Defending Barry  
May 2006

He is the most maligned athlete of our time. Others, like Albert Belle, who chased trick or treating children away from his front door with a bat, and John Rocker, who had the audacity to speak his mind about the kind-hearted New Yorkers who showered his head and torso with gifts of beer and batteries at every opportunity, have had the public hatred burn bright for short bursts of time, but none have had the longstanding overwhelming polarizing force that belongs to, nay is, Barry Lamar Bonds. He has been lustily cheered and heartily booed, showered with invectives and positive directives, had his name dragged cursedly through the mud, and joyfully cheered to the skies; and often all by one fan during the course of one game. More people love to hate Barry, and hate to love watching him, than any man alive.

           

With Bonds, every day is Festivus. Unfortunately, much of the public skips over his feats of strength and gets right to the airing of grievances. These complaints about Bonds the baseball player and, more frequently, Bonds the man, often go unquestioned and unchecked regardless of the lack of facts, common sense, or fairness that comes with the vast majority of them. In this space you will see a point-by-point defense of Barry Bonds, starting with the more general complaints and then delving into the more recent steroids related gripes.

           

“Barry Bonds is a bad teammate”

 

This is a favorite claim of the anti-Bonds crowd. Often cited are examples such as Bonds skipping the team photo for a few years (he was usually airbrushed in), having his own personal strength coach and trainer on the field and in the locker room, and the dugout fight with the immaculate redneck, Jeff Kent (how does one grow up surfing in Southern California, go to college in Berkeley, play professionally in New York and San Francisco, and end up a redneck?). Bonds is also frequently accused by fans of being aloof and surly in the clubhouse (how these fans, almost always fans of teams other than the Giants, know the tone of voice and duration of friendly chatter in the Giants’ clubhouse is beyond me).

 

First the minor stuff; the team pictures, his barca lounger, the extra personal help, etc. Every star gets this treatment. Not just in sports, but in many parts of American life. The CEO gets the big corner office with a view, an expense account, and a company car while the peons who do most of the actual work get to sit in a cubicle 12 hours a day. Roger Clemens actually had it put into his contract with the Astros that he doesn’t have to go on road trips if he’s not pitching. Roid rage Roger is a fantastic guy despite blowing off his teammates when he doesn’t absolutely have to be there, but Bonds is a terrible teammate because he wants someone to come stretch him on his own personal schedule? If you have a problem with Bonds getting star treatment, you have a problem with the American system of capitalism where every organization does what it can to pamper and protect its star personnel and biggest investments.

 

Is Bonds surly to teammates at times? My guess would be yes; very few people don’t make a snide remark or two to their coworkers (and you don’t travel with them) at one time or another. But he also has his good teammate moments. He helps teammates with their swings, including relative nobodies like Dan Ortmeier, who received a lengthy impromptu training session from Bonds last spring, and had maybe the best year of his career at the plate. He famously dressed in full drag to participate in a team American Idol skit. As much as many would hate to admit it, Barry is not some arch villain, always plotting and brooding, but rather a human being who has good days and bad days.

 

The most ridiculous example of Bonds’ alleged crimes against team is the fight with Kent. People don’t seem to want to put the Haterade down long enough to accept the facts of the situation. Kent was repeatedly angrily ripping a teammate for a mistake earlier in the game. Eventually, Bonds had enough and stood up for his teammate. He told Kent to stop harassing a fellow Giant, and Kent took offense and flew into a jealous rage. Bonds, who presumably never liked Kent (most likely due to Kent snipping at Bonds in the media and the media making Bonds look like the bad guy anyway), was not averse to physically forcing Kent to shut his mouth. Kent was actually the bad guy. Kent was the one being a bad teammate. Kent, the same guy who lied through his teeth about breaking his wrist “washing a pickup truck,” is somehow perceived to be the victim of big, bad Barry Bonds in all of this. Meanwhile, Kent still has what should be one of Barry’s nine MVP trophies (Bonds was also robbed of another one earlier in his career).

 

“Barry Bonds is a bad person”

 

Barry didn’t sign an autograph for your cousin’s friend’s kid’s classmate’s dog groomer’s nephew. He only answered questions for the first 28 reporters that asked him something. He allegedly left some angry voicemails on someone’s answering machine. Some claim he’s abusive to his family and friends. He’s reportedly often rude, especially to the media. The list of Bonds’ alleged petty crimes goes on and on.

 

To all but the one about his family and friends, I say so what. Get over yourself. Sure, it’d be great if Bonds was Mr. Nice Guy, signing for everyone and granting all media requests. But he was raised by men who had faced a lot of racism in their lives and is distrustful of the media and to some extent the general public as well. Sometimes he’s friendly and gregarious, others he’s moody and dismissive. He’s a human being, except he has microphones stuck in his face all day every day, often with accusatory questions, and everywhere he goes people want a piece of him. Celebrity certainly has a lot of perks, but it is also a burden Barry must bear, and being a human sometimes he doesn’t handle it in the most graceful manner. But he’s a baseball player, being nice to everyone isn’t what he’s paid for. And unless you’ve lived a life where your every move is watched with a skeptical eye by the media and the masses, I don’t think you have the right to be angry at someone for being grumpy at times. Anyone who has ever shown up to work or just been out in public in a bad mood should stow their complaints about Bonds’ personality lest they damage their own glass houses.

 

I personally have no idea how Bonds treats his family. I find his having a mistress to be morally questionable, but most athletes sleep around and since he’s just a baseball player, it’s not really any of my business who he’s sleeping with. To my knowledge he’s not beating his wife or kids. His friends and family seem to be loyal to him, which indicates either that he treats them well or that they greatly fear him. Since some of these friends are rich and famous individuals who Bonds can’t harm, I lean toward the former.

 

The truly remarkable part of the hatred of Barry as a “bad person” is that virtually none of the people who accuse him of it have ever met the man. The vast majority of Giants fans, the fan base that has by far the most in person interaction with Bonds, support Bonds. But the media, which have a beef with Bonds about his lack of total capitulation to them, paint him as a villain, as a bad human being, and the sheeple eat it up. Hey, if it’s repeated by the American media, it must be true, right? After all, you saw it on TV and in the paper. On that note, I’d like to thank you for taking time away from your busy schedule of cataloging the hundreds of thousands of WMDs we found in Iraq to read this article.

 

“Barry Bonds took steroids”

 

Claims about Bonds being on the juice range from the highly scientific (“his head is bigger! He gained weight!”) to the historic (“no one has done what he’s doing”) to the literary (“I read it in the paper, he told the grand jury he did them! And look at those new books!”). Let’s quickly address these accusations one by one.

 

A favorite tactic of those accusing Bonds is to show pictures of him as a collegian or young major leaguer and compare those photos to ones taken recently. He has gotten bigger, a lot bigger, so he must be on steroids. The fact that Bonds is a noted for his dedication to working out and that twenty years have passed between those before and after photos is meaningless for some reason. Off course if Bonds played football no one would question him being as big as he is, but for a baseball player it must be cheating. And I hope that no one wants to go back to measuring peoples’ skulls to determine anything.

 

It is true that Bonds is doing more late in his career than anyone has ever done. But so what? As they say, records are made to be broken and someone has to be the best ever, someone has to push the envelope. Today we have better medicine, better training, better nutrition, better just about everything for elite athletes. And I’d just like to point out that Roger Clemens is Bonds’ age and just led the league in ERA.

 

Most of the claims by those writing articles and books (hey, didn’t we just cover the topic of not believing everything the media say?) are based on hearsay and leaked grand jury testimony. Leaking grand jury testimony is a federal crime, so either someone hates Bonds so much that they committed a felony to make him look bad, or this testimony was fabricated. We have no way of knowing because the testimony remains sealed. The alleged testimony doesn’t even contain what most think it does. In the “testimony,” Bonds does not state that he took steroids unknowingly. Bonds states that he took substances that he believes are flaxseed oil and arthritis balm. The prosecution said that those sounded a lot like the steroids known as the cream and the clear.

 

I haven’t read the books, only the excerpt in Sports Illustrated, but it appears that much is based on the word of Bonds’ former mistress, who is bitter at him and is involved in legal action against him. Completely reliable witness there; no reason to lie or stretch the truth It also appears that Greg Anderson and friends admitted giving steroids to just about everyone but Barry Bonds. It seems strange that they would rat out just about everyone but Bonds. A second book claims that Bonds told Ken Griffey, Jr. that Bonds would be starting to take a lot of steroids, but Griffey denies having that conversation. And again, it seems odd that Bonds would go around telling people that he was about to do steroids. Most recently, Victor Conte, a man who allegedly gave detailed accounts of all parts of his operation, has come out and said he never supplied Bonds with steroids and that he may be able to prove it. It appears Barry Bonds is a terrible guy, abusive and abrasive to friends and strangers alike, and yet inspires more loyalty than a mob boss.

 

The most asinine claim here comes from asinine claim central: conspiracy theorists. They allege that Bonds sat out 2005 not because of numerous knee surgeries, but rather because he wanted to avoid drug testing. They don’t care that Bonds was hurt and couldn’t run, that Bonds hit pretty well when he came back at the end of the year, and that Bonds was tested like every other player on a major league roster. Why let facts get in the way of a good conspiracy theory?

 

The bottom line is that Bonds has never tested positive, and there is about as much evidence that Lance Armstrong did steroids as there is that Bonds did steroids (in fact, Armstrong arguably has tested positive). But Bonds is crucified and Armstrong extolled.

 

“Barry Bonds cheated”

 

[Note: for this section, and the remainder of the article, we will assume that Bonds took steroids as accused, from 1998 through 2004]

 

Steroids were not banned by Major League Baseball when Bonds is alleged to have been taking them, so technically he did not cheat. However, many people consider Bonds to be a cheater. The reasons vary, with the most common ones being that steroids were banned by most other major athletic organizations, that steroids were illegal under United States law, and that artificially inflating performance is fundamentally cheating regardless of the legality of it. These people also cling to the claims that steroids make you a much better player and caused Bonds to be competing on an un-level playing field which resulted in his manifold successes.

 

Most of these arguments don’t wash with me. Steroids were banned by other organizations, but so what? The death penalty is outlawed in every “developed” country in the world except the US, so should we be arresting the executioners for murder even though it’s legal in this country? I’m not sure that I’d want to live in a society which changes laws and then retroactively punishes people for doing things that were legal at the time. Imagine if when the legal drinking age was raised from 18 to 21 that every single American who drank while 18, 19, or 20 years old under the old law (i.e. drank legally) was arrested and punished under the new rules.

 

Steroids are illegal for non-medicinal use under American law, but that is a legal problem, not a sports problem. If Bonds or any other athlete is proven to have broken American steroid laws, then they may have issues with the justice system, but it shouldn’t extend to their ability to play sports. Marijuana is also illegal under American law, and if we kicked out every athlete that used marijuana we’d have about 18 NBA players left. Those among us who have at some point used alcohol or drugs illegally should be wary of hurling rocks at Bonds from their own glass houses.

 

There is a school of thought which condemns Bonds and other alleged steroid users on the grounds that steroids artificially inflates performance. But why is this limited to steroids? What about surgically enhancing yourself physically? Pitchers have Tommy John surgery and come out throwing faster than ever. Some have even had the surgery without needing it, feeling that it might make them throw harder. Hitters can have lasik eye surgery and see better than they ever have. Which seems more important for a position player, a bigger bicep or significantly better vision? There have been slender players who can hit, but there haven’t been too many players with bad eyesight who can hit.

 

Bonds is also accused of taking a magic wonder-pill that greatly enhances his performance (no, not Viagra – though that should’ve clued us in about Palmeiro long before he tested positive for steroids) and tilts an otherwise level playing field. Yet the same book that now serves as a Bible to those who accuse Bonds states that the very reason Barry started taking steroids was because he was angry that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had tilted the playing field. By joining the growing number of pro baseball players who use steroids, Bonds was in fact leveling the playing field, making things fairer.

 

The heroes of the great home run chase of 1998, along with their hundreds of co-conspirators, had diminished Bonds’ greatness. Bonds was facing pitchers throwing much harder than they would be able to without the juice, and batters being immortalized due in part to the chemicals they were injecting into their bodies. The media now had a perfectly legitimate excuse to go about dimming Bonds’ star. He didn’t go on steroids to cheat others, but rather because others were cheating him.

 

As for the “magic pill” claims, all one has to do is look at the career of the first major leaguer busted for steroids. Alex Sanchez has six home runs in five seasons. So much for the great wonder drug that turns anyone into an All-Star. Randy Velarde and Marvelous Marvin Benard must be wondering why Victor Conte gave them defective steroids, as their careers didn’t exactly take off either. All that steroids help with is building muscle by working out more frequently and recovering from injuries and just general muscle fatigue faster. They don’t give you the best eye and the best swing in baseball. But they can add five mph to your heater (though Bonds’ throwing arm hasn’t gotten any less weak, which is yet another sign that he is clean).

 

“History should forget or shame Barry Bonds”

 

[Note: for this section, and the remainder of the article, we will assume that Bonds took steroids as accused, from 1998 through 2004]

 

There is a loud minority, one I’d refer to as a lunatic fringe if it didn’t have actual idiots with Hall of Fame votes, which believes Bonds should not make the Hall. Bonds was a first ballot lock if he had retired before (allegedly) taking steroids. He would have been an even stronger lock if you extrapolate out a few extra seasons without steroids, not forgetting that he allegedly missed the 1999 season due to a steroid induced injury. At the time, he had 3 MVPs and 8 Gold Gloves, along with numerous other accolades. I won’t bother hammering the stats home, but he was easily in the Hall.

 

Despite all this, some say that steroids, which were legal at the time Bonds (allegedly) took them, should invalidate his entire career and he should be banished from the game and kept out of the Hall. These people, most of whom couldn’t get a hit against a decent Little League pitcher, usually cite the part of the ballot which instructs the voters to take into account character. The claim is that since Bonds is such a jerk and cheater, he has no character and shouldn’t be allowed in. But the fact is that he was just as big of an alleged jerk before the steroid allegations and was a shoo-in for the Hall then, so the character complaint doesn’t fly. And if taking a legal substance should keep you out because it reveals a character flaw, then how do these selective moralists explain all the racists, bigots, criminals, wife beaters, and grade-A jerks whose likenesses populate the plaques of Cooperstown? The Hall celebrates the best players and the most memorable moments in baseball history, and Bonds certainly qualifies, with or without steroids.

 

Some will point to Pete Rose and the 1919 Black Sox and exclaim that if those players are banned from the baseball (and by extension, the baseball Hall of Fame) then Bonds should be too. There are several fundamental differences. As has been pointed out earlier, Bonds broke none of baseball’s rules while the others did. More importantly, the others violated the fundamental unwritten rule of sports: always try to win. At times winning is on a longer timescale, so teams will lose in the short run to improve in the long run (for example, the Cleveland Cavaliers tanked a season to get in position to draft LeBron James), but the goal is always to win. The actions of the Black Sox and Rose caused baseball to no longer be a sport, but merely a spectacle along the lines of WWE. Bonds and the other hundreds of steroid users did so in an attempt to become better players, to help their teams win. Gaylord Perry is celebrated for cheating to win, but Bonds is thrown under the bus.

 

There are also those who want to asterisk every statistic and record Bonds owns, and stamp his Hall plaque with its own version of a scarlet letter. They complain that baseball’s statistics are sacrosanct, and the use of steroids mars the greatness of baseball: the ability to compare statistics across eras. I have good news for these folks (no, I did not just save a bunch of money by switching to Geico). I can tell them exactly how many home runs Barry Bonds would’ve hit in Babe Ruth’s time, with steroids and without steroids. Coincidentally, it’s the same number that Mays and Aaron would’ve hit, and matches the number of wins Pedro Martinez would’ve had and the number of hits Ichiro Suzuki would’ve wracked up. This magic number is zero, as Bonds, Mays, Aaron, and the rest were not and are not Caucasian Americans and would’ve never been allowed to play in Ruth’s day.

 

Even ignoring all the other differences, the stadiums, the equipment, the travel schedules and modes of travel used, the totally different use of pitching staffs and lack of specialists; there is a single difference which by itself shows that we cannot compare Ruth’s era to Bonds’. Bonds plays against the best baseball players from all corners of the globe and from all walks of life; Ruth played against the best white Americans that happened to catch a scout’s eye (meaning they were playing in a big city or near a train station). Look at the Majors today and eliminate all the players born in other countries. Then eliminate all the American players of Latino and African heritage. Then eliminate half of the remainder to factor in for population growth. Then eliminate another 10% due to them not being found by scouts. That is what Ruth faced. But Bonds allegedly using some strong medicine for a few years, THAT is why we can’t compare their statistics?

 

Statistics are meaningless without context. Bonds’ achievements should be looked at in the context of his era, as should the accomplishments of every other player. If you want to asterisk Bonds because of what he may have done or the era in which he played, you will have to break out a nearly infinite number of asterisks to denote the specifics of their individual careers and the time in which they played.

 

Players have always looked for an edge. They find different ways to work out, take amphetamines (which they’ve been doing for at least a half century), take steroids, and have newer and more experimental medical procedures to prolong or improve their careers. They use more modern technology to scout opponents and improve themselves, to improve their travel, and to better their nutrition. Players will shave their heads in solidarity and grow beards as good luck charms for the playoffs. Some will not have sex before big games; Wilt Chamberlain played basketball when not too busy having sex. Bonds saw players getting an edge, he saw them being celebrated for it, and he allegedly joined in. He used the latest medicines, the latest technologies. He is not the first and not the last, with steroids or with the general concept. He should not be treated any differently than the rest.

 

“Barry Bonds is smug and unrepentant”

 

[Note: for this section, and the remainder of the article, we will assume that Bonds took steroids as accused, from 1998 through 2004]

 

Some fans are upset by Bonds being, in their eyes, smug almost to the point of taunting those who dislike him. They perceive Bonds as virtually challenging them to prove that he is on steroids, to find new reasons to hate him. In doing this, they put Bonds, and all celebrities, in an impossible situation. On the one hand, people want honest answers to interview questions. Yet they sit at the ready to tar and feather Bonds if he dares answer honestly, if he doesn’t spew the standard politically correct lines. If you want honest answers, then be prepared to receive them. You don’t have to like what he has to say, but don’t rip him for having the courage to say what he thinks and feels. And please don’t bow at the altar of Lance Armstrong, who similarly challenges anyone to prove that he did steroids and then goes one giant leap forward by suing anyone who dares taking him up on the challenge, and then eviscerate Bonds for similar behavior. 

 

One surprisingly common thread among those fans that choose to blindly vilify Bonds is the belief that Bonds should apologize – no, that Bonds owes them an apology for his alleged misdeeds. The fact of the matter is that Bonds is an athlete, and by extension an entertainer. He owes it to you, the paying customer, and to his employer to put the time and effort in during games and the off-season to perform at as high a level as he can so that he can help his team win and entertain the paying customers. It could be argued that he doesn’t even owe that to the fans but merely the team, as the team is the only one that pays him for his services (and the team then owes it to the fans to put out a quality product). But in any case, Bonds has clearly done that. He performs at a higher level than any player of his generation, and perhaps of any generation. He is known for his tremendous work ethic and the time he puts into maintaining and improving both his body and his baseball skills. He is the biggest draw in baseball, home and road. If he took steroids, it was only to help his team and fulfill his obligations to the team and the fans. If he did indeed take steroids, then he still has nothing to apologize to you or me for. Whatever Bonds may owe or have owed you, he has more than delivered on. The ones to whom Bonds owes the most - the Giants franchise and fans - stand behind him and support him, so obviously he has earned his considerable paychecks. If you feel you deserve an apology, then sit down, shut up, and enjoy the show.

 

Barry Bonds is a human being who is imbued with extraordinary work ethic, concentration, and physical and mental baseball abilities. Because of his many gifts and seemingly superhuman qualities, people tend to overlook that Bonds is human and that he needs to be treated as such. He will have bad days, he will not always be pleasant and nice, he may be capable of trying to get an edge to succeed, and he certainly is capable of trying to keep up with the Joneses. Bonds has not committed any crimes, legal or moral, against his family for which innumerable celebrities and civilians have been forgiven. Bonds may have taken steroids, but there is no definitive proof and if he did it was in an effort to even the playing field and try to help his team wins and entertain his fans. You don’t have to love Bonds, but you should respect his abilities and accomplishments on the baseball field, and you should put the haterade away and enjoy watching a once-in-a-generation athlete. If you can’t do any of that, you should take a hard look at yourself in the mirror and consider re-evaluating your loyalties.

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