There’s a combination of childlike innocence and institutionalized lack of empathy with Barry Bonds whenever he speaks publicly. This is not a criticism or an indictment, it just is. Like an earthquake or a hurricane, it’s not an entity that should know better. There’s no changing it nor truly understanding it.
As Bonds is facing the likelihood of his deserved Hall of Fame accomplishments being superseded by the belief that he took performance enhancing drugs to fuel his late-career explosion of exponential production that dwarfed what he did in his clean, younger days as the underappreciated best player in baseball.
One of the reasons Bonds speaks in such reverential tones of Jim Leyland is because Leyland was one of the few people who didn’t want anything from Bonds other than what was precisely on the table: a good performance and professional behavior. Leyland didn’t let Bonds get away with the things that were allowed to pass from the time he was a child and through his big league career because he was the son of Bobby Bonds; how talented he was; his draft status; his MVPs, Gold Gloves, and all-around play. As a result, Leyland is one of the few people who have passed through Bonds’s life for whom he has any respect.
Able to put up that front of behaving as a normal person, Bonds is clearly incapable of comprehending the why behind the actions of others. Like the decision upon the propriety of a handshake/hug/kiss hello and goodbye for an acquaintance or distant family member, Bonds just doesn’t know how to act. It’s an understandable perspective when Bonds was treated as something wholly other because of his name and skills on the baseball field. This was not evident in a contemporary, Ken Griffey Jr., who is seen as the white hat to Bonds’s black hat because Griffey wasn’t placed in that same bubble with a contentious relationship with Ken Griffey Sr. as Bonds had with his father. In later years, there was the pretense of a close relationship. Barry would demand that Bobby be a coach on the Giants’ staff; when Bobby died, Barry claimed he’d “lost his coach.” But it again reverts to the perception designed to be salable to a society that never lived the way Bonds did and has no clue as to why he’s the way he is.
That’s not a defense of the mostly dark side of Barry being Barry. It’s reality.
So when saying to Bonds that he ruined his legacy by choosing to allegedly take PEDs, he has neither the analytical ability to examine the circumstances from the position of anyone other than himself. It made perfect sense to him to use the drugs as well given that he, as the unacknowledged best player in baseball who had an all-world season in 1998, found himself largely ignored in favor of two players—Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa—who were using PEDs and became a worldwide phenomenon while having a fraction of the ability of Bonds. In Bonds’s view, he was playing baseball and they were playing home run derby; they were getting all the accolades, and he was shoved to the side.
In a sense, Bonds was right and proved his point by being better than most every player in baseball clean, then being better than most everyone in baseball when the playing field was again leveled because he was using the same drugs they were. His results were better in both instances because he was better. It’s why he received all those privileges growing up; why he was able to get away with anti-social behaviors; and why he was validated to act as he did: as long as he hit and performed, he could do what he wanted.
Now Bonds is trying a different tack of the regular guy who wants his due, but is doing so in the same vacuum in which he existed as a player and person. He claims he cares about his Hall of Fame prospects and his legacy. No longer are we seeing the arrogant and bullying Bonds; this new Bonds is trying to refurbish his image with such acts of kindness as paying for the college education of Giants’ fan and Dodger Stadium beating victim Bryan Stow’s children (truly a nice thing to do) and is expressing his bewilderment at the seeming blackballing of him out of the game. Bonds claims he wants to be a hitting coach. He would truly be a great one. In comparison to Bonds, few hitters understood what pitchers were trying to do; had that unyielding vision of the strike zone; a natural genius for the game in all its aspects; and the ability to explain complex concepts in terms that would be easily grasped and applicable. It’s not an exercise in “look how much I know” by regurgitating hitting terminology to intimidate, it’s unpretentious knowledge to teach.
He’s not going to get that chance to be a hitting coach because of the memories of Bonds’s behavior. McGwire’s a hitting coach because people like him. Bonds won’t because people didn’t like him; they tolerated him because they had little choice.
Hall of Fame voters are using the PED allegations as a way to keep Bonds out when, had he been a clean Jim Rice type of player on the borderline, his attitude and that he wasn’t nice to them would be the real reason for keeping him out as it was with Rice. They can’t deny him due to questionable credentials, so he’ll be denied because of PEDs. It’s partial dogmatism; partial hardline response to the apparent drug use via punitive measures; partial vindictiveness.
My criteria for a Hall of Fame yay or nay with the PED era is whether the player was a Hall of Famer before he is accused of having used the drugs. McGwire, Sosa and others weren’t. Bonds and Roger Clemens were. Therefore they should be elected.
That’s not going to sway a vast number of the voters, though. They’ll keep him out because they want to keep him out, and the Bonds PR blitz isn’t going to swing them in his favor because they don’t believe he’s changed from what they thought he was. Probably because he hasn’t. Probably because he can’t.