"It's Bonds. Barry Bonds": The Return of Baseball's Invisible Man

“I am an invisible man. No I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe: Nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me.” ― Ralph Ellison

In game one of the 2012 World Series, over 40,000 fans in San Francisco chanted the name "Barry" with punch-drunk abandon. It was unbridled joy cut with a catharsis operating on more levels than three dimensional chess. There was of course the explicit cry of relief at finally being able to cheer for their pitcher, reincarnated ace Barry Zito. Zito had been a historic disappointment since 2006 when he signed the largest free agent pitching contract in history. The former Cy Young winner had been so middling he was left off the post-season roster when the Giants made their improbable run to the World Series back in 2010. He was an untradable piece of expensive dead capital: the $1,200 Betamax sitting in your basement. Then in 2012, Zito, pitching almost 10 miles per hour slower than in those distant glory days, accepted his physical limitations, and reinvented his game going 15-8. And there he was: over-the-hill-at-34 Barry Zito out dueling Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander. Finally the fans could chant his name.

But chanting “Barry” in San Francisco is not an act independent of deeper meaning. To hear “Barry” ring across the Bay is also to recall another former Giant who was in attendance last night: Barry Bonds.

When the seven-time most valuable player finished out his contract with the team in 2007 after leading the league in on-base percentage and home runs per at-bat, he wasn’t re-signed by the Giants or any other major league club. Bonds was treated like he had plague by baseball management because of the swirling charges that he was a steroid user. In a league trying to move past an era where every locker room contained bouquets of syringes, the weight of the “steroid era” was put on Bonds’s shoulders. This resulted in the complete removal of any mention of Bonds in the Giants organization. All the plaques, posters, and stadium landmarks bearing his name disappeared faster than you could say "whitewash." There was more evidence of George W. Bush at the Republican National Convention than there is of Bonds at Giants headquarters.

But the fans in San Francisco never forgot. They stood with him during his last tortured years as a player and they stand with him now. Last night, they did even more.

By chanting “Barry”, the fans actually forced the radio and television announcers to acknowledge “the last time a different Barry" heard his name echoed through the park. On the radio broadcast, they acknowledged that this “different Barry” once existed without saying his last name. There was an awkward silence after their observation as if they had spoken out of turn and were about to be chided by a spectral disciplinarian in their midst.

On television, they handled “Barry” a touch differently. Lead Fox Sports announcer Joe Buck commented that fans used to chant Barry “for someone else around here.” Tim McCarver responded, "When Barry Manilow was here at concerts." People assumed afterward that McCarver had experienced a senior moment of some kind or was just a bit out to lunch.

I don’t buy it.  I believe McCarver’s chuckle, which you can hear immediately after his Manilow line, tells a different story. He was actually making a poorly executed joke about the invisibility of Barry Bonds and at the expense of Barry Bonds. There is a delight that the baseball cognoscenti takes in making Barry Bonds their “invisible man.” It’s a way to marginalize him without confronting what he represents. He’s a home-run king in exile. He’s the end-product of an era where owners made billions selling a steroid-enhanced product. He’s the person who can no longer tell the press to go to hell, because they won’t acknowledge his voice. The press corps once asked Bonds if he thought steroids was cheating. Bonds responded, “Is steroids cheating? You want to define cheating in America? When they make a shirt in Korea for a $1.50 and sell it here for 500 bucks. And you ask me what cheating means?” Now they don't have to care what he thinks. Now they can humiliate him forever by denying his existence.

It’s so fitting that it was the fans of San Francisco who forced his name onto the airwaves. It’s the city where generations of people traveled to escape the sting of invisibility. It's the city where shame is treated as the greatest sin of all. It’s the city where Barry Bonds can thumb his nose at the exile of Major League Baseball, and truly be home.

7 Reader Comments | Add a comment

McCarver

Is it sad that I didn't even watch the game or the footage of the senile, grammar-deprived McCarver's crack but I can still picture his withered face trying to stifle a chuckle? Fox must love this no-talent hack's comment along with damn near everything else that escapes his mouth. But ignoring the elephant in the room -- in this case one with 762 career home runs -- is the network's MO.

Good work Dave as usual.

McCarver & Buck belong on FOX

Joe Buck ain't' much better. If he wasn't Jack Buck's kid, nobody would know who he was. He'd be working at Target.

All Joe Buck has going for him was a cosmic luck of the draw.

McCarver? Wasn't he a minor league baseball player or something?

McCarver, Bonds, etc.

The entire baseball establishment, down to the meanest talk show host, profited from the players' steroid use, and MLB made a hell of a lot more money from it than Bonds. In effect, people like Bonds lined the pockets of the owners, front office execs, studio heads and commentators who now so carefully avoid even mentioning his name.
A San Diego Padres executive said it best, commenting on the death of Ken Caminetti, an admitted steroid user: "I feel somewhat guilty, because I felt like I knew... The truth is, we're in a competitive business and these guys were putting up big numbers and helping your ballclub win."
Also making your club rich, right?
In my opinion, Bonds was the greatest ever, head and shoulders above anyone else of his time, before and during the steroids era, which - hello! - hasn't ended yet.

Buck and McCarver

When the Giants were stealing the Cardinals' dreams, I thought how much it must pain Buck, who grew up listening to his dad broadcast Cardinal games, and McCarver, who spent nearly all of his career with the Cards, to have to broadcast the Cardinals' choke-o-rama. I really enjoyed listening to both of them try to mask their pain by cracking wise, much in the same way McCarver alluded to Barry Manilow—yuk, yuk. Neither announcer is any good; they both have built careers around sucking up. Thanks for bringing their cowardice and ineptitude to everyone's attention, Dave.

There's only one BARRY, and it's not Zito!

I agree with you 100% Bill Morgan. PEDs are still part of the game and it's not in baseball's best interests to confront the problem.

I also don't think MLB rejects Barry Bonds because of steroid use. I think Barry's general obstinance and refusal to go along with MLB's wishes is why he's a pariah. Few (mostly the Giants who cashed in on it) wanted him to break the HR record. However, he played until he did and now he's being punished for it.

"McCarver? Wasn't he a minor league baseball player or something?"

He caught in 4 decades of baseball, helped win 2 World Series, and finished 2nd in MVP voting. Wow, what a loser! Then he's broadcast games for 30 years. I'm sure anybody who reads this knows more about baseball than a bum like that.

Anyhow, though, MLB has disowned significant players before, basically hoping since 1989 that Pete Rose would disappear forever. I never agreed with it, in that cheating has never been a matter of a few bad apples, but part of the sport's dna. The league has been consistent, in that their recognition of Bonds's single season and career home run records were about as perfunctory as plausible. What is a bit disappointing is that the Giants have adopted a similar position. The franchise and fanbase were tacitly or sometimes openly defiantly support "their guy" as long as he played there.

As for the time since, though, Bonds could has dragged out the whole mess himself. Gary Sheffield, A-Rod, and Petitte fessed up and few people still care that they did.

Barry never went away

Once again I have to correct the misconception that the Giants expunged Bonds and his accomplishments from their ball park. That's nonsense - never happened. The "BONDS 762 HR" plaque in center field has been there all along, right by the list of Giants who hit more than 500 HRs. The sidewalk plaques on the Portwalk honoring his records and MVPs are still there. It's no harder to find his name there than to find fans wearing Bonds jerseys. There are lots of the latter, and plenty of fans who never backed off from supporting him.

The only conspicuous Bonds sign that was removed was the "Bonds Squad" in left field, which didn't make sense after he left the team.

Barry has returned to the ball park regularly, always to great acclaim. What he did in San Francisco was titanic, and the great shame is that so many people deprived themselves of enjoying his feats.

Also remember that the national media made him a pariah long before there were murmurs about steroids. He never trusted them (with good reason), and they generally didn't want to hear what he had to say - the "cheating" quote is a perfect example of why he was deprived of a voice outside the Bay Area, where his interviews displayed considerable knowledge and intelligence, and that he was a much better person than the systematic demonization by the media would allow one to believe.

Once his protracted legal battles are settled (brilliant use of federal funds and resources), it won't take the Giants long (I predict) to add his statue to those of Mays, Marichal, McCovey & Cepeda - whether the Hall of Fame voters admit him or not. Anyone who watched him play day after day, year after year, knows he was the greatest of his time, and one of the best of all time. The steroid debate is all but beside the point with Bonds - plenty of players used them, but no one came close to what he accomplished, period.

7 Reader Comments | Add a comment

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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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