He's a Hitter, Not a Hero
There's plenty to be angry about this summer -- stifling heat, rising gas prices, the quagmire in Iraq, vague warnings of a new terrorist strike. I can get mad at any of those revolting developments, but I can't seem to get mad at Barry Bonds.
Everyone else seems to be in high dudgeon over the prickly, sullen man who's about to set the record for home runs. By "everyone" I mean the minority that follows baseball, which lost its status as national pastime long ago. I haven't immersed myself in baseball for years, but I'm paying attention to Bonds's home-run chase. And when he finally hits No. 755 (tying Hank Aaron) and then No. 756 (becoming the greatest of all time), I hope that America shows him some love.
He doesn't make it easy. What sets Bonds apart, and drives the haters to distraction, is that he refuses to pretend he's a nice guy. No smiley face for Barry.
On Sunday, after Bonds had gone hitless in his last 20 at-bats, reporters asked him about his slump. This was his reply: "It's an embarrassment for me to be wearing this [expletive] uniform 'cause of the way I'm playing. There, that's it. Now go away."
All right, any star athlete who was playing badly might get testy with a gaggle of reporters asking stupid questions. But what about the other night, when Bonds was in the field and a foul ball caromed his way? He could have saved the ball girl a long run by walking over and picking it up. Instead, he stood where he was and shook his head no. Not his job.
So he's kind of a jerk. In an era when the sports pages often read like a police blotter, I would argue that unpleasantness isn't even a misdemeanor.
And, anyway, Bonds is hardly the first great athlete to have a difficult personality -- or the first jerk to be immortalized in baseball's sainted record books ( Pete Rose and Ty Cobb are two examples). Becoming the best at something as difficult as tracking a 100-mph fastball, intersecting its flight with a bat and slamming it into the bleachers requires single-minded, obsessive focus and punishing hard work. The laid-back and easygoing need not apply.
All right, you say, but what about the steroids?
It would have been nice if Bonds had never used steroids. His modified, limited admission of maybe having used them unknowingly is ridiculous -- he had to notice that the mysterious substances he was using had caused his neck to thicken and his shoulders to bulk up like the Michelin Man's. The steroids gave him an advantage over Aaron and Babe Ruth by significantly extending his home-run-hitting years; only now, as he nears 43, does he seem to be fading.
But Bonds is simply a man of his age -- which happened to be an age of artificially enhanced sluggers whom we know, or suspect, also used steroids. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, for example, also muscled up late in their careers and put themselves into the record books. If Bonds's achievements are suspect, they and others have to be asterisked, too.
The thing is, if Bonds had been willing to play the smiley-face game, I doubt the baseball purists would be so aghast. When the steroids allegations started coming out, Bonds could have confessed and apologized, or he could have deflected questions with clever jokes, or he could have changed the subject to some new charitable endeavor. He could have given a full explanation, revealing how rampant steroid use has been in the major leagues. He could have gone on Larry King and knocked softball questions out of the park, or invited Barbara Walters to his home for an interview and wept telegenically about the injustice of it all.
But Bonds refuses to define himself as either perpetrator or victim. He refuses to define himself at all, at least for public consumption. He just goes up to the plate and hits home runs, and as soon as he hits a few more he will have done it better than anyone else ever has.
I think the reason Bonds's critics are so upset is that he destroys the illusion that sports "heroes" are truly heroic. A few are, but most aren't. Hitting a home run isn't the same thing as curing cancer or throwing yourself on a grenade. Barry Bonds's job is to entertain, to thrill and, occasionally, to evoke feelings of awe. He does it surpassingly well.