Why Do They Hate Barry Bonds?
Early in the 1993 season, Sports Illustrated assigned a writer to do a cover story on Bonds. SI writers are accustomed to being treated like royalty when they come to town. Athletes who are uncooperative with the local writers will talk effusively to the magazine writers, because they know it will be a national story.
Not this time. Bonds kept the SI writer waiting for six days before he was willing to be interviewed.
The result: The magazine the next week featured a picture of Bonds on the cover with the headline, “I’m Barry Bonds and you’re not.”
Ever since, the magazine has treated Bonds harshly. When it put together a group of all-star teams by countries, it left Bonds off the American team. To put that into perspective, this was during the time when Bonds was amassing a record that would result in The Sporting News naming him “Player of the Decade.” Apparently, he never stood up a TSN writer.
So, it’s no surprise that, since the steroids issue surfaced, SI has hammered Bonds relentlessly. That has set the national tone on the issue, abetted locally by The Chronicle’s crusade.
It’s not the national media, though, but the Giants’ beat writers who have suffered the most from Bonds’ attitude because of the way the newspaper business operates these days.
When I first came to The Chronicle, it was much different. The beat writer, Bob Stevens on the Giants at the time, was not expected to get comments from players. Stevens basically covered baseball as a music critic might cover the opera, dictating stories which were a review of the game. It was up to those lower on the food chain, which included me, to go to the dressing room and get quotes from players for sidebar stories.
When television started to make serious inroads, sports editors decided the beat writer should include quotes from athletes in game stories, even though the quotes are usually banal. Now, those quotes are often the centerpiece of stories as, more and more, writers play down the actual details of the game.
But Bonds’ cooperation has always been minimal, and that cooperation was often diametrically opposed to what he did in the game. If, for instance, he hit two home runs in a game but the Giants lost, he wouldn’t talk to writers – so they were left with a story without comments from the primary player. Editors, who seldom understand the problems of a writer, anyway, were not pleased.
But it is not the beat writers who have leveled the harshest criticism of Bonds. It is the columnists and national writers, none of whom are dependent on quotes from Bonds, who have been the most critical. As I’ve written several times, that’s because Bonds has always made it very clear that it wasn’t important what they wrote, which wounded them in their most sensitive area, their egos.
FOR ALL his prickly attitude, there were times when the Giants were still playing at Candlestick where Bonds could be outgoing and even fun to be around.
At that time, Bonds was available for interviews before the game, and there was usually a group of writers around him. Sometimes, he would go off on a tangent and talk for several minutes. Those episodes were always more interesting than his answers to the normal questions, and writers who had been talking to other players would leave them to listen to Bonds. Sometimes, even players did.
One time, I asked Giants PR man Bob Rose to set up a postgame interview for me. Rose referred me to Bonds’ personal publicity person, Rachel Vizcarra, who has been working with Bonds for 16 years now, and she set it up.
When I arrived, Bonds greeted me skeptically but, after I asked my first and only question, he launched into a monologue that lasted for more than half an hour. During it, he talked of the pressure he felt from being the son of Bobby Bonds, the godson of Willie Mays and the cousin of Reggie Jackson. That was the first I’d heard of the Jackson connection. I didn’t want to interrupt him, but a later check with Giants manager Dusty Baker confirmed that, so I had a mini-scoop.
Since athlete interviews are not usually a staple of my columns, I never spoke individually to Bonds again, though I have been part of several group interviews, including the one after he was named “Player of the Decade.”
The outgoing Bonds seemed to disappear when the Giants moved into their new park.
Perhaps it was because that was about the time when he started taking whatever he’s taking. Perhaps it was because of the greatly increased media attention he got when he started hitting home runs at a record pace. Perhaps it was the fact that his physical surroundings were changed; instead of an individual locker, he got three lockers, so he could put in a recliner where he could rest his back before the game.
The emotional distance between Bonds and Jeff Kent, not exactly a media treat himself, widened. Bonds became isolated from the rest of the team (most famously, not even participating in the team picture), though his teammates seem to be rallying around him this season as the media emphasis on the steroids issue intensifies.
One thing has never changed: Bonds remains determined not to show his good side to the public. He has consistently told the Giants PR people that he does not want publicity for his visits to hospitals and playgrounds. One time, Oakland Tribune columnist Monte Poole was tipped to a visit by a hospital employe. When Poole, who generally enjoys a good relationship with Bonds, appeared at the hospital, Bonds warned him that he’d never talk to Poole again if he wrote about the visit.
IN MORE THAN 40 years of covering professional sports, I’ve never met another athlete with a personality quite like Bonds. I simply don’t understand his demons and, from the way he often contradicts himself, I don’t think he does, either. He will make references to racism, for instance, but unlike Mays, Hank Aaron and Willie McCovey, who faced real racism because they grew up in the South, he has never been in that situation – and he is married to a white woman.
But, long ago, I learned that it’s futile to expect great athletes to also be great persons, any more than I would expect that of great entertainers. So, I basically ignore Bonds’ personality and concentrate on what he does on the field. He is the best hitter I’ve ever seen and the second-best all-round player behind, of course, his godfather. That’s good enough for me, though it obviously isn’t for much of the media.
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