Between the summers of 1998 and 2001, something fundamental shifted in the way baseball fans viewed the exploits of the game’s most celebrated modern sluggers. The feel-good vibe that greeted Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s chase to break Roger Maris’s single-season home run record in ’98 had curdled into something far more skeptical three years later, when the widely unloved Barry Bonds set about eclipsing McGwire’s new standard.
The difference between the two summers wasn’t limited to the marked contrast in McGwire’s burly affability and Bonds’s often haughty, disdainful distance. By this time, there was a widespread suspicion, slowly given voice in the stands and throughout the media, that something was wrong with Major League Baseball breezily celebrating the game’s power surge while looking the other way when it came to allegations of steroid abuse.1 Bonds himself became the focal point of the steroids discussion, and when he broke McGwire’s record in 2001, a tone of peeved incredulity dominated much of the discourse.2
A year later, that was the context in which writer David Grann was assigned by The New York Times Magazine‘s then-editor Adam Moss3 to chronicle Bonds, who had by then become a pariah to many baseball purists, even as some fans and journalists were ranking him among the sport’s all-time elite.4
“He really was, at that time, the dominant sports icon, and the one who seemed to be at the center of the conversation,” says Grann. “I remember when they initially brought the idea to me I had some reluctance because I felt the chances of [Bonds] ever cooperating were extremely small, from the little bits I knew and had heard, and wasn’t sure if a write-around5 would really work.”
The story idea had been bouncing around the Times magazine offices for the better part of two years, but hadn’t been assigned because of Bonds’s reputation as a notoriously difficult interview. “[Bonds] said no to everything, he gave no access,” says Joel Lovell, who was then a story editor for the Times magazine and is today its deputy editor. “He was a little bit of the most tantalizing and also the most impossible subject to profile well. But we really had been talking about it over the course of two seasons.”6
After receiving word that Bonds was willing to cooperate, Grann joined up with the Giants in July and made repeated attempts at introducing himself. For more than a week, Grann traveled with the team, stood around at batting practice, and waited to catch Bonds’s eye, but the star remained elusive. “I remember calling my wife and saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just going from game to game,’” says Grann. “And she would say, ‘Well, what are you doing?’ And I would say, ‘Well, I’m having fun, I get to watch these games. But I have no story.’”
Soon enough, Grann’s persistence would pay off.
The New York Times Magazine
September 1, 2002
By David Grann
One night last fall7 Barry Bonds, the demon of America’s pastime, caught a glimpse of his own redemption. The player who had been called a “prima donna,” a “phony,” “overrated,” “a cancer” and a “spiritual drain on baseball” was about to do what no one had ever done. He was having the greatest season in the history of the game, and now the 37-year-old San Francisco Giant was on the verge of breaking the single-season home-run record set by Mark McGwire only three years earlier — and finally, as he had always vowed, “melt” his critics’ pens.
For the moment, though, he tried to concentrate only on the pitcher, Chan Ho Park, a mercurial right-hander. Recently, almost no one had pitched to Bonds; as he neared the record, opposing teams increasingly walked him, prompting many to wonder if they were intentionally denying him a shot at history.8 His daughters had begun to hold signs that read: “Please pitch to our daddy” and “Give our daddy a chance.”
Outside the stadium, people seemed even more determined to thwart him. A few weeks earlier, Dusty Baker, the Giants manager, knocked on Bonds’s hotel room door with an F.B.I. agent at his side: Bonds had received a death threat. A man had called a Houston television station and vowed to shoot him before he could break the record. Bonds thought it was because of his race, that he was being threatened the way they had once threatened Hank Aaron, but the caller insisted it was something else: like so many fans, he just hated him.
But now as Bonds watched the pitcher go through his motion he didn’t think about any of that. He waited until the pitch was almost past him, then uncoiled his bat, swinging so hard that he pulled the ball into the deepest part of the park. As it vanished over the wall, the crowd rose to its feet. Many in the press box, reporters and broadcasters who had often badmouthed Bonds publicly and privately, stopped typing and stood. His teammates — who in April, when Bonds hit his 500th home run, left him standing alone at the plate — descended upon him as he crossed home and picked up Nikolai,9 his 11-year-old son and the team’s bat boy, and pointed to the sky. Two innings later, Bonds did it again.
Although the game didn’t end until after midnight, a podium was set up near home plate and held a ceremony in Bonds’s honor. Once, while watching a similar tribute to Cal Ripken after he broke the record for most consecutive games, Bonds confided to a reporter that he would be too scared to get so close to the fans — “If you could hear the things they say to me” — but now as the crowd beckoned him, Bonds appeared from the dugout, still in his uniform and cap. It was at this point, as he looked out at the thousands that had lingered into the early-morning hours just to see him, that he seemed to contemplate his redemption. “We’ve come a long way,” he said to the fans. “We’ve had our ups and downs.” And then, as his teammates stood behind him and the crowd chanted his name, Bonds lowered his head and began to cry.
Within days, though, the fans’ appreciation had reverted to antipathy. On talk radio and in the sports pages around the country, he was being blamed for everything from overpriced athletes to players’ surly attitudes. “It is a shame that a jerk like Barry Bonds … now is the home-run record holder,” read one letter from The Los Angeles Times. “Hopefully, someone with style and integrity will knock him out of the top spot. I, for one, will never buy another ticket to a Major League game.” When Bonds’s contract expired at the end of his record-breaking season, not a single team reportedly expressed public interest in luring away the greatest player in the game.
Then this season, as Bonds approached 600 career home runs, a feat achieved only by Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays, and as his batting average skyrocketed above .350, the rumors came on full force that Bonds was juiced on steroids. There was no evidence — and Bonds vehemently denied it — but as allegations engulfed the game people began to look at him differently, studying his muscle mass for the telltale signs of chemical enhancement.
By summer, as word of another possible strike spread, things had only gotten worse. After Bonds casually commented that baseball could survive its ninth work stoppage in the last 30 years (“It’s entertainment,” he told The Washington Post. “It will come back. A lot of companies go on strike. … And people still ride the bus”), he was again roundly denounced as the embodiment of everything that was wrong with the sport. “I yearn for the day that Bonds leaves Major League baseball,” said Chet Coppock, a host on Sporting News Radio. “He won’t be missed for 10 seconds.”
Baseball, of course, has long been played under the burden of metaphor. Moreso than basketball or football, it is supposed to represent something larger than itself. As the former baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti once claimed, “It is a dream of ourselves as better than we are.”10
Although baseball actually began as a game played largely by urban toughs, its image was soon reconstructed to mirror the country’s pastoral myth. And in the constant search for meaning in the flick of a glove or a routine hit, most of the game’s greatest players, no matter how ordinary or reprehensible off the field, were also transformed into something more than they actually were. (There were exceptions, of course, like Ty Cobb, whose official biographer referred to as “psychotic.”) In his recent book on Joe DiMaggio,11 Richard Ben Cramer described how the owners, along with a complicit media, created an unofficial “hero machine” that invented entire personalities around the best sluggers. Many of the writers, whose travel and food and lodging were paid for by the owners, turned Ruth’s appetite for female fans into an appetite for hot dogs.
The country became so steeped in the metaphoric nature of the game that when the Supreme Court in 1972 upheld its antitrust exemption, it cited the words from a New York district judge and said that baseball is on a “higher ground” and that “it behooves everyone to keep it there.”
Even after the writers were no longer plied with free travel and bottles of scotch, the machine remained sufficiently intact to reinvent recent sluggers, most notably McGwire, who despite a reputation for arrogance and rudeness became known as the antidote to Bonds. “From his 20-inch biceps to his 500-foot blasts, everything about Mark McGwire is Bunyanesque — including his heart,” wrote Sports Illustrated in 1998.12
But as the latest strike loomed, it has become harder and harder to deny the true nature of baseball — that it is, at its core, a business like any other, filled with labor disputes, petty disagreement, greed and drugs. Still, rather than view the threat of a strike as the ordinary jostling of competing self-interests, it has been spoken of as a moral catastrophe and a violation of some sacred trust. And alongside the old hero machine there has, over the last decade of strife, emerged a kind of antihero machine, in which the most ordinary weakness — from conceit to carousing to even a divorce — can be seized upon as proof of some larger rot.
Perhaps no one has been more ravaged by this new machine than Barry Bonds, the most dominant player of the modern era. At the very moment when Bonds is edging closer to the all-time home-run record, when in another age he would be lionized for his grace and strength, he has become a new kind of archetype — “The poster boy for the modern spoiled athlete”13 and “a symbol of baseball’s creeping greed and selfishness, complete with diamond earring.”
When I arrived in San Francisco this July, Bonds was once again refusing to engage in the rituals required of a celebrity athlete. He wasn’t giving press conferences or posing for pictures, and after another series of negative articles focusing on steroids and his disagreements with teammates, he had imposed a “boycott” on the local sports writers.14 He devised elaborate strategies to keep them at bay, using an army of sentries: his imposing personal trainer; the Giants’ bevy of public relations officials; and his childhood friend, Steve Hoskins,15 who sometimes served as his informal “publicist,” a job that mostly meant refusing requests, including one from George Will, whom Hoskins said he had never heard of. Usually, though, Bonds simply greeted anyone who invaded his space with a cold stare.
One afternoon before a game against the World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks, while the union was still contemplating a strike date, the press, increasingly desperate for even a routine quote, was deciding whether to dare invade his space. The more Bonds denied reporters access the more they seemed to despise him. As Bonds suddenly walked through the pack, his eyes smoldering at them, one of the writers said under his breath, “There goes Mr. Personality.”
Later he appeared in the batter’s box. Curt Schilling, the Diamondbacks’ All-Star pitcher, came out and leaned against the cage. In 2000, Schilling had told reporters, “Barry Bonds is a first-ballot Hall of Famer … but when he retires, he’s still going to be the biggest ass who ever lived. Ask his teammates. Ask anyone on their team or in their clubhouse.” Now, as Schilling and the press looked on, Bonds compressed his hands around the handle of the bat, rubbing the wood between his fingers. He smacked a line shot into deep left field. Then he smacked another, this one even farther, ricocheting off the wall. When Bonds finished his turn, he twirled his bat like a baton and walked off the field.
Despite his boycott of the local press, Bonds had agreed to talk with me, and as he approached the dugout, I tried to introduce myself. I extended my hand, but he kept walking, his eyes on a knot of reporters and cameramen moving toward him. He put his palm in front of one of the TV cameras, bumped my shoulder and vanished inside.
For days I tried unsuccessfully to approach him.16 Then one afternoon, Bonds suddenly sat down beside me in the dugout shortly before a day game in Los Angeles. Most of the players were still in the clubhouse or stretching on the field, and we had the area to ourselves.
Bonds had hurt his hamstring the night before, collapsing in mid-stride as he ran toward the wall, and now he had a bandage on his thigh.17 His head was shaved, setting off his handsome, if blunt, features. It was his eyes, though, that caught my attention. They can be frank and expressive one minute, then cold and impassive the next. At the moment, they seemed to be deciding between the two. “Dude, I’ve seen you watching me,” Bonds finally said.
As I began to pepper him with questions, he was polite but guarded. When I asked how he thought the fans and media perceived him, he insisted he didn’t know. When I asked how all the public criticism had affected him after his monumental season, he said: “I don’t think about it. I don’t read the paper that much. I read the business section.”
The dugout began filling with players. Someone brought out a bucket with sunflower seeds, and several players stuffed them in their pockets while others hastily rubbed pine tar on their bats. Bonds said he had been scratched from the lineup due to his injury and that he needed to see the trainer.
I assumed that was the end of the interview, but instead he led me down a long corridor that echoed with the clicking of his spikes. The locker room was empty, except for an elderly man folding towels. In a tiny back room scattered with weights and bandages, Bonds pulled up a chair and, leaning back against the wall, began to talk openly. “People who say they’re not afraid of anything are liars,” he said. “I’m afraid every time I go up there, not of being hit, but of failure.” He said he tried to succeed by concentrating on only what he did on the field. But then he admitted, “I know how I’m perceived. I know I’m supposed to be some kind of monster.”
Once on KBNR, a San Francisco sports radio station, after a fan denounced him and said he should be traded, the show’s host took the next call. “We have a call from a Barry in San Francisco. Barry, what would you like to talk about?”
“I hear this all the time,” the caller said plaintively. “‘He’s arrogant, he’s this … ‘ I’m not arrogant. I’m good. There’s a difference.”
The host seemed stunned when he realized it was Barry Bonds on the line. “I’m sorry that I had to get on the phone like this,” Bonds said.
When I asked him now about the incident, Bonds shrugged and said, “My wife was listening to it.” He seemed aware of almost every slight, even those that never appeared in print. He had spies up in the press booth, Bonds explained to me, that reported back to him the things reporters and broadcasters said to one another. “They don’t know I have ears up there, but I do. I know everything they say. Everything.” He sounded more tired than angry, as if he had given up trying to change people’s views. “If you sit up in the booth and call me all these names, then why do you come down and look me in the face and say hi?”
His trainer peered in the room, but Bonds seemed to want to keep talking. “They expect you to be who they want you to be, not who you are,” he said. “If they could only judge a player by their own eyes, if they could just watch me play, what I do on the field.”
In the background, we could hear the sound of the national anthem being sung and the players being introduced. Bonds leaned forward in his chair, preparing to go, then settled back for a moment. “There are times I’ve thought about quitting,” he said. “A lot of times.”
Barry Bonds has a hero’s pedigree. His father, Bobby, was an All-Star outfielder, his godfather is Willie Mays, his distant cousin is Reggie Jackson. “The thing you need to understand,” Bonds tells me, “is that I was born into this game.”
After the San Francisco Giants called up his dad in 1968, Barry, then no more than 4 or 5 years old, hung out in the locker room eyeing the aging Mays. “He was always watching me,” Mays tells me, always trying “to take my glove.” Although Barry relished being in the clubhouse, he was aware even then of how he was being perceived. “You don’t know who your friends are at times,” he says. “You don’t know if they want to be your friend because you’re the son of Bobby Bonds.”
An instinctive player like his father, in high school Barry was already being called “a superstar.” He was so fast, his teammates say, that he would steal bases and never slide. Yet in his senior year in high school,18 in a kind of harbinger of his entire career, another player was named the M.V.P., even though Bonds put up the best numbers. “That had to do with the fact that Barry was perceived even then to be cocky and arrogant,” Dave Canziani, Bonds’s high-school teammate, told me. “He clearly deserved the award.”
His high-school coach has said, “He wanted to be liked, tried so damn hard to have people like him … But then he’d say things he didn’t mean, wild statements. Still, he’d be hurt. People don’t realize he can be hurt, and is, fairly often.”
In 1985, the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted the 20-year-old outfielder in the first round. Lanky, with long, graceful strides and a lighting-quick, powerful swing, Bonds wore a thin mustache and, before long, his trademark diamond earring.
As he tore through the minors, his story — from his birthright to his natural swing — eventually became part of the baseball lore that burnished all of the game’s greatest hitters. There was the tale, for instance, of how in 1986 Syd Thrift, the Pirates general manager, watched Bonds pull five balls over the fence in right field during batting practice. As Thrift often recalled, he told Bonds that was great, now how about a few over the left-field fence? Bonds hit the next few over the left-field fence and said, “How’s that?” That night, the story goes, was the last game Barry Bonds played in the minor leagues.
But there was trouble with the myth of Barry Bonds from the start. First of all, to be Barry Bonds, the heir to baseball’s mythic past, he needed to both be like his father but also surpass him, to achieve what Bobby hadn’t been able to and become the “next Willie Mays.” “I don’t call them expectations,” Bonds says today. “I call them manipulations. You’re a young kid and you have other people brainwashing you, making you believe that you’re something you may not be able to be.”
Often when he was in the clubhouse reporters would stop at his locker and start asking him about his father, how he compared to him and to his godfather, Mays. They would frequently call him Bobby by mistake, and he would stop the interview and say: “I’m Barry. Bobby’s my father.”
It wasn’t just that he was in his father’s shadow. “My father and I were never really close when I was growing up,” he once told ESPN, “because he was never around. I wanted my dad at my Little League games, because everybody else’s parents were there. My parents weren’t there, just my mom.” Bobby has said that he often came to the games but stayed in the car, not wanting to make a scene. “He said he was there,” Barry said. “But I never saw him.”19
In Pittsburgh, when for the first time he seemed to collapse under the expectations, when the can’t-miss prospect started missing all the time, getting only 17 hits in his first 100 at bats, he grew increasingly defiant. Some players grumbled that Bonds refused to heed any instructions and that he was more concerned with himself than with the team. To compound that image, Bonds rarely spoke. Even after knocking in 114 runs, stealing 52 bases, and crushing 33 home runs in 1990, he would often refuse to give interviews or mingle with fans, telling writers and autograph-seekers to stay out of his face.
And when he did talk, he never sounded like a conventional superstar. Rather than speak of the game in mystical terms he referred to it openly as a business. As he still says today: “I was asked when baseball was a game to you? The last game I played in college.20 Ever since then it’s been a business. This is a business. We provide for our families. There are people we have to deal with that manipulate and con and try, you know, to cheat. It’s not a game anymore.”
Whereas other players let their agents negotiate behind the scenes while they smiled at the cameras, Bonds came right out and said he should be paid millions by the Pirates or be traded. “The Pirates can’t keep crying broke,” he said of the owners. “You can’t own half of Pittsburgh and say you’re on welfare.”
Then came the day at spring training in 1991, when Bonds says one of his coaches accused him of sulking over his salary. Bonds started shouting at him while the TV and print guys zoomed in on the fray. Jim Leyland, the Pirates head coach, tried to intercede, and now they were going at it too, the manager and the star. “I’ve been kissing your butt for three years,” Leyland yelled. “If guys don’t want to be here, aren’t happy with the money they’re making, don’t take it out on everybody else.”
After that — and an ugly divorce played out in the tabloids — it didn’t seem to matter what Bonds did on the field. It didn’t matter that Leyland pleaded with the fans to let up on the booing (“That is getting old. It’s gone too far.”) or that Bobby Bonds begged reporters, “Give my boy a chance.” It didn’t matter that Bonds won three M.V.P.’s in four years or that he would become the first player ever to hit 400 home runs and steal 400 bases or that he was majestic in left field, climbing the wall and catching the ball in the web of his mitt, winning eight Gold Gloves. It didn’t matter that, unlike many players, Bonds never actually held out for more money or that, as his former teammate Bobby Bonilla put it to me, “Once he knows you, he’ll give you the shirt off his back.”
He was now Barry Bonds, “the Pirates’ M.D.P. — Most Despised Player,” as the Pittsburgh media began to call him; and by 1993, after the Giants acquired him and made him the highest-paid player in baseball,21 he was now the spoiled face of America’s pastime.
One July afternoon, Bonds was sitting by himself at his locker. The area is only a few square feet, but slightly grander in scale than those around it. Rather than one or two wood-panel cubbies, he has three in a row. There is also, instead of the typical metal folding chair, a large leather recliner, which repeatedly cost $3,000.
Although Bonds paid for the chair himself, and it is designed to help his ailing back (“They pay me millions of dollars to play baseball,” Bonds says. “What would they say if I hurt my back and couldn’t play?”); and though one of the lockers is for his son, the bat boy, the entire area — the “kingdom,” as it’s sometimes called — has been a constant fixture in the countless Bonds takedowns written in recent years. “In the San Francisco Giants’ clubhouse,” Rick Reilly wrote in Sports Illustrated last year, “everybody knows the score: 24-1. There are 24 teammates, and there’s Barry Bonds.”
The romantic notion of the clubhouse as a traveling fraternity of working-class heroes — the boys of summer — is perhaps the most potent in all of baseball. But while the notion is still propagated, the reality is less and less like that, if it ever was. Most clubhouses have become rather businesslike affairs, where the players cautiously refrain from saying anything candid to the press trolling the clubhouse, instead offering the same platitudes about wanting to win and personal numbers not mattering, as if they were revealing a profound baseball truth.
In recent years, few players have been held up as representatives of the old ideal more than Jeff Kent, the Giants’ slender, tightly coiled second-baseman, who in 2000 beat out Bonds for the M.V.P. and is said to despise Bonds more than anyone in baseball. “They’ve hated each other since the day Kent came to town in 1997,” Ray Ratto of The San Francisco Chronicle observed. “They hate each other today, and … the one who lives longer will attend the other’s funeral, just to make sure he’s dead.”
Last year, while Bonds was on the verge of breaking the home-run record, he told Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated: “I was raised to be a team guy, and I am, but Barry’s Barry. It took me two years to learn to live with it, but I learned.” Although Kent was publicly taking a teammate to task during a pennant race, which isn’t quite the act of a “team guy,” there was little criticism of this in the sports media.
One day when I was in the locker room, not long after Kent and Bonds came to blows in the dugout in which Bonds appeared to put his forearm in Kent’s throat, Kent, about to take off his towel, asked a pack of reporters if there were any “queers” or “women” among them — a remark that, especially in San Francisco, would have created a certain stir. Although he was surrounded by at least a dozen reporters who half have seized upon any number of Bonds’ remarks, none, as far I know, reported this. “Is there a double standard because Kent talks to us?” one sports radio announcer told me. “Definitely.”
In contrast to Kent, there were unofficial rules, I was told by reporters, to get to Bonds. Don’t talk to him when he is getting dressed. Don’t talk to him just before or after batting practice. Don’t talk to him when he is sitting in his chair. Don’t talk to him when he is talking to the trainer or to his son.
One day I decided to break the rules. I approached Bonds as he was reclining in the chair next to his conditioning coach. His shirt was off, and I could see the muscles along his stomach. Circling one of his giant biceps was a chain-link tattoo. He normally fell silent when a reporter intruded, but now he became vocal, nodding and complaining about all his vacation houses, how he has so many he doesn’t know what to do, how he has a place in the mountains and a place in the Caribbean, how he has his own private ski slope and how in addition to keeping up his properties he also has to support everyone in his family.
For several minutes I stood there, listening. At one point, without a hint of remorse or self-consciousness, he said in a loud voice: “My grandmother wants me to get her some wheelchair that drives like a car. Why do I need to get her some wheelchair when she’s gonna die anyway?”
The next morning, when I warily approached him again, Bonds looked at me for a long time. Then he began to smile and said: “Dude, I was just dawging you yesterday. I was just testing you, man. I wanted to see if you’d write that stuff in the paper.” My first thought, beyond realizing that Bonds mistakenly thought I was a reporter for a daily newspaper, was that he had suspected that he’d been too loud and too obnoxious, and now he was manipulating me. But as I considered this, Bonds went on to describe what appeared to be an elaborate and mysterious defense mechanism. The theory, as far as I could tell, was that it was always better to strike first, to manipulate his own image, even if that meant creating a caricature of himself, than to be misunderstood and misrepresented by somebody else. “No writer can ever know me,” he said, as if to finally explain.
When I asked him why he had devised such an elaborate ruse, especially since it only made him look worse, he seemed surprised. “When you come to the ballpark,” he said, “you’re walking into a place that is all deception and lies.”
“The truth is,” Bobby Bonds tells me one day, “whatever you put down, whatever you say, that’s what the world is going to believe about Barry. Not his friends, not me, not his family — we know who Barry is — but the world. You can make my son into a hero or you can make him into the devil.”
Barry Bonds was still young when his father’s fall began. Although Bobby still continued to put up good numbers year after year, he never lived up to expectations. “Anything I did that wasn’t what Willie Mays did meant I never lived up to my potential,” Bobby once said. Yet there were whispers that Bobby’s failure was not just the result of the pressure of having to play in the shadow of Mays. In 1974 and 1975, when Bobby was playing for the Giants and the Yankees, stories began to appear in the papers with headlines like: “Bonds Charged With Drunk Driving” and “Bonds Confronts Rumors About Drugs, Drinking.”
Of course, Bobby Bonds wasn’t the first player ever to get torn up in the press. But in the past most of the beat writers went out of their way to protect players’ off the field foibles. If a player was so drunk that during the national anthem he was puking in the showers, Cramer noted in his biography, the writers simply banged out a line about his “stomach flu.”
But by the 1970′s, when Mays was getting ready to retire and Bobby Bonds was embarking on his own career, the old codes were being broken. Part of it was due to the growth of televised games, which made it harder for reporters simply to cover what happened on the field. But part of it too was a revolution in the business of baseball. In 1972, the players, whose average salary was only $34,000, went on strike for the first time. Delaying the opening of the season by 13 days, the strike eventually paved the way for free agency, which liberated the players but created a system in which the best players increasingly moved from team to team, shattering a sense of loyalty with the fans. After Bobby Bonds and several other popular Yankees left in 1975, an article appeared in The New York Times under the headline: “A 5-Year-Old Boy Loses His Heroes” It asked: “Do you tell this boy that baseball is not really just a game? … Is it correct to say that Bobby Bonds, whom he idolized, did not have fun playing here in New York, that he will be playing in some backyard in California next year? Can this youngster, precocious though he is, comprehend the complex web of the baseball superstructure? … Will he love baseball as his dad did, or will he be turned off?”
Bobby Bonds, as much as any player of the time, came to be seen as a part of “the complex web of the baseball superstructure,” offering his electric but erratic talents to the highest bidder. After he was traded seven times in seven years, the rumors about his personal problems only increased. “What I was doing,” he said, “was probably no different than Mickey Mantle or a bunch of ‘em,” Bobby once said of his drinking. Finally, in 1981, one year after another strike-shortened season, he unceremoniously packed up his locker and left the sport.
Perhaps no one was more affected by the constant trades and gossip than his eldest son. “Bobby went through a lot,” Dusty Baker once said, “and Barry has shared a lot of his dad’s pain.”
Barry himself has stated, “They never gave him the respect he deserves. Why should I believe things will be any different for me?”
According to Barry, one day, after Bobby had left the game and stopped drinking, he pulled his son aside. “He told me to play the game for as long as I could because it all goes so fast,” Barry said. “And he told me to keep my mouth shut. I guess that second one got by me.”
“You can watch,” Bonds said, as he walked into World Gym at 8 a.m. “You’re not here to ask questions. I don’t want it to be like the F.B.I.” Whereas his father was once rumored to have fallen short of his potential because of drugs, his son was now rumored to have exceeded his because of drugs.
He wore black sweat pants and black gloves. Laying down on one of the benches, he began to press several dumbbells while his strength coach, Greg Anderson, stood above him. “I hate doing this,” Bonds said, as he got up and looked in the mirror. “In three years this is all coming off. My wife likes me this big, but I can’t stand it.”
When Bonds first entered the National League in 1986 he had a sprinter’s build. But after a few years, he became one of the first of the new generation of players who lifted weights, gradually transforming himself from a 185-pound leadoff hitter into a 230-pound slugger. “I think Barry saw all this potential that my dad had, and it was just wasted,” Barry’s brother, Bobby Jr., told ESPN.
Bonds often gets up at 5 in the morning and runs sprints, even after night games. He lifts every day, isolating one segment of his body — his shoulders or calves or abdomen. “I had the lowest body fat of anyone on the team in spring training,” Bonds said, suddenly talking with me after his initial refusal.
“It was too low,” said Anderson.
“6.2,” said Bonds.
To stay in such condition he eats six specially prepared meals a day, consisting of fish, chicken, turkey, vegetables or, on rare instances, beef; each meal has 350 to 450 calories. “Every month we take his blood and test his mineral levels to make sure they’re in line so that if he’s 10 milligrams off in zinc or 6 off in magnesium or 5 milligrams off in copper, that’s what we replace,” Anderson explained. “That’s how he stays in such good condition.”22
Last year, as Bonds approached the record, he seemed in awe of his own power. During a humid series against the Atlanta Braves, with his uniform soaked through with sweat and his body crouched over the plate, he hit three home runs in a single game. When asked about his sudden surge, Bonds, who had never treated hitting as a rarefied science, told reporters: “Call God. Ask him. It’s like, wow. I can’t understand it, either. I try to figure it out, and I can’t figure it out. So I stopped trying.”
But this year, after two former All-Stars23 admitted that they had used illegal steroids during their careers, many began to openly question whether Bonds’s production was fueled by steroids. “The running bet in the office is that Barry’s head has grown,” which is a sign of steroids, a local reporter told me one day in the press box.
As fans began to yell “Barry’s on ‘roids” whenever he came up to bat, Bonds vehemently denied using them. At a game at Yankee Stadium, he seemed irate that the rumors were still circulating. “I’m tired of it,” he said. “One minute I do this, and I’m good. The next minute I’m accused of other stuff. That’s how you make a living,” he said to the reporters gathered around him. “The more blood you can drain, the more successful you can be.”
Now, as he sat up on the bench dropping two weights on the ground, Bonds said, “It affects you when this stuff comes into your home. When my son comes up to me and says kids at school are asking him if his father is on drugs, that’s when it bothers me.”
He paused, picking up another weight and studying it for a minute. “My cap has been 7 1/2 forever,”24 he said when I asked him about the speculation over whether his head has grown. He said he took the protein supplement creatine, which is legal and sold over the counter, but nothing more. “I don’t need to take anything illegal. Why do I need to cheat? I’m already good.”
He did several reps, sweat starting to soak through his shirt. “No one wants to believe that someone is just good,” he said. “They always want to find something. There has to be some reason. They have to believe there’s a catch to why he’s different from anyone else. They have to think you’re cheating.” He continued, “The problem with me is that they don’t have anything on me. You really think about my career, honestly think about my career, what do they really got on me? Nothing. I don’t do drugs. I don’t go with prostitutes. I got divorced. That’s it. Nothing.”
After an hour of working out he went into the lobby, where Anderson ordered him one of his meals, scrambled egg whites and turkey sausage. He seemed like a different person here than the one in the clubhouse, almost unguarded. Every few minutes someone came by to hug or chat with him and he smiled and laughed, tilting his head back and embracing him or her in his giant arms.
“You got to try one of these, man,” he said to me, holding out a piece of sausage on the end of his fork. “You’re gonna pass out. You’ve never had anything like that in your life. And they have this barbecue chicken …”
I started to ask him a question, but before I could finish he asked it himself: “Why do I change at the ballpark? There’s nothing truthful at the ballpark. Except the game.” He picked up the paper, where there was a story on the potential strike. A poll said that more fans blamed the rich players than the rich owners for the endless disputes over salary caps. He studied the article for a long time then put down the paper: “They say: ‘You should just be happy. You’re making a whole lot of money.’ Baby, I earned this money. I don’t give a damn. You can say whatever you want. I earned this money. I worked for this money. I didn’t work to be called names all day.”
Oddly, by being one of the few players who spoke candidly about the business of baseball, he was often shunned by the business world itself. Although he has dominated his sport for several years (“Total Baseball,” the bible of statistics, concluded that he was the best player in the National League in 1990, 91, 92, 93, 95, 96, 98, 2000 and 2001)25 — he has never received the kind of corporate endorsements that other sports stars have. “They don’t like me,” he once acknowledged.
After he broke the home-run record, Bonds cut commercials for Charles Schwab and KFC, including one in which he appeared with Hank Aaron. But he said of all the commercials and banquets and engagements off the field: “This isn’t me. The game is my stage. That’s where I’m happiest.”
“I’m a ballplayer,” Bonds told me of his negative image. “I’m not a P.R. man. I’m a ballplayer. You know how many words I got to say out on the baseball field? ‘I got it!”‘ At one point, when I asked him if he ever wanted to be revered like his godfather, he thought about it for a long time. “I want to be a ballplayer,” he said. “A damn good one.” Then he stood up to go. “I got to take my kids to school,” he said.
“How long is it gonna take? I’m watching the golf game.”
It was Willie Mays. His voice was hard to hear over the phone, almost a whisper. He is 71, and when he shows up at Pacific Bell Park — where there is a statue and a plaza named after him — to watch his godson, fans, many of them too young to have seen him play, still surround him.
At first when I asked him about Barry he seemed hesitant to talk. “This isn’t my thing,” Mays told me, and the more we spoke, the more striking it was how much he sounded like his godson. When I asked him why Barry was criticized so vehemently, he paused for a while, as if searching for the precise reason. “Whatever you ask him,” he finally said, “he’ll tell you the truth.”
Mays said he still offered Bonds advice when he was struggling at the plate, but lately he had nothing to offer: “He hasn’t been in a rut.”
Indeed, Barry Bonds is fast approaching the heights of his godfather, the only player of his generation to ever do so. Already the only player ever to hit 400 home runs and steal 400 bases, as of late August, Bonds was only 11 bases short of creating a new club: 500/500. It is not inconceivable that he will end his career with more runs batted in than any other player, passing Hank Aaron’s 2,297. And while his fielding and lifetime batting average may never reach Mays’s, he is likely in the next few seasons, barring injury, to surpass Mays in total home runs (660) and is potentially within reach of Hank Aaron’s all-time record of 755. “He has often said to me, ‘Willie, I don’t want to pass you,’ and I always say, ‘Wait a minute,”‘ Mays recently said. “I tell him: ‘Home runs are there to be hit. If you pass me, pass Ruth, pass Hank, then just go ahead and do it. You can’t lay back and not pass who you want. This is just baseball.”‘
On a recent summer night, shortly before the players union set the strike date, Bonds, only 2 home runs shy of becoming the fourth player in history ever to hit 600, broke his boycott of the local media and held a press conference. He sat at the dais in his uniform, facing the three dozen or so reporters and cameramen who had filled the tiny room in the bowels of the stadium. There were no questions about steroids or the strike. For the moment, with the season in jeopardy and the opportunities for greatness running out, the reporters appeared happy just to be talking with Bonds again, and Bonds seemed happy to be talking to them without having to defend himself. “I don’t understand how I got here yet,” Bonds said in a soft-spoken voice. “I just got done doing one thing that was shocking, and now there’s a another chapter, another shock.”
After a few minutes he walked into the clubhouse and sat in his corner by himself, getting ready for the game against the Chicago Cubs. Normally, his son got dressed beside him, then went milling around the clubhouse the way Barry once had. He was already known in Little League as a rising superstar, the son of Barry Bonds. “At least one of us,” Barry often jokes, “has won a championship.” When the press circles around his father he often looks at them with the same wary, blank eyes. Once when a crush appeared around his dad he seemed almost scared. “I’m out of here,” he said, pushing his way out.
“He’s not gonna be the next Barry Bonds,” Bonds told me. “He’s gonna be his own man.”
But now, to my surprise, instead of his son, who was on vacation, his father suddenly appeared at Barry’s side.26 Bobby had recently undergone surgery to remove a tumor and still looked frail. He wore blue jeans and a black T-shirt. “We had a little talk,” Bobby told me after he left the clubhouse. “I was getting his mind to where it’s supposed to be. Making sure that he stays relaxed and realizes how much fun this is. Don’t take it out of context of what it really is.”
Upstairs, we sat with Barry’s mother and second wife and one of his daughters. It was a cool night, and every seat was filled. Out in San Francisco Bay, out past right field where Barry often hit his longest balls, boats gathered hoping to fish out of the water his 599th and, ultimately, the one that counted — 600th home run. When Bonds first stepped into the batter’s box with two men on, the stadium lit up with flash bulbs. The Cubs had a rookie left-hander27 on the mound, and no one knew if he’d pitch to him. After two balls, the crowd started to boo; but then, with one strike, the lefty came right at him, and Bonds lined a shot into right center. The crowd rose in expectation, but it skidded into the alley. Only a double. “He’s more relaxed than I’ve ever seen him,” Bobby said.
As we waited for another turn, Bobby shook his head. “You know what’s a shame?” he said. “A lot of people will have missed all that he’s done — missed the entire parade.” He looked around at the people gathered into the stadium. “Sometimes in this park he can hit a home run and everyone will cheer and think he’s the greatest in the world, but they will still dislike him when the day’s over with.” He shook his head, his voice trailing off. Barry’s wife, a pretty, slender woman, handed him a plate with hot dogs and started to clap as Bonds came up again. Before he stepped into the batter’s box he waved to his family. “Look for him to do something,” Bobby said.28
Once again, the rookie came right at him. “Here it comes,” said Bobby. This time, on a one-two pitch, Bonds uncorked his bat, crushing the ball into the farthest reaches of the park, more than 420 feet away. Bonds dropped his bat and watched. The crowd roared as the scoreboard flashed his latest total: 599. “Do I know my son?” Bobby said, standing up, trying to peer over the tops of hundreds of heads as his son crossed home plate. No one in the stadium sat down, and after a minute Barry came out of the dugout and tipped his hat.
As he stood there, smiling as the crowd chanted his name, I thought for the first time I could see him for what he really is, the true face of baseball — a game that at its best and stripped of the dead weight of metaphor, satisfies everyone’s self-interest: the fans, the owners and Bonds himself, who gets to play the game he loves and is better at, arguably, than anyone who has ever played.
After a few minutes he ducked into the dugout, then took the field, resting his hands on both knees. He would still have three more at-bats to try for his 600th. But for the moment, as the crowd settled back into its seats, there were no heroes or demons. Just baseball. Isn’t that enough?
It’s a strange process,” Grann says today of the story he wrote 11 years ago. “This story in particular is one that is incomplete. It’s an incomplete story because it was run at a point where the history was incomplete.”29 At the time, Grann himself was unsure about whether Bonds had used steroids. “I think I was pretty suspicious,” he says. “I think, at that time, my editors were too.30 There was a sense that there was a very good chance that he was taking it, but there was no evidence. I was kind of trapped in that box.”
As suspicions against Bonds mounted, in the wake of the revelations about BALCO31 and Bonds’s subsequent perjury trial, the star’s comments about the nature of the game — “there’s nothing truthful at the ballpark … you’re walking into a place that is all deception and lies” — can be seen in a far different light.
Grann remembers that the story elicited a particularly virulent reaction. Even old friends who might typically offer merely a polite compliment about one of his pieces suddenly wanted to debate him about the true nature of baseball or Bonds’s character. “The story provoked much more and much stronger reactions than I’m used to,” Grann says. “People have such fierce opinions on the sanctity of baseball, and where they stood on Barry Bonds … I had written about a lot of things, like death-squad people, and very bad people, and this had a very strong reaction, even compared to those pieces.”
Grann doesn’t remember where he was when Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s career record for home runs, but he found the subsequent revelations pointing to Bonds’s steroid use as dispiriting as most fans. “I never saw Bonds as a sanctified figure,” says Grann. “But what’s striking rereading the story now is that though Bonds seemed honest about what he called the people who ‘manipulate and con and try, you know, to cheat’ — including management and agents and mythmakers — he repeatedly denied using any banned substances. And so, in the end, he appears to have been dishonest about his own efforts to manipulate and con and, you know, to cheat, which certainly affects my view of both him and the story.”
Michael MacCambridge is the author of America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation and Lamar Hunt: A Life in Sports.