The Barry Bonds Dilemma

I am not a big Giants fan by birth; I was born in New York City. However, over the course of my 20 years living in San Francisco, I have grown to love the team.

But it wasn’t just geographical proximity that did it. Let me confess something that is simply not said in polite company nowadays: I loved Barry Bonds.

So forgive the following, overlong post. But so much of the Giants’ narrative is still intertwined with Bonds that I felt compelled to comment on the recent negative attention San Francisco fans received when they welcomed him back in a pre-game ceremony during the NLCS.

To my mind, the World Series appearance by the Giants completes the final stage of the team’s post-Barry Bonds’ re-branding, the solidification of a new identity centered around preternatural pitching and–this year, at least–Cinderella re-treads.

Yet, in the midst of this remarkable over-achievement, I keep reading–not to mention being drawn into conversations about–Bonds.

This is perhaps understandable, as Bonds has grown within the collective imagination into the perfect monster: a surly, spoiled, dishonest ogre, whose steroid-induced physiognomy can only signify a narcissistic self-entitlement the likes of which can be found only in Shakespeare antagonists, autocratic rulers, and reality TV personalities.

Last week, in the middle of the tense Phillies’ series, a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist wrote this:

“Aside from being comical, there’s something tragic and ugly about Bonds – defiant and smug, even in the face of an ongoing perjury prosecution – being the game’s all-time home run leader. Of all the inmates hypothetically housed in Baseball’s Alcatraz, Bonds is among the most infamous – right up there with the Black Sox, Pete Rose, and the rest of the cons on Cell Block D (for disgraced). And yet even the wicked have loyal supporters. If Bonds ever ends up on the inside for real, he’ll have no trouble finding someone to bake a cake with a file in it.

But here’s the interesting part: Collectively, San Fran fans are clearly behind Bonds. It’s classic strength-in-numbers behavior. But separate one or two from the pack, get them alone, and suddenly Bonds becomes a guilty pleasure everyone denies. I stopped scores of Giants fans on Tuesday, and no one would openly confess to backing Bonds. Apparently all that cheering didn’t actually happen. You and I and the national TV audience must have imagined it.

Joe Eskenazi of the SF Weekly blog The Snitch couldn’t let that go:

Gonzalez referred to the AT&T Park faithful as “orange-and-black clad lemmings, [who] plunged one after the other off the embarrassment cliff Tuesday.” Doing some reporting, Gonzalez tried to approach fans to put them on the record supporting No. 25, “and no one would openly confess to backing Bonds.”

Now, Philadelphia is the same place where fans react to a franchise quarterback’s drafting with racially-tinged boos, where flashmobs turn violent, and where sitting in the bleachers at Citzens Bank Park leaves you susceptible to being vomited upon. So maybe we don’t exactly know where Gonzo is coming from.

SF Weekly e-mailed Gonzalez for comment. He’s a nice guy, who told us he was “just having some fun at Giants fans’ expense.” Fair enough, but it leaves one wondering — what would have the appropriate reaction to Bonds have been?

That’s a good question, and one that I’m not going to attempt to answer, because opinion about Bonds has become an actual issue, having long ago exited the sports bubble within which even journalists, usually required to at least feign objectivity, feel safe to throw around opinions.

I will, however, contribute a personal anecdote, as it belies everything I and probably you have ever read or heard about Bonds.

Back in the ’90s, when the Twin Towers were still standing, Afghanistan was a country no one could locate on a map, and a great deal of money could be made in the stock market by investing in random ticker symbols, I worked for Yahoo! Our biggest competitor then was Excite.com (still up and running as a functioning domain!), and both companies fielded softball teams that played in a Silicon Valley league. I was our squad’s firstbaseman, and one day, arriving at the field for a big intra-company game, I ran smack into a wall of spectators significantly denser than the one formed by the stray kibbitzers we usually drew.

“What’s going on?” I asked a teammate.

“Excite’s playing Barry and Bobby Bonds against us,” he said, nonsensically.

I waded through the crowd, to the diamond, and there indeed stood Barry and his father, Bobby, warming up alongside the Excite team. Huh? Awash in cognitive dissonance, I soon found out that Bonds had signed a promotional deal to make three appearances on Excite’s behalf, and this was one of them. Bobby was just along for fun. Excite had brought along a photographer and PR dude to chronicle the sure-shellacking they were going to administer to their rivalrous dupes.

Well, long story-probably-not-short-enough, here’s the upshot of the event as it exists in my mind:

  • Barry hit a ball that almost tipped the top of my glove at first base, then kept rising to shoot out over the fence in rightfield.
  • We won the game, despite the presence in the opposing lineup of one of the game’s great hitters.

And finally, the point of all this:

Barry Bonds couldn’t have been more gracious, hospitable, friendly, and relaxed. He played the game genuinely, then signed autographs, posed for pictures, and chatted with us for close to an hour. Sure he was being paid, but that shouldn’t have been enough to prevent him from acting like an ass; we were just a bunch of local fans, after all, pestering him for a little face time.

I did share one moment with Bonds alone. He came to bat one inning and we intentionally walked him. He trotted to first then shot me a deeply suspicious look. I smiled at him, and he grinned back. Then I shook his hand.

Okay, sue me Philadelphia sports columnist, but the 12-year old fan in me was agog! Everyone was impressed, frankly, at his demeanor the entire event. That night, Bonds, one could argue, a local boy who played high school ball in San Mateo, was a genuine part of the community.

But like I said, that was the ’90s, when the Twin Towers were still standing, no one could find Afghanistan on the map, and the entire American economy had yet to be marked with an asterisk. It was even a time when one could imagine that one day a really gifted baseball player might hit 73 home runs in a season without the aid of illegal performance enhancers.

The Snitch’s Eskenazi again, with a somewhat different view:

As a longtime Giants fan, I’ve always been a bit perplexed by the notion San Francisco supporters were particularly naive or foolish — or that our team’s efforts were ill-gotten — because of Bonds’ obvious drug use. I refuse to apologize because our steroidal freak was so much better than the other teams’ steroidal freaks…

Well, yes and no. I did meet plenty of Giants’ fans in those days who refused to believe Bonds was on the juice. The comment of one in particular stays with me: “I know him, he would never do that,” a woman who had never met the man once said to me.

But isn’t that the heart of the matter? We see some sports hero on TV or in interviews, or even play against him in a meaningless softball game, and we think we have some insight into him, or even “know” him? And in our childish identification, we choose to know him as a friend.

So I say: If some of we Giants’ fans still hold a soft spot for Bonds, if we choose to view him through a nostalgic lens, maybe that is what nostalgia’s for. It is, after all, only a game…

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Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

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