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Why America will never love Barry Bonds

Page 2 columnist

We are more than halfway through the baseball season, and it has been fun so far. The Yankees, who play in the city in which I live, and for whom I rooted as a boy, are floundering, and there are clear signs that they might have gotten just a little old and are vulnerable to left-handed pitching.

Ichiro Suzuki
Ichiro and the Mariners have stolen the headlines in 2001.
The Red Sox are playing exceptionally well, and their pitching is the surprise of the season -- they had, the last time I looked, the best ERA in the league, and they were right behind the Yankees even without Nomar.

I called my friend Marty Nolan, the former Boston Globe editorial page editor who now lives out in San Francisco in partial retirement, to suggest that this might be his year, that the Yankees looked vulnerable -- they keep failing to make the plays and they do not look crisp and professional.

Nolan, his enthusiasm tempered by long, bitter years of systematic disappointment, remained skeptical. He has endured a lifetime of bitter surprise, and he came up with the greatest phrase I know to define being a Red Sox fan: "They killed my father," he once wrote, "and now they're coming after me."

Two teams with young players -- Minnesota and Philadelphia -- have played well, but the most captivating team in baseball, the team winning the most friends, is Seattle. There's a certain joyousness about what the Mariners have done, and it seems to reflect a healthy ethic about life: Great player reaches free agency; Seattle makes handsome offer; great player leaves anyway; Seattle does not, as expected, wither and fold, but manages to make some good trades and free-agent signings and plays even better the following year.

For three years in a row, the Mariners have lost one of their best players -- indeed, not just a very good player, but in each case, a genuine blue-chip superstar, first Randy Johnson, then Ken Griffey Jr., and finally Alex Rodriguez -- and yet each year they get better and better.

Barry Bonds
Barry Bonds' pursuit of the record hasn't captured our attention like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did in 1998.
Clearly someone in the front office is doing something right. They've deepened their starting pitching, greatly strengthened their bullpen, and added speed and excitement to their day-to-day lineup. They're fun to watch, and they play the game a very nice, old-fashioned way. It is, all in all, the best story of the season.

That brings us to the most problematic story of the second part of the season, Barry Bonds' pursuit of Mark McGwire's home-run record. Here we are, a little beyond midseason, and at this moment Bonds seems to have a realistic shot at 70-plus. Will he do it? And, equally important, will we care that much if he does? Can we, with the help of today's highly paid spin doctors, learn to love Barry Bonds? Can he learn to love us?

Three years ago, when Sammy Sosa and McGwire put on their Maris chase, it was great fun. They were perfectly cast, McGwire representing the older, white America, the old-fashioned power hitter as bruiser (though his swing had gotten better and better over the years, and he had become an ever more disciplined hitter), Sosa the champion of non-white America, like so many of today's great players, a child of Latin America.

They both played it out not merely with considerable grace but with a certain elemental joy; they handled the appalling media demands exceptionally well, as if it were not some terrible unwanted intrusion on their otherwise busy schedules inflicted by a hostile federal judge, behaving instead as if the media is what it is, a representative and extension of the fans; they were gracious about and toward each other; and mercifully, they did not, as Roger Maris did in 1961, have to contend with the idea that they were demythologizing the semi-sainted Babe, and therefore that there was something un-American about what they were doing.

It's not just Barry Bonds who turns off David Halberstam. He also refuses to watch All-Star Games. Never has. Never will . . . that is, unless Bud Selig is willing to make some major changes. Check out what Halberstam has in mind.

I cheered their friendly competition, and so did much of the country. If there was any racial bias that tended to favor McGwire, I did not pick up on it. If anything, Sosa might have been the more joyous player.

They were both, I thought, reflections of a new American baseball world, where the players are bigger and stronger than ever, where diet tends to be better, and where the blessing of weight rooms adds a vast new dimension of power. Maris was the prototypical good all-around athlete of my generation -- he was exactly five months younger than I am -- about 6-feet tall and around 200 pounds. He was not in the classic sense -- a Mickey Mantle or Harmon Killebrew or Willie Mays -- a power hitter. He was a very good line-drive hitter, who was playing in exactly the right ballpark and hitting just ahead of the exact right cleanup hitter.

Compared to Maris, Sosa is simply a brute. I would bet -- it's hard to tell these things, because the number that professional sports teams put out on their players are always skewed, either to make them look bigger or smaller -- that Sosa is at least 35 or 40 pounds heavier than Maris, that the difference is all muscle, that his percentage of body fat is lower that that of Maris, and that a great deal of the muscle is in his shoulders, neck and trunk, where so much of a baseball player's power comes from. Maris was built like a (white) college running back of the early '50s; Sosa looks like an NFL fullback of the '90s.

All in all, it was great fun watching them. We were quite lucky in our choice of contestants. Imagine, said my colleague Roger Angell of the New Yorker, if it had been Albert Belle and Barry Bonds.

Sammy Sosa
Compared to Roger Maris, Sammy Sosa is simply a brute.
And so right now, we have Barry Bonds, pitted mostly it seems, against Barry Bonds, which, of course, is what his dilemma as a human being has always been about. He has for a long time been one of the very best players in the game -- indeed you could make a solid, rational case that for a decade or so he has been the best player in the game.

And he as also been one of the most difficult to like. The stories have always been quite shocking. They are not, it should be noted, about a distant, somewhat aloof, rather private young man, who keeps himself apart from the amiable pre-game byplay that can make baseball a good deal of fun.

Rather they are about unprovoked, deliberate, gratuitous acts of rudeness towards all kinds of people, other players, distinguished sportswriters. They are of a handsomely rewarded young man of surpassing talent, going out of his way to make the ambiance in which he operates as unpleasant as possible, and to diminish the dignity and pleasure of other men (and now women) who also work for a living, even if their talents are somewhat smaller than his. This is about nothing less than the abuse of power -- he has it by dint of his abilities, and he uses his power to make others' lives more difficult and less pleasant.

Barry Bonds has played the game about as well as it has ever been played -- the comparisons go back to his godfather, Willie Mays-- but he has shown remarkably little pleasure in his accomplishments. He has a rare capacity to take something that should be pleasant -- playing a big-time sport at a supreme level -- and to make it unpleasant.

The prototypical story is that of him coming into the dugout one day in the late afternoon before a night game in St. Louis -- and finding his father Bobby talking with two veteran journalists and saying, "Get the hell out of here." And so they did, while his father raised his eyebrows in a look that said, "Sorry, guys, there's nothing I can do about it."

Barry Bonds
Despite the spin doctors, it's too late for Barry Bonds to reinvent himself.
Now, of course, as he zeroes in on a record, we are about to get the rehabilitation process -- that is, the artists of spin are going to help us discover the inner Barry Bonds, the sweet, shy, much-neglected self that no one else has bothered to discover before. We are going to find out that it is the public's fault for booing him, and the media's fault for misunderstanding him. That is, it's our fault, not his.

This is not going to be easy, especially because he has already been quoted this year saying that he takes special pleasure in doing well, because it's a way of sticking it to the fans. Nonetheless, the rehabilitation already has begun -- magazine pieces putting the blame on the public, or pointing out how painful it is to be booed, and how hard it is to be Barry Bonds. He seems to be someone born to hear the boos and to ignore the cheers.

Will he change? Has he changed? I doubt it. Nor do I care very much. We are what we are most certainly by the time we hit our late 30s. We can pretend to change, but we rarely do.

Thus this past week in the New York Times, whose sportswriters he has systematically mistreated over the years, in a question and answer format:

    Q: "Plying your trade in the public eye has never been one of your favorite things."

    A: "I like what I do as far as the game. But I don't like a crowd of people around. I just don't feel comfortable. I don't know if I get nervous, or if I feel choked, or what not. It's scary. It's not a good thing."

    Q: "We know what Cal Ripken means to fans, what Mark McGwire means to fans. What does Barry Bonds mean?"

    A: They think I'm arrogant. Not nice. Not fan friendly.

    Q: "Does the bad-guy image drive you?"

    A: "That's just something the media portrays. It has nothing to do with who I am."

If he continues to chases the record, so be it. As far as I'm concerned, it's a story that isn't much of a story, because there's no one to root for. I don't think records are sacrosanct -- I was delighted when Maris hit his 61st. I don't root against people on their way to excellence, but in this case I can't root for him. I think I'm like a lot of baseball fans -- I just don't care what happens.

  The artists of spin are going to help us discover the inner Barry Bonds, the sweet, shy, much-neglected self that no one else has bothered to discover before. We are going to find out that it is the public's fault for booing him, and the media's fault for misunderstanding him. That is, it's our fault, not his.  

If there is an overdose of coverage on this, unlike the last time, it will be media-driven (the media looking for a story on long, boring August days), rather than fan-driven, a hunger to know what has happened.

There's a wonderful story I know about a Yankee player of the '20s (not Ruth), who was extremely hostile to the media throughout his career. And then late in his career, when his skills were fading, he was afraid of being cut loose. So he started playing up to the beat reporters, hoping that they would write something nice about him and how good he still was, and it might induce management to keep him around for one or two more seasons. And one sportswriter, aware of what he was doing, wrote, "He only stopped to say hello when it was time to say goodbye."

That's the way I feel about the rehabilitation of Barry Bonds.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 bestsellers, including Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, The Reckoning and Summer of '49, writes a bi-weekly column for Page 2.

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