13" black and white television.
I remember Curt Gowdy’s call of the game and I remember Tom House catching the ball in the bull pen. I want to remember Bonds’ pursuit that way. I want Bud Selig to be there even though Bowie Kuhn wasn’t there for Aaron. I want baseball to give Bonds the credit and the love that he deserves.
I don’t want to read or hear about Grand Jury testimonies or investigative reports right now. I only want to watch Barry Bonds swing a bat and drive balls deep into the night. Because he’s been doing that better than anyone else in baseball for a very long time. Or maybe ever. And, regardless of your skin color, I hope you understand how cool that is.
Although there’s tons of writing on this topic, I pulled out a few pieces that I especially liked:
And perhaps the best piece on Bonds I’ve ever read: