Barry Bonds: Steroids, Scapegoats, and Sweet Satisfaction

Barry Bonds should be basking in the moment. The San Francisco Giants   outfielder has just passed Hank Aaron to become the all-time home-run  king of Major League Baseball. With 756 home runs, seven  most-valuable-player awards and eight gold gloves, he should be  trotting into the twilight of his career in a hail of hosannas as the   finest ballplayer of his generation. But expect no laurels, parades or  calls from President Bush.

Like the gentleman in the White House, Bonds will leave baseball a  polarized place with popularity charitably described as microscopic.   Games away from the friendly confines of San Francisco have become  celebrations of vitriol with fans screaming at pitchers to "throw at  his head" and "end his career." Death threats against his family and   person have become commonplace. Sportswriters such as Jeff Pearlman  for ESPN write articles with leads such as, "Barry Bonds is an evil  man. A truly evil man."

He has been turned into Barry bin Laden: The easy symbol for -   altogether now - "everything that is wrong with sports."

The question worth asking is why? Why is a pro athlete being treated  as if he has committed crimes against humanity? The first answer given  forth by even the casual sports fan is that "he is a cheater," in  their eyes, an obvious habitual user of steroids. Sports Illustrated,  after selecting an all-time all-star team determined by "a panel of   experts" excluded him from the squad because his statistics "are not  to be believed." (Their concern for the statistical integrity of Bonds  career didn't stop them from including players from before 1947 when   the sport denied participation from anyone with dark skin.)

The problem with the argument that his numbers "are not to be  believed" is that the man has never failed a drug test. Many players  who have failed tests don't garner anything close to the public   flogging that Bonds endures.

But whether or not Bonds ever put anything anabolic in his body,  there is something particularly disingenuous about putting an entire  statistically dubious era on the shoulders of one man. 

The "juicing of the game" is not a question of players with syringes  in men's room stalls, but an entire industry from owners, to trainers,  to fans, to reporters, all turning a blind eye, if not aiding and   abetting a process that saw baseball players begin to resemble pro  wrestlers.

When New York Yankee Jason Giambi attempted to draw attention to this  last month, saying, "What we should have done a long time ago was   stand up - players, ownership, everybody - and said, 'We made a  mistake.' " The response from Major League Baseball was to announce  that Giambi was going to be investigated. As one player said to me,   "It's crazy that punishment is an individual issue, but distribution  has always been a team issue." They want to keep this a discussion  about it being "an individual issue" and no player attracts more   individual attention than Barry Bonds.

But steroids alone are not the reason Bonds carries this weight. He  has throughout his 23-year career committed the ultimate sin in the  eyes of the media, namely he isn't friendly to the media. Bonds'   complete lack of interest in filling their notebooks, has made him  their foil long before there were any questions about steroids.

There is no question Bonds isn't the most cuddly of players, but once  again he is hardly alone in this. When actors are less than press  friendly - think Sean Penn - they are branded eccentric artists. But  in athletics, if you don't define yourself, you become defined. Barry  Bonds has been defined as the enemy, with little regard to who the man   is behind the definition.

All of this has created an open-season atmosphere at the ballpark.  Seeing the nightly sports highlights of majority white fans letting it  all hang out against the most prominent African-American athlete in   the sport, has led many to draw their own conclusions about the source  of the anti-Bonds rage. According to an ESPN/ABC News poll released in  May, African-American fans are more than twice as likely as their  white counterparts to want Bonds to break Aaron's record of 755 homers  (74 percent versus 28 percent) and nearly twice as likely to think  that the slugger has been treated unfairly (46 percent versus 25  percent). Baseball, the national pastime, potentially a source for   unity, has instead through Bonds, become yet another staging ground  for the divisions that crisscross the land.

The shame of it all is that the sports world is so busy demonizing  Bonds, it is missing out on a piece of sports history. In many ways we   all are. There is an expression, "Trust the art not the artist." Barry  Bonds is an artist with a bat in his hand. But it's hard to  concentrate on the art, with a gathering din in the background.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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