Barry Bonds: The Hated Superstar
The mediaís dislike of Bonds comes from a natural cause: His obvious disdain for all reporters, whether they work for newspapers, magazines, radio stations or TV networks.
As with everything else about Bonds, his attitude toward the media is unlike anything Iíve ever seen.
Iíve known star athletes who turned mute around newspaper reporters but would be all smiles when a writer from a national magazine or somebody from ESPN came into the clubhouse. But, early in his Giants career, Bonds kept a Sports Illustrated writer waiting for a week before he consented to an interview. The magazine editors retaliated by putting him on the cover with the words, ďIím Barry Bonds and youíre not,Ē and by later keeping him off the All-U.S. team when they picked all-star teams from different countries.
Last year, Bonds vented his anger on Pedro Gomez, who was assigned by ESPN to report on his daily happenings. It doesnít bother Bonds if heís able to control the situation, though; heís the star of his own reality show, in the Giants clubhouse, this year.
National columnists have taken aim at Bonds this spring. The most extreme shot came from Murray Chass of the New York Times who recommended that major league baseball launch an immediate investigation into Bondsí history with performance-enhancing drugs, saying that the probe should be run by John Dowd, who did the thorough report on Pete Roseís gambling habits.
Chass is a well respected writer in the baseball community, and a man Iíve known since early in our careers, but heís suggesting the baseball version of a witch hunt here. Bonds has been tested, probably several times. Leaked grand jury testimony to a Chronicle writer had him saying he used a steroid in the form of a cream but didnít know what it was. Itís extremely unlikely Bonds would use something without knowing what it was, but he was not prosecuted and the whole investigation, in fact, ended with only minor penalties. Why should he be singled out for a special investigation now?
We wonít know the full extent of the writersí malice until Bonds is eligible for the Hall of Fame. He should be a no-brainer first ballot inductee, but you can bet there will be many baseball writers who will not vote for him, saying his records are tainted by steroids use.
In fact, though, if he had retired after the 1999 season, before he started the home run binge that has him on the verge of surpassing Babe Ruth and possibly even Hank Aaron, he would belong in the Hall of Fame.
He was voted the Player of the Decade by The Sporting News for his all-round excellence in the Ď90s. In that decade, he hit for average and power, stole bases with a proficiency that eventually made him the only player in baseball history with 500 home runs and 500 steals and played a superb defensive left field, compensating for a weak arm by charging balls hit in front of him and getting his throw off quickly.
THE STEROIDS issue hangs over Bonds like a cloud, but there are some points that should be made about that:
--Whatever heís taking, Bonds is not alone. Weíre finding out on a regular basis how widespread steroids use is, and itís often surprising to see whoís been caught. It isnít just the power hitters. Players like Alex Sanchez, for instance, have been caught; those of us who saw Sanchez in his brief stint with the Giants think it was his glove which needed steroids.
Who even knows how many pitchers are taking steroids? If a pitcher is taking steroids and a hitter is taking them, who has the advantage?
--The baseball playing field has never been even. Teams have routinely shaped their parks to fit their players. Yankee Stadium was built with a short porch Ė only 296 feet Ė down the right field line because Ruthís home run hitting led to an unprecedented attendance burst by the Yankees. Ruth probably didnít need the help, but there have been many lefthanded Yankee hitters since who have; Roger Maris would never have hit his then record 61 home runs playing in a different park. Nobody at the time thought less of Maris's accomplishment because of that.
Baseball has played with the liveliness of the ball, too, juicing it up in the Depression era Ď30s to try to entice fans to the park. A disproportionate number of hitters from the Ď30s are in the Hall of Fame because of that decision. Voters didnít consider the liveliness of the ball in voting them in.
After the 1968 season when pitchers dominated the game Ė Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA, Carl Yastrzemski, at .301, was the only American League hitter to surpass .300 Ė the owners voted to lower the pitching mound, and batting averages climbed. Because the league still did not have enough offense, which usually meant disappointing attendance, the American League adopted the Designated Hitter in 1973.
Those around the game think the ball was juiced again before the 1987 season. Home runs in the National League jumped from 1523 the previous year to 1824, in the American League from 2290 to 2634. Giants shortstop Jose Uribe, a career .241 hitter, hit .291.
In the 1993 season, the National League added two teams and the average team home run total was 126, compared to 105 the previous year. Perhaps you could lay that to inferior pitching, because there were 20-22 pitchers in the National League who would have been in the minors the year before Ė but the American League, which added no teams, had a similar home run jump, from 127 to 148 per club. Hard to escape the conclusion that the ball was juiced.
Thatís why I always make comparisons within a playerís era, because conditions change so much. In any comparison with his peers, Bonds comes out far ahead.
MY BELIEF is that the chief benefits Bonds has gotten from steroids is his ability to recover faster from injury (obviously, that was not a factor with his knee surgeries last year) and to build more muscle in his workouts.
He is not the only hitter who has been able to hit for more power as he got older, though. Hall of Famer Johnny Mize was a good hitter with ďgap powerĒ (doubles and triples) in his early career with the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1947 with the New York Giants, he had no speed left, but he hit 51 homers, a rare feat at that time. Aaron is the career home run leader because of his consistency, but he hit his season high of 47 when he was 37, and heíd had a 44-homer year two seasons before and added 40 in í73, when he was 39. Ted Williams had his best homer per at-bat ratio in his last season, when he was 40.
Some hitters learn to look for the one pitch they can drive as they get older, even if it makes taking a strike or even two before they get that pitch. Bonds has learned that lesson. He also will not go for a pitch out of the strike zone, so he remains consistent. He works incesssantly at his game, going into the batting cage area behind the dugout in the seventh inning of home games to take swings against a pitching machine set for lefthanded pitching, because he knows heíll face a lefthanded reliever late in the game. He watches his diet carefully, and his workouts, when he hasnít had to favor his knee, are thorough.
Unfortunately, he seems willing, even eager, to hide his good side. Iíve heard of times when heís visited hospitals, for instance, but has told the Giants publicity people he doesnít want that information out. (On one occasion, a writer was called by the hospital staff, but when he showed up, Bonds warned him heíd leave if a photographer came in.) A reader recently told me of seeing Bonds in an airport when he was approached by members of a college baseball team; Bonds sat down and talked with them, offering advice, for several minutes. But, there wasnít a media person in sight.
So, he continues to be criticized by media people. I donít blame my colleagues for being annoyed by his lack of cooperation, especially the beat writers. I donít blame anybody who talks about the nasty personality he often displays publicly. But an investigation of Bonds' drug use? Please. Letís show a little professionalism.
YESTERDAY: A reader told me my website was down for some time in midday yesterday. Possibly that was due to the unsettled weather and the two small earthquakes which hit the area. At any rate, the problem seems to have been resolved, so you can catch up to my Wednesday column on the Warriors today.
For those of you who are new to the site, everything Iíve written since I started on Feb. 27, 2005, is in the ďArchiveĒ section. Just donít remind me of any predictions that went wrong!
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