[Stop] Hating Barry Bonds

With the steroid scandal escalating and the chase to beat Babe Ruth’s record in full swing, Bonds seems omnipresent. Here a writer once set to pen the slugger’s autobiography reveals his take on Bonds, his famous dad and all those demons.

Photo By Jonathan Ferrey

I thought I knew Barry Bonds. As least as much as someone who’s not related (wife, kids, mom, etc.) or beholden (Giants, hangers-on, lovers), for years I’d been appraised of the directions his life might have been taking. I’d spent some time studying him. Of course, there were limits, but I felt I had a handle on the guy.

That’s because we had a failed million-dollar book deal between us.

Earlier this month, it hit me while watching a Giants game at Dodger Stadium that the guy’s experiencing something arguably beyond Shakespearean.

My understanding of Hamlet is limited to a Shakespeare class, audited at Fresno State back in maybe ’90, and indirect pop references. I know enough regardless to understand that Barry’s various deals with the devil have been weighing on his 42-year-old psyche, despite what the media claim.

At the stadium, 50,000 people on hand to see him and 35,000 to boo. Children in ball caps yelling “Barroids!” “Cheater!” and “Just retire!”

And I know he was wondering what his dad would be thinking.Barry doesn’t play against Greg Maddux or Dontrelle Willis or any contemporary baseball player. He plays against Bobby Bonds, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Reggie Jackson—players inside the spectrum of a historically great extended baseball family. Barry has always known he’s a player for the ages.

Far and away, though, he plays against his father, Bobby.

In aesthetic terms, his dad was a genius baseball player, a pioneer in the 300-stolen-bases, 300-homers category. Stat freaks obsessed over him. And beyond being an amazing player, Barry’s father’s skill set also performed the task of getting him and his also-athletic wife and his son up out of Riverside clapboard housing and into a San Carlos three-bedroom home.

Ultimately, though, for Bobby Bonds it was all too much, from the segregated scenarios of his minor-league experiences to the media shenanigans a superstar is expected to submit himself to. (In ’76, when the dude was traded to the Yankees, Dick Schapp’s Sport magazine actually put this Black Panther-era Bay Area cat in a wild Uncle Sam getup.)

So, he intoxicated his body. And he struck out. And he got traded. A lot. Barry’s father played on seven teams in 14 seasons and eventually was deemed a clubhouse cancer who couldn’t hit the curve anyway.

For a short, relatively sane period of the Bonds-Bonds relationship, Bobby played for the Giants, and his kids hung out in the Candlestick locker room with the children of Tito Fuentes and Gaylord Perry and ate pieces of candy from Willie Mays’ locker. Sounds amazing. Yet, aspects of that time were off-kilter, as were offseasons. Bobby was hard on his otherwise privileged son Barry, the kind of boy who was as likely to be found at home watching soap operas with his mom as playing pickup basketball or baseball with his brothers. Those brothers and their adopted sister—who is white—got along with their father way better than he did.

Before Barry had even finished high school, journalists on the South Bay Area sports beat would slip up and call him by his dad’s name. Everywhere he went during the early years, the same question kept coming: “Do you think you’ll be as good as your father?”

Instilled in him with all of this was a need to be better than his father.

Barry’s entire career is based on this particular desire for acceptance and recognition.

1993 is the origin of my complicated dislike for Barry Bonds. Back then, no one could have imagined the weight gain that would, in iconic terms, become something like the former stolen-base leader’s version of Michael Jackson’s nose. There was no shameful physical indictment. At that time, he was roughly the same size as me, if significantly more athletic.

Fresh out of Chico—and a reporting gig at the News & Review—I was settling into my San Francisco freelance-writing life when a new magazine called Vibe asked me to write about Barry, who had just signed the richest deal in baseball history with the Giants. My shit was the opposite: Money was scarce, and the assignment was a big deal, career-wise, at the time.

On that Sunday afternoon at Candlestick Park, Bobby Bonds, just hired as the Giants’ hitting coach and media barrier, ultimately was gonna say whether I got to interview his son. (The Giants’ publicity team, the Beverly Hills Sports Council, talked a good game about making the piece happen, but the authority ultimately was going to come from Bobby. The Giants’ indulgence of the company superstar never has known boundaries.)

Barry Bonds’ dad, Bobby, was a genius baseball player, a pioneer in the 300-stolen-bases, 300-homers category. But he was a troubled man, too. As Barry became a famous athlete in his own right, his relationship with his dad continued to be a determining force.

Barry’s dad was, uh, a giant to me. I’m a baseball fan from northern Ohio, and for the season Bonds was with the ’79 Indians, a team of God-squaders, his 25 homers—and 135 strikeouts in 146 games—were the most exciting aspect of a summer in which I wore my Cleveland cap every single day. And now he was walking toward me through the tunnel from the field. I’d been waiting three days for his son to deign to honor our interview agreement. All I could think about, though, was the time Bobby had scored the Tribe’s winning run from second base, on a bloop single.

Bobby Bonds fingered an unlit cigarette as he moved toward the tunnel.

“Mr. Bonds?” I said. “I just need to …”

“Nope,” he answered from behind sunglasses, declining even to break stride.

Now, I’m not sure exactly where Bobby was in his struggle with sobriety on this day, but that was some cold shit. I had my tape recorder and notebook out in front, so he would know I was a writer. My threads were distinctly of the early-1990s hip-hop style, so he could see I wasn’t that kind of writer. (My dreads might even have been an accessible high-top fade still.)

It didn’t end the world that my first Barry Bonds assignment died. Sure, Barry lied to me, taking money out of my pocket. But the guy had a job to do. And I wished I’d had a dad who looked out for me with such vigilance.

Bobby Bonds didn’t spend a lot of time with his son, but he did leave him with a hunk of awareness about the white-guy power structure in baseball. He showed Barry that owners primarily regarded players as equipment. And before Barry had even made the majors, he’d felt the sting of racism, in the unlikely minor-league location of Hawaii. The same Pittsburgh sportswriters who had quoted Roberto Clemente phonetically now were comparing Barry Bonds unfavorably to overrated teammate Andy Van Slyke.

Barry has had an amazing career, both in Pittsburgh and San Francisco. Eventually I came to know that he carries with him a sense that he is entitled to the same sort of love that white stars of his caliber receive—which is absurd. Barry was sufficiently alienated from African life in America—here’s a guy who sometimes runs with Kenny G!—that he somehow assumed he’d be treated equally. When that didn’t happen, well, the rest of the story is in the papers now, changing every day.

The allegations that Barry consciously decided to do steroids after 1998 did not come as a surprise to sports journalists. In the cozy relationship between their news organizations and major-league baseball, the shared understanding was that everyone would ride that steroid thing for as long as they could. Classically played baseball just wasn’t grabbing eyeballs or putting American asses in seats during this X Games-attention-span era.

In this last year before hulking out, Barry established a mark of 400 career home runs and 400 steals. That’s a phenomenal stat, a figure in a class by itself. And, aficionados excluded, nobody cared. It was also the year of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire’s single-season-homer record chase. Barry had plans to obtain all merchandising rights to his name and empower it.

Initially, these designs worked, as he went on a historic home-run tear. After Barry broke McGwire’s single-season-homer mark, I stood in my Brooklyn apartment with The Chronic 2001’s “Big Egos” playing. I played it over the SportsCenter highlight run again and again. The song was dedicated to those with big egos, and the moment ranked right up there with anything his father had done.

Quickly, though, about those steroids: I happened to be on the writing staff of ESPN The Magazine when the Sosa-McGwire duel was popping. Once, I happened upon a televised Cardinals-Cubs game and a bunch of writers and editors standing around it.

“Those guys are totally on steroids. We should do a story about it.”

This was a joke, of course. They were no sooner gonna do that than the network was likely to cut back on filler programming. Baseball and the media walked hand in hand on steroids. Bread and butter.

Not that I believe there’s no place for steroids in popular sports. Folks enjoy their games done up big, and drugs are extremely difficult to eradicate. What I’d like to see is a clean, Olympic-style testing league and a World Wrestling Entertainment-style, no-holds-barred league. (My fantasy scenario has the installation of a 45-second clock revolutionizing the game, but that’s another article.) Monitoring of drugs apparently runs way behind what the drug underworld has available. It would almost be fairer if usage was open and monitored.

Sports-media politics aside, much of what’s been askew about the coverage and analysis of steroids in baseball is the result of too little understanding about drugs. And although I’m nobody’s junkie, I happen to know about them. If, 20 years ago, you happened to read that piece about California’s coming crystal-meth crisis, that was my byline. If you wanna know the main reason your favorite rapper is all irritable and buff when his album’s set to drop, ask me, and I’ll tell you: steroids.

Drugs, only when correctly administered, can get you places. A few years ago, while I was facing a powerful deadline for my first book, a cellie number for a coke dealer ended up in my wallet. And I got stuck wondering whether to use it to work out my writer’s-block issues or go see a shrink. A best-selling novelist who shall remain anonymous told me, “It won’t write the book for you, but it’ll cut down the time between you thinking and you actually writing and getting usable words on the page.” I called up “Julio” ASAP and got my shit on bookshelves.

On Saturday, April 15, this article’s author [shown below] took his son and two other fourth-graders to Dodger Stadium for a San Francisco Giants game. The four of them watched Barry Bonds gaze into the stands under an epic cascade of boos.

Photo By Donnell Alexander

My point is that drugs didn’t hit a single homer for Barry Bonds. They only allowed him to work harder. Say what you want about the guy, but he built his new body himself. The cheating part is in his alleged use of tools not all his competitors had access to.

“That’s Barry Bonds!”

A crowd of dozens of teens had surrounded me, Barry, his agent and the rest of his entourage late in the afternoon of a November 2002 day. Our Hollywood-style trailer sat next to a South Bay high-school ball field, where the makers of a Tokyo game show had made the field over with banners and slogans. They were completing the second part of a game show Barry had shot over in Japan, just after the Giants lost the World Series. Between raindrops, the slugger, clad in an ill-fitting uniform, had run out onto the diamond, where out on the pitcher’s mound stood a 7-foot-high screen illustrating, up close, a pitcher. The moving image wound up as if to throw toward home plate, and at the apex of the image’s motion, through a small, round opening, a rigging forced out one mean fastball.

When the San Francisco slugger, decked out in that last-minute uniform, would swing and miss, a joker I eventually was told was one of Japan’s top comedians would leap out, gesticulating and cackling like Krusty the Clown. Barry loves all things Japanese, but it’s easy to understand why this gig got on his nerves.

Barry and I had been paired up by Random House, the publisher of my memoir, Ghetto Celebrity, which was set to hit in June. Christopher Jackson, now executive editor of Doubleday, e-mailed me a singularly lame Barry Bonds book proposal, penned by an almanac-writing crony, and sheepishly asked if I could turn it into something. Then I spent a hundred hours researching Barry’s story, in libraries, on the Internet and on the phone with folks who knew its disparate parts well.

By the time of our meeting, who he was seemed no mystery to me. I felt comfort in knowing his cap-size increase.

So, that drizzly day I wasn’t surprised when he bullied his publicist. It was the sort of confirmation I was looking for. Most of the six hours in the trailer were spent getting his intonations, phrasings and general voice down. The third of this time that we spent in actual interview gave me insights into Barry’s humor and his ceaselessly contradictory demands and statements. Confirmation that he was indeed a sublime product of jock privilege and economic privilege was unnecessary yet easy to observe. Anyway, watching him munch chocolates like he thought hardly at all about health consciousness, I still grudgingly liked the fella. When it was all done, and we milled about the trailer, I only mildly wanted the day to end.

“There’s Ricky Williams!” another kid shouted. Mass rumbling came next and then quiet realization. After all, the Dolphins weren’t on the local NFL schedule, and my only actual resemblance to that running back at the time was our consistently slitty, reddened eyes.

The entire entourage laughed about that and drew together. I moved toward the middle of everything, where the center of it all was glad-handing hangers-on. Barry had taken forever to help the book project move forward. The Giants just kept winning, despite expectations. But I was getting concerned, being butt poor and blessed with family back in Los Angeles.

“Let me holler at you, dude,” I told Barry. I gestured to pull him aside once we got close and said, “I’m not like you, man. I ain’t got no money. Christmas is coming. I got kids, yo. And man, you really, really can make this happen.”

“Dude,” he said while looking directly into my eyes, “don’t panic.”

I tell this story mostly because Barry luxuriates in playing the race card. And he’s right now in the middle of using black people’s support like O.J. did. I’m here to tell you, though, that even as I find the sports-media empire to be racist and conniving, that doesn’t make Barry a martyr. If anyone embodies Chuck D’s classic sentiment that every brother ain’t a brother or even Thurgood Marshall’s reminder that there are black snakes as well as white snakes, it is this man. And when a dude with my hard-core lefty politics thinks you’re using race as a crutch, you’re definitely abusing a privilege.

After a sparse Christmas that year, I wrote the Bonds autobiography proposal, and it resulted in a high-six-figure offer from Random House. But Bonds turned it down. Had his heart set on a million, according to his agent, Dallas-based Jan Miller, who also reps Dr. Phil and Tony Robbins. That’s despite the $42 million the Giants pay him annually. That offer was all the more remarkable in that few people liked Barry, even in those days.

Then Viacom and Simon & Schuster did indeed pony up a mil. His agent said there’d have been no deal without me, and I went off for my Ghetto Celebrity tour thinking Barry would be what I was writing when I returned. And I was looking for a check. But my first phone call after hitting LAX brought the most shocking of revelations.

“Haven’t you heard?” Bob Bender, my then-new editor asked me. “Bonds backed out.”

I had an inclination as to why Barry faked. Even as my project had shown Barry in an abrasive, if somewhat appealing light, I’d still promised honest talk about steroids. By then the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative case had heated up, and I should have seen him abandoning ship. Embarrassing as it is to say, I’d actually thought he’d work with me rather than high-tail it out of our deal. The chance to tell a great story is always guaranteed to make me stupid faithful.

By then his dad had passed on—too much wear and tear on his body before finding sobriety.

Donnell Alexander, who started his career at the News & Review, is a writer based in Los Angeles. He wrote for LA Weekly and ESPN The Magazine and authored a memoir, <i>Ghetto Celebrity</i>. His new fiction, an excerpt from the novel <i>Rhyme Scheme</i>, will appear this spring in Bronx Biannual (Akashic).

Photo By Don Button

In preparing for the book, Barry told me a lot of stuff about who he is directly, but his lawyers won’t let me use it. The stuff is too real. They’d rather people watch the Bonds on Bonds Tollin/Robbins (Radio) version of reality to represent who he is, rather than my particular filter.

And to be completely straight up, his camp isn’t keen on me because after the book deal fell through, I said a lot of vicious things about him in the media. Many variations on them were typed here and then deleted. (In more than one way, he’s changed me. Like, it never occurred to me that I might have to stab a person until I became involved with Barry Bonds.) About the least offensive thing I’ll reprise about my intense dislike for the man is my still-visceral desire to kick his ass on pay-per-view for every fan and every decent writer that he’s clowned. I’d feel good about that.

I used to hate him.

But now it’s odd watching him spin his life for the reality-show cameras and editors. Bonds on Bonds is no Lil’ Kim: Countdown to Lockdown—the most entertaining reality show I’ve seen in a minute—but it’s all right. Especially if you ignore its pieced-together feel. Amid all the stilted PR, a recent Bonds on Bonds moment stuck out as true. Barry was depicted bonding with his youngest daughter.

“You want her to remember as much of your career as possible,” he said.

Would it be possible for a Bonds offspring to have a more complex reaction to a father’s accomplishments than Barry had for Bobby?

The answer has to be yes.

This comment took me back to the day after possible federal perjury charges were announced against Barry Bonds: Saturday, April 15.

That’s the day I witnessed Barry under a hail of boos way worse than any booing I’ve ever heard. And I was around arenas where Latrell Sprewell played NBA road games, in the immediate wake of that P.J. Carlisemo suspension. For the uninitiated, the Dodgers and Giants are rivals, and they boo Barry whenever he comes to play at Dodger Stadium. But this shit was epic.

From my close seat in left field, me and three fourth-grade boys—one Giants fan, a baseball neophyte and my son, who associates Barry with the time in 2003 that we didn’t have enough money to get into the zoo—watched the crowd as much as we watched the game. All around left, from the third-base line to the middle of the bleacher seats, people were castigating him, constantly. Not just booing, but a serenade of slogans (“Giants suck, Barry swallows”; try explaining that to boys you’ve got linked up through the buddy system), impassioned individual tirades and, yes, a constant and bitter cascade of boos. They booed him in the outfield, they booed him in the on-deck circle, and they booed him when he stepped to the plate.

Saturday was Jackie Robinson Night at Dodger Stadium.

“Barroids, Barroids!” Dodger fans chanted time and again. The boy who knew nothing about baseball joined in. My son did, too. And the young Giants fan in my charge looked like he was having the worst day of his life.

I made my son stop. Barry was doing this thing I’ve never actually seen before, in which the ballplayer stood, literally between plays, gazing into the stands at all the people raining down unadulterated hatred on him. He seemed mesmerized. A quest for recognition could not have seemed more fatally broken.

My boy didn’t have to stop for anything having to do with Barry Bonds’ feelings, and, in fact, when his gaze lit on the seventh seat in Section 45’s A row, I held forth my middle finger and mouthed the words “Fuck you.” No, the parental restraints were aimed at salvaging some of his friend’s pleasure in being a Giants fan. Once I was young and a San Francisco fan, you know?

Besides, the herd mentality was also at issue. Chants that started with children and alcoholics seemed to sweep every otherwise reasonable fan into a frenzy. Now, Barry deserves just about everything he’s getting. However belated, he’s finally learning that no man is actually better than anyone else just because he’s athletic. But going along with the lynch mob demeans everyone, I reminded the boys. And, for these boys’ purposes, baseball is supposed to be just a game.

“A lot of people did steroids in baseball. A lot of people cheat,” I counseled the boys. “There practically is no baseball without cheating.”

The argument can be made that the way Barry Bonds has excelled makes him the greatest pure baseball player ever regardless of steroids. So, it was almost sorrowful that this person who only craved acceptance would be tarred with naked opprobrium. Almost.

He at least became that ballplayer no one would confuse with Bobby.