San Francisco Giants: Barry, we hardly knew ye

SAN FRANCISCO - AUGUST 06: Barry Bonds #25 of the San Francisco Giants strikes out in the seventh inning against the Washington Nationals during a Major League Baseball game on August 6, 2007 at AT&T Park in San Francisco, California. With his 756th career home run, Barry Bonds surpasses Hank Aaron to become Major League Baseball's all-time home run leader. (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO - AUGUST 06: Barry Bonds #25 of the San Francisco Giants strikes out in the seventh inning against the Washington Nationals during a Major League Baseball game on August 6, 2007 at AT&T Park in San Francisco, California. With his 756th career home run, Barry Bonds surpasses Hank Aaron to become Major League Baseball's all-time home run leader. (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images) /

Barry Bonds dominated the baseball world as a member of the San Francisco Giants. Now, he feels like a ghost.

In 2016, former San Francisco Giants star Barry Bonds worked (to the surprise of many) as a Miami Marlins hitting coach. That June (to the further surprise of many) Bonds also made an unforced, unsolicited apology for having created his career-long image as a jerk to whom people wanting even a small spell of his time equaled the enemy.

“I was a dumbass. I was straight stupid, and I’ll be the first to admit it,” Bonds told Sports on Earth reporter Terence Moore, who prefaced it by acknowledging the former left fielder and baseball’s single season and career home run leader was “was surly, angry, dismissive, grumpy, rude, obnoxious, nasty, selfish, ungrateful and combative .”

Moore also made a point of writing that that wasn’t the Bonds he happened to know personally, but “guess who was responsible for such a misconception.” Then the man who was responsible continued, admitting overweight expectations placed upon him at a too-young age—the son of legendary power-speed combo Bobby Bonds, the godson of Hall of Famer Willie Mays—made him buckle and brought out his worst.

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“I kick myself now because I’m getting great press,” said Bonds, who’d been getting good press as a Marlins coach, “and I could have had a trillion more endorsements, but that wasn’t my driving force. The problem was when I tried to give in a little bit, it never got better. I knew I was in the midst of that image, and I determined at that point that I was never going to get out of it. So I just said, ‘I’ve created this fire around me, and I’m stuck in it, so I might as well live with the flames’.”

Today, as a guest instructor in the San Francisco Giants’ spring camp, Bonds still knows and lives with the fact that enough people will never accept him having changed in any way. “I know what I did out there,” he tells The Athletic‘s Andrew Baggarly, referring to the baseball field. “I know what I accomplished between those lines. It’s outside those lines that I would have done some things different.”

Bonds says he feels like “a ghost in a big empty house, just rattling around,” then says it feels as though he’s under a death sentence (his words) and it breaks his heart. And Baggarly acknowledges Bonds was “an introvert and socially stunted,” wondering now how things might have been if he’d been handed real guidance and not glandular expectations.

It’s hard not to pause at that point and remember that when he first made his reputation as a possibly larger-than-life prospect at Arizona State, one scouting report on Bonds featured a single-word description of his makeup: “Asshole.” As if he was already at war with the world as well as baseball, both for his self-destructive, troubled, and troubling father and for being seen more through his father’s best than his own self and abilities.

Maybe you still can’t forget that haunting 1993 Sports Illustrated cover, too, showing Bonds in his San Francisco Giants uniform, in the on-deck circle, his left hand hooked on his left hip, gazing to his left with a serious eye and without his broad, tunnel-lighting smile, right knee bent and right foot crossing left, the headline saying too much in six words: “I’m Barry Bonds, and You’re Not.”

“But when the game’s most dominant force since Babe Ruth tells you that he feels like MLB and the baseball industry has swept him into irrelevance,” Baggarly writes, “to the point where it feels like a death sentence . . . well, that is quite a statement.”

San Francisco Giants
San Francisco Giants /

San Francisco Giants

The surliness Bonds has regretted perhaps since before he spoke to Moore in 2016 marries to the immovable suspicions that he indulged willingly in actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances a few years after moving to the Giants from the Pittsburgh Pirates. His having dominated the game like no one before him between ages 34-39 was too surreal to too many to let them believe otherwise.

If the suspicions were well enough chronicled and supported in several books—especially Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams’s investigatory Game of Shadows, and Jeff Pearlman’s biography Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero—it was too simple to forget that suspicions didn’t equal final, hard, no-questions-asked proof.

For one thing, and it was a point not always pondered in more depth, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood eventually nailed a pretty point when comparing the Astrogate outrage to facing real or suspected juicers: Even the juicer still had to hit what was coming.

And unless the real or suspected juicers, too, got pilfered pitch intelligence, from on the field or off the field, the fact that you might have been inflated chemically into the Incredible Hulk didn’t mean you were going to hit baseballs at will for distance or otherwise. Bonds didn’t become baseball’s arguable greatest hitter the game ever saw solely with a little help from his actual or alleged friends.

It’s easy to forget, too, that Bonds’s actual or alleged PED use became a subject of a federal investigation that climaxed with perjury charges eventually dropped and an obstruction of justice conviction overturned with the government declining to re-try them. That hasn’t absolved him in too much of the public eye, even if it’s just as simple to say of the “public eye” that it’s just too simple not to let whatever the truth is overthrow (ahem) a juicy story.

Concurrently, it’s easy to suspect the case was as Moore described it, a case of selective prosecution. Bonds’s prickly personal reputation made him the perfect villain for the years in which actual or alleged PEDs ran so wild that baseball’s government barely let itself think about resolving it until the government government hauled some of its most prominent on and off the field figures onto a perp walk to Capitol Hill.

Howard Bryant—whose book Juicing the Game contributed to baseball’s PED literature and whose subsequent book Shut Out revisited jarringly the shame of the Boston Red Sox being baseball’s last team to integrate—describes the steroid era as baseball’s worst scandal with the game’s segregation era a tight second. (He didn’t suggest where the gambling scandals that climaxed with the Black Sox sit.)

But writing for ESPN Sunday night, Bryant suggested Astrogate could become the worst baseball scandal of all time, worse than the steroid era, worse than segregation, worse than even the 1910-1920 gambling era he forgot to mention.

“All that reigned” when he visited spring camps in Arizona, Bryant writes, “was a question: In terms of damage done, is baseball’s current cheating scandal worse than the steroid era? It felt like a question positioned perfectly for an era of communication that is centered on debates less interested in the cause of the dumpster fires than in comparing which is worse.”

Whatever proves worse would be small comfort to a Bonds who couldn’t look into himself and the monster he admits he created until he was no longer able to play major league baseball. Even the scattered occasions on which he let himself be seen as vulnerable were swallowed alive by that monster, and he knows it.

He can and does give Baggarly one of the most acute analyses of hitting as you’ll ever receive from a man who mastered it professorially as a player and a short-lived coach. He can appreciate and critique today’s entrenchment in analytics and today’s hitters’ diversions from the kind of whole-field hitting his generation and those that preceded him practised, and he sounds like a man who has given his entire intelligence to the physics and the thought the craft demands.

Baggarly also observes that Bonds seems to be at peace with the prospect that he may never receive Hall of Fame enshrinement, even with a gradual swell of voting writers who want to enshrine him based upon his career prior to that point at which he’s suspected of starting to juice.

The writer also suspects a considerable degree of the vulnerability Bonds now allows himself to feel, without letting it become the gamma rays that once turned him into the fuming Hulk, is an empty-nest syndrome: his three children are grown and on their own. He may say, wisely, “I just tell them, ‘Live your lives. Do what you do’,” but he seems to have no similar self-protection against the outcast status he believes he holds.

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

“I think he wants to be looked at as someone who wants to share an incredible amount of knowledge and has done things that we all wish we could do,” says Giants manager Gabe Kapler, who knows Bonds remains a San Francisco Giants icon if shunned everywhere else. “I’m really happy to hear that he opened up the way he did. And we need to listen. We need to give him a platform to share and help.”

Once upon a time, Bonds wanted to play baseball without the unfair weight of unfairly exaggerated expectations, too, whether they were handed him by a talented but troubled father, or by a game that took him as his father’s son without seeing he might actually be an awful lot more.

“When it came to [baseball], I did that right,” Bonds told Moore four years ago. “But as far as my attitude and the way I handled things, I just didn’t do it the right way. There were times during my career when I really did try, but I wasn’t given the benefit of the doubt, because I had already created the monster.”

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The monster that made him his own worst enemy. The enemy that wouldn’t let him remain human while playing the game beyond the mortal dimension, for long enough, while taking him too many places he and those who wanted to love him regret his having gone.