At thirty, Barry Bonds is still the finest baseball player in the world.
The San Francisco Giants' left-fielder has a sweet swing, hits with awesome power and guns down runners with an arm the chairman of the NRA would envy. He's won five Gold Gloves for his defensive play and will probably win five more. After the 1993 season, in which he hit .336 and led the league with 46 home runs, Bonds joined seven other pretty fair country ballplayers--Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Jimmie Foxx, Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, Mike Schmidt and Joe DiMaggio--in the ranks of the game's only three-time Most Valuable Players. It's a matter of time until he wins an unprecedented fourth MVP, and numbers five and six look just as likely.
Barry Bonds is also the biggest jerk in baseball.
Icons like Babe Ruth boozed and screwed their way through their careers while putting up a squeaky-clean front, and Ty Cobb never met an opposing second baseman he didn't want to spike--or fight. All-time hits leader Pete Rose couldn't stay away from his bookie, Hack Wilson was a drunk, and present-day hot dogs like Rickey Henderson or Jose Canseco can't keep from crowing about their exploits when they break a base-stealing record or whack a winning dinger in the ninth.
But Barry Bonds has to be the MVP of sheer gall. He brags about his numbers, swaggers away from kids begging autographs and often criticizes teammates. And sometimes he jakes it.
Take last week, for instance. In the first inning of a game at windy, inhospitable Candlestick Park, Bonds was stationed in left when the visiting New York Mets loaded the bases with two men out. Mets catcher Kelly Stinnett then ripped a line drive toward Bonds, who later said that he never saw it. In any case, he stood stock still--his standard cool pose on obvious home-run shots--as the drive sailed over his head and...bounced off the wall. While two Mets runs scored, the Giants outfielder, who earns $8 million a year, finally scrambled after the ball and threw out David Segui, who was trying to go from first to third on the double.
When Bonds trotted in to the dugout, Giants fans booed him. They booed again when he struck out in his first at-bat.
Even Gold Glovers make mental errors or lose the flight of the ball once in a while. But MVPs--especially MVPs playing a game that has lost a lot of momentum due to a divisive players' strike--don't do what Bonds did after the game.
"I don't care what they think," the best player in baseball said of the fans who pay his salary. "They ain't out there. They don't really know what's going on out there. If they can do better, bring your ass out there. If you're better than me, you can come out there and put my uniform on and do it."
Fine. And if Bonds will just sign over his paycheck, there are sure to be plenty of volunteers. The outfielder will then be free to seek employment more suited to his temperament--running for king of a small country that produces diamonds, perhaps, or subbing on the Geraldo show.
Ballplayers don't have to be choirboys, and they're vastly overrated as heroes. But when arrogance, greed and jiveass attitude come pouring out of a guy like they've come pouring out of Barry Bonds for the past ten years, you start to wonder who the hell he thinks he is.
For one thing, he is the son of Bobby Bonds, former star major-leaguer, and the godson of Willie Mays, arguably the best all-around ballplayer the game has ever known--so he should know better. Before going off to Arizona State, little Barry hung around with Dad at Candlestick, absorbed the storied history of the game (he's one of the few youngish players who can cite it, chapter and verse) and developed early on what seamheads call "major-league attitude." That amalgam of cockiness and cool is the big-league player's standard defense against the the flamethrower aiming at your head, the raving drunks in the third-base boxes, the hucksters who want a piece of you, the pathetic groupies.
In Bonds's case, an excess of major-league attitude may be what's kept him from becoming the Michael Jordan of baseball--its knight in shining armor, its advertising billboard, its Maginot Line against growing legions of detractors who say the game is now corrupt or, even worse, that it's dull. That Bonds doesn't want to be like Mike is his choice--not everyone's cut out for the job. But when a guy neglects to remember what short hours he worked last year, or that he owes the fans his best effort every time a line drive comes his way, then he'll probably get what he deserves.
This time, the baseball gods might even cooperate.
Characteristically, Barry Bonds talks about the game in terms of his personal goals: He wants another MVP award; he wants a World Championship ring before he retires; he wants to elevate his father and himself to an untouchable level in the annals of intergenerational baseball. (They've already combined for six seasons in the 30-30 Club--30 home runs, 30 stolen bases--and Bonds the Younger wants more.)
But he may never get that World Series ring. In six seasons at then-powerful Pittsburgh, Bonds and co-star Bobby Bonilla were losers in all three league championship series they reached, and most baseball observers see Bonds's Giants as a team in decline. Their 103-win season of 1993 was astonishing, all right, but one short of the Atlanta Braves' 104 W's. Now, even with the watering-down that has come with divisional realignment, the Giants aren't the obvious power they were two years ago. Last year the front office was ordered to cut $5 million in salaries, which decimated the starting pitching staff (hello, Billy Swift), and the Giants' Darryl Strawberry Reclamation Project went as sour as the Dodgers' Darryl Strawberry Reclamation Project had gone the year before.
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Last season Bonds suffered a nasty elbow injury that pained him all year, and he recently went through a messy divorce and a paternity suit, which probably doesn't do much for his concentration at the plate. But the loss last week of Matt Williams could be the final straw. In 1994 the stocky Giants third-baseman was on a pace to equal Roger Maris's record 61-homer season when the strike came, and this year he was leading the National League in home runs (13), batting average (.381) and runs batted in (35)--the Triple Crown!--when he fouled a pitch onto his foot, breaking it, and was lost for the season.
Williams's absence takes major punch out of the Giants lineup, and it could even deliver a divisional title to the fledgling Colorado Rockies, who at this writing lead the second-place Giants by two and a half games in the four-team race.
Almost all of the Giants' offensive pressure is now on Bonds. But without the power threat of Williams in the lineup, opposing pitchers will be more likely to work around him and pitch to weaker-hitting teammates. He might win another MVP, but don't look for any knots of gold and big diamonds on his ring finger.
So. Are we now supposed to feel sorry for the best baseball player in the world for the mountains he may never climb? Not on your life. Not with his salary, and not with his attitude. Last week, when the news came that Mickey Mantle, an earlier member of the elite three-time-Most-Valuable-Player club, needed a liver transplant to counteract years of heavy drinking, the response for some of us was this: Yes, but first Barry Bonds could do with a brain transplant.