Wait.. Am I Starting to Feel Sorry For Barry Bonds?

Perusing baseball news today, I came across the article in The Athletic in which Andrew Baggarly details a recent conversation he had with Barry Bonds. Naturally I had to read it, as the Barry Bonds saga was a big part of the news when I first started writing about baseball – back when he was pursuing the home run record, and the other cheating scandal (HGH, steroids, lying, BALCO, etc.) was all the (roid?) rage.

When he retired in 2007, Barry Bonds was the big bad wolf in major league baseball. He had surpassed the great Babe Ruth and then ultimately unseated Hank Aaron as the all time home runs leader. Every time I wrote about him, I included an asterisk next to his name. I took the below photo (kinda blurry, blame bad phone cameras of the era) at a Brewers game in June of 2007 where I had great seats to see him when he was just a few homers away from the record. (Side note, that was the first time I ever saw Li’l Timmy Lincecum pitch and I turned to my husband [then boyfriend] and said “holy crap this 12 year old pitcher is unbelievable”. It was his first season and we hadn’t heard of him yet. But I digress.) Bonds was the guy everyone loved to hate by the end of his career, and rightfully so – he pretty much cheated his way to the top of the home run heap.

Barry Bonds at the plate at Miller Park, along with my middle finger, June 2007

However, deep down, I was probably like a lot of baseball fans in that I didn’t know what to think about Bonds. I hated him. I loved to hate him. I also used to love him. I hated that I loved him. I hated that I simultaneously loved and hated him. I mean, remember how fun he used to be to watch? When I was a kid, his was one of my favorite baseball cards. One of my favorite All Star Game memories was this moment where (then) Minnesota outfielder Torii Hunter robbed Bonds of a home run to end the inning, and then Bonds went out to hoist Hunter over his shoulder.

When people first started accusing him of being a cheater, I staunchly defended him by saying that even if he had been using steroids, he still had to have the skills to know how to make contact with the ball and have that awesome swing. It’s a sentiment that Bonds himself seems to agree with, as The article in The Athletic quoted him as saying:

“The difference between what I did and what a lot of people did is I mastered practice. It takes years of practice to understand the technique. Practice to me meant everything. Technique meant everything.”

When he was with the Pirates, and he won his first two (of seven!) MVPs, there was no denying that he was one of the best of the best – and that says a lot because that was the (steroid) era of Clemens and Ken Griffey Jr., Mark McGuire, Cal Ripken Jr., just to name a few of his contemporaries. And among those contemporaries, even into his days in San Francisco, there were a slew of cheaters smashing moonshots out of the park at record rates, so he was still technically the best of the best, even if they were all a bunch of cheaters during those years.

As time went on, and he was creeping up on Ruth on the home run list, the pendulum had swung. No longer was he revered as one of the best home run hitters in the history of the game. It was one thing for him to be good, but now he was too good. In 2003, the BALCO scandal was in full swing, and Bonds was among the athletes listed as having used ‘the Clear’, an undetectable steroid. Bonds’ reputation was tarnished, and by the end of the 2004 season, (the last year that he won MVP), then 39-year-old Bonds was intentionally walked a whopping 120 times. To put it into context, the most he’d ever been intentionally walked prior to 2004 was the 2002 season with 68 IBB after he hit 73 home runs in 2001. By the end of 2004, he had passed his godfather Willie Mays and his 660 home runs, and was sitting at 698 – and nobody wanted him to beat Ruth, let alone surpass Hank Aaron. If nobody pitched to him, he couldn’t pass these legends, right?

In 2005, it was looking promising to those rejecting him as the possible future Home Run King that he wouldn’t pass those guys, since a knee injury kept him out until September. But when he came back, he still managed to hit 5 home runs in the 14 games he got to play before the season ended. And then, by the grace of God or HGH or the Clear, or whatever supplement Bonds was using at the time, he came back to play in 2006 and 2007. He hit 26 and then 28 home runs his last two seasons, and ultimately finished his career at age 42 as the all time home run champion.

In November of 2007, he was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice in the BALCO case, and in 2011 he was ultimately convicted of obstruction. He appealed the ruling, and in 2015 his conviction was overturned. During all of his legal woes, he hadn’t officially retired from baseball, and even told his agent to see if anyone would want him in 2009. (News flash: Nobody did.)

It’s hard to say what just exactly was the worst thing about Barry Bonds. Was it his surly demeanor, his refusal to admit to his steroid use, or inflated head (take your pick: ego or steroid-induced size increase) that made people unable forgive him? He was notoriously reserved, standoffish, rude, and unapproachable as a player (which he later admitted to regretting). He’s become the poster boy for the evils of the steroid era. After seven years on the hall of fame ballot, he’s still sitting at around 60% of the vote – quite a few shy of the 75% needed.

So why do I feel kind of bad for him today?

All of his misdeeds aside, let’s take a look at the highlights of his career:

  • Aforementioned home run leader with 762 all time
  • 1996 RBI (5th all time)
  • 2,935 hits – 601 doubles and 77 triples
  • 2,558 walks, 688 of those intentional (both lead the all time lists)
  • Lifetime batting .298/.444/.607 – his 1.051 OPS is 4th behind Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Lou Gehrig
  • Sole member of the 500/500 club (500 home runs, 500 steals) – nobody even has 400/400 behind him. He had 514 steals total.
  • 14 time All Star
  • 7 time league MVP (most all time)
  • 2 time NL batting champion
  • 12 Silver Sluggers
  • 8 Gold Gloves

Clearly, anyone else with that resume would have been a unanimous first round Hall of Famer. But, this is Barry Bonds we are talking about. He doesn’t deserve our sympathy. He needs to be punished… right?

In the article in The Athletic, Bonds is quoted as saying:

“I feel like a ghost,” he said, his eyes locked on some distant point. “A ghost in a big empty house, just rattling around.”

And then: “A death sentence. That’s what they’ve given me.”

A bit later: “My heart, it’s broken. Really broken.”

And this is where I’m starting to feel all the conflicted feels. Bonds played during an era that soured many fans after the strike in 1994. Even my family of hard-core baseball fans didn’t go to a ballgame again until 1996 following the strike – if I wasn’t going, the casual fan probably wasn’t either. The home run races between McGuire and Sosa reignited fan interest and the home run itself pretty much saved baseball. The demand for the home run also pretty much created the demand for the steroid enhanced performances from players. Bonds and many others folded under the pressure and upped their game, literally.

I’m not saying what he/they did was right.

If you’ve read my stuff for a while, you’ll know I’m a firm Pete Rose apologist. I’m still conflicted over my love/disgust over the Astros scandal. I don’t think someone should be handed a life sentence for making a mistake. Sometimes we have to remember that players are human, not infallible gods. They have families and feelings and are susceptible to the same anxieties and pressures we feel at our own daily jobs – and their pressure is on a national (international) stage. Even A-Rod is slowly un-tarnishing his legacy for his cheating.

Another excerpt from the article:

“I know what I did out there,” Bonds said. “I know what I accomplished between those lines. It’s outside those lines that I would have done some things different.”

This is probably where I should issue a disclaimer: There is no painting Bonds as a sympathetic figure. He made his choices — even if, as the one-time target of a federal investigation (one that, in retrospect, seemed to amount to selective prosecution), he might never feel safe or comfortable acknowledging some of those choices. He conceded on Saturday that he could have been kinder, more generous with his time, more magnanimous on occasions when he didn’t stand to benefit from it. He could have developed a better rapport with the media, even saying he respected that reporters were just trying to earn a living. He now recognizes that he was an introvert and socially stunted, and he wonders what might have happened if he had received the kind of guidance, support and media training that today’s young players receive. He also acknowledged that perhaps none of that would have mattered, because dealing with people and their requests was mentally exhausting to him in the hours before a game — the time when he was so preoccupied with setting that mental chip on his shoulder, with sharpening his focus so that he could barrel up the one strike he might see that night.

But when the game’s most dominant force since Babe Ruth tells you that he feels like he’s getting swept into irrelevance to the point where it feels like a death sentence … well, that is quite a statement.

March 8, 2020, Andrew Baggarly, The Athletic

And that’s where I’m starting to feel conflicted again. Perhaps if Bonds had admitted to it, or if he had served a suspension, shown remorse, been less of a douche during his playing days, been more accessible to fans, or or or <insert good PR move here>, people would be more likely to forgive him. Hell, maybe they’d even vote him into the Hall. The Giants finally retired his number in 2018, and maybe this latest article in The Athletic is his way of starting to get back into our good graces. Though, he’s not really expecting the call saying he got into the Hall either:

“If they don’t want me, just say you don’t want me and be done with it. Just be done with it.”

In any case, the article today brought up a lot of feels about Bonds and his role in baseball that I hadn’t thought of in years. And to be honest, if I were one of the voting members of the BBWAA, I’d vote for him in his final year, even if I was the only one to do so. Nobody deserves to be shunned from the only life they ever knew. His entire life is/was baseball – from the days watching his dad Bobby play, all through his 22 year career, to now, where he’s still helping players with their swing.

I know that most of you reading this would be devastated if the only life you’d ever known completely abandoned you. YES, he did it to himself. BUT he was not the only one. He was a product of his talent plus the era in which he played. I still maintain that he likely still would have hit 500+ home runs in his career had he not gotten involved with BALCO. He still was a joy to watch (until he wasn’t). I don’t think it’s fair to keep him from the game that turned him into the pariah that he became. I don’t think it’s fair for everyone to call for his head when the Astros are still on the field this season. MLB has a long history of screwing up and being behind in the times when it comes to making or enforcing rules, and what constitutes cheating, or what is deserving of suspension.

So yeah… I guess I do feel a bit sorry for him after all.

What say you, readers? Leave a comment below.