By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Whatever we've thought of Barry Bonds in the recent past, he's doing and saying mostly the right things now. Bonds, tied with Hank Aaron atop the career home run list, has for whatever reason stepped out of his historically churlish nature and risen to the moment . . . which cannot be said of Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig.
Nine times since Bonds got really close to No. 755, Selig has attended a San Francisco Giants game. Yet the commissioner has never gone to the Giants' clubhouse to approach Bonds. Best we know, he's never invited Bonds to breakfast, never asked him to come upstairs to one of those plush sky suites for an extended chat. In fact, Selig hasn't spoken a single word to Bonds, despite being in the same ballpark nine times.
Worst of all was Selig's reaction Saturday when Bonds hit No. 755.
Study the replay and the only conclusion a person can reasonably come to is that Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks had to tell Selig to get up from his seat as Bonds rounded the bases. Selig, saved by Hicks, stood but never took his hands out of his pockets, never applauded politely, never gestured . . . just stood there disengaged, his facial expression and body language telling everyone who looked at him that he'd rather be anyplace else in the world.
Somehow, Selig was convinced that his mere presence was enough, that just being there adequately addressed the largeness of the pursuit of the best-known record in American sports.
But it wasn't enough.
The commissioner had two options in all that time, and hands-in-pockets wasn't one of them. Selig could have stood with Bonds and said, "With no positive drug test to prove otherwise, I believe Barry is innocent and along with Hank Aaron the rightful co-holder of the greatest record in our sport." Or Selig could have, in a face-to-face meeting with Bonds, told him he believes Bonds to be a steroid cheater and that he's not going to publicly endorse him until baseball's own investigation (bogus as it may be) is over or until the grand jury looking into Bonds's possible connection to steroids is completed or dismissed.
Yes, either stance would have been controversial. But if Bud Selig wanted to avoid controversy, he should be the commissioner of a fantasy football league, not Major League Baseball.
What Selig is doing, by just sitting there in some sky suite, is taking the easy non-confrontational way out. Implicitly, he's blaming Bonds specifically and exclusively for baseball's larger problem of steroid use, even though it's a generational problem of which Bonds is a symptom but hardly the cause. Of course, there's great irony in the fact that the pitcher who gave up the record-tying home run has tested positive for steroid use in the minor leagues. In this regard, the chickens have come home to roost; baseball is getting exactly what it deserves.
It's not entirely surprising that Bonds has outperformed Selig the last few weeks. Bonds, when he wants to be, can be engaging, expansive, insightful. Thomas Boswell does the heavy lifting at this newspaper when it comes to writing baseball columns, but I've had a couple of extended social interactions with Bonds, who frankly can be fascinating company. He's well-traveled, curious, opinionated. And we can see that in his recent extended chats with reporters after games during this chase. He's said virtually all the right things lately, about Aaron, about Babe Ruth, about records, about what Alex Rodriguez is going to go through when he approaches 700 and maybe 800. People paying close attention to Bonds now for the first time often say, "Why do so many people dislike this guy?"
But because Bonds has chosen historically to show to the public mostly the side of his personality that seems to say, "I don't owe anybody an answer to anything and I don't give a damn what you think," most people are happy to run with what they see . . . and dislike.
Bonds, except for Giants fans and some younger black baseball fans who see some level of persecution in criticism directed his way, gets little if any benefit of the doubt, even though the evidence against him is circumstantial. Baseball is a mess because of the steroid issue and Bonds, more than any other player, is seen as the face of his sport's mess.
Contrast that with iconic cyclist Lance Armstrong, who whenever he is accused of using some kind of performance enhancer, goes on "Larry King Live" or "SportsCenter" and eloquently faces his critics. There is only circumstantial evidence against Armstrong, too, as he's never tested positive for a banned substance. But Armstrong, who has beaten cancer and is eminently cheery and welcoming, receives every benefit of the doubt even though so many people have accused him of cheating it's impossible to keep track. The sport of cycling is a mess because of cheating, but Armstrong is seen as being separate and apart, even above, his sport's mess.
As my friend Charles Barkley says of these matters, "We give every benefit of the doubt to the people we like . . ."
Selig, far more regular guy than commissioner when it comes to these matters, is subject to the same feelings as other regular people trying to figure out what to make of Bonds. Selig clearly is suspicious of Bonds and there are plenty of people, including prominent Hall of Fame ballplayers (some of whom are terribly old school, and by the way, black) who have Selig's ear. He's conflicted. Selig grew up adoring them, being loyal to them, even looking to them to see what they think about issues confronting the game.
And what we've got is a paralyzed commissioner, one whose inability to be decisive in this situation is making him and the game look bad. Selig seems in desperate need of some good, strong advice.
Bonds, in the context of this episode, looks as good right now as he ever has. When mired in a slump, he ripped himself. When he pulled out of it, Bonds praised a bench coach in great detail for helping find his swing. And every night, or close to it, Bonds has talked to his teammates about understanding how great an opportunity it is to play on a stage this big and live up to the moment. This season, though diminished physically, Bonds has been what a Hall of Fame player ought to be, showing a consistent degree of grace that should suggest to the keepers of the game how they, too, should act.