This review is biased. There’s no chance of a final review score that reflects a consensus opinion. This is not the review of Barry Bonds that America would give. This is the review of an unabashed Bonds admirer, whose goal isn’t to change your mind, but to shove Barry Bonds in your face.
This review is biased because here’s Barry Bonds hitting a ball over El Camino Real in 1979 or 1980. I hear the stories before he even leaves for college. I pass the field often, and I usually stop rolling around the back of my dad’s Datsun to wonder about the high school kid who could hit a ball that danged far.
Here’s Barry Bonds in 1984, at Arizona State, the best player on his team, in his conference, in all college baseball, maybe the world, and his teammates overwhelmingly vote to have him kicked off the team. That’s how much of an ass he is. That’s how impossible he is. This is what it’s like to be 19 and oblivious, a dumb teenager who has never failed or had to worry about consequences. Just go away, his teammates beg. Just go away. Winning isn’t worth this. Just go away.
He didn’t go away, of course. And he wasn’t punished because that’s how it works when you’re that talented. For a while, at least.
Here’s Barry Bonds in 1986, a rookie with the Pittsburgh Pirates with just 115 games in the minors. His dad was the next Willie Mays, a pressure that contributed to his dad's demons and alcoholism. It’s hard to prove just how much of the pressure was responsible for the self-destruction, but it’s an easy correlation to make. His dad bounces around after leaving the Giants, playing for eight teams in seven years. Everyone spends their time focusing on what the elder Bonds can’t do instead of what he can. He’s certainly not the next Willie Mays, even if he’s possibly the most underrated and under-appreciated player of his generation. Bobby Bonds’s career is one of the strangest disappointments in baseball history, considering he was one of the best players ever.
Here’s Barry Bonds, rookie, choosing 24 as his uniform number. It’s the same number as his godfather, Willie Mays. Because fuck you, demons.
Here’s Bonds, now a star, chattin’ it up with his manager.
Here’s Bonds in 1992, on his way to his second MVP, as many as Mays ever won. Maybe he is the next Mays. But what ends up defining him for the next decade? A throw. A throw that is kinda off target and a little weak. That’s the flaw of Barry Bonds, even in his prime. His arm is a little weak. Complaining about it is like picking Bob Dylan apart for his harmonica technique. What a great way to miss the point.
Here’s Bonds and his team with a chance to go to the World Series. It’s that fatal flaw that ruins the season, the hopes, the everything of so many people.
Bonds walks off the field and never puts a Pirates uniform on again.
Here’s Barry Bonds right before 1993. It’s a picture that I have hanging in my house, right below pictures of my family and dead pets. It’s titled “Power Brokers and Power Hitters,” and it’s a picture of Bonds when he signs his historic contract with the Giants.
There’s Willie Mays. There’s his dad. There’s the mayor and the manager. There’s the future Speaker of the House. The Bonds who was more next Mays than the last Bonds is coming home.
He isn’t just coming home, though. He’s helping the Giants stay home. This is a shirt that shouldn’t exist, but does:
That’s how close the Giants were to moving to Tampa when the previous season ended. The shirts were printed. The deals were signed. Then a group of local business folk came together in San Francisco and said, say, what if we bought the team, kept them here, worked on building a park that didn’t smell like urine, and signed the best player in baseball, who happens to have deep, deep roots in the area?
Barry Bonds did not think $36 million was enough for him to play baseball in the Bronx for the next five years. The superstar free agent wanted $43 million over six years. The Yankees refused to budge on the extra year and the extra millions, so last night they withdrew their offer and said their interest in this year’s top free-agent prospect had vanished.
Instead, Bonds saves the city of San Francisco. This isn’t hyperbole. Without Bonds, San Francisco sinks into the shadow world. The place becomes a windy morass that’s completely bereft of baseball and the culture that comes with it. Without baseball, San Francisco becomes a place filled with Guy Fieri restaurants and neon signs. Boondock Saints 2 plays in every movie house forever, and the classiest thing to appear in the War Memorial Opera House is a Le Pétomane cover act. Without Bonds, the city is ruined.
Bonds saves it all.
Well, the rich people who bought the team did first, but Bonds helps the healing. Here’s the first thing Bonds does in his new (old) home.
The Tampa Bay Giants were ghoulish enough to make 5-year-old children cry, but they were almost certainly about to exist. There was a baseball game in San Francisco, though, and the best player in baseball hit a home run in that very game. Barry Bonds will get a standing ovation in San Francisco if he stops the World Series, stands on home plate, and eats a live pigeon. If you want to know why, start with the Tampa Bay Giants team that wasn’t.
Here’s Bonds in 1995, launching a game-winning home run in the ninth inning against the Padres. It was a meaningless, meaningful homer into the bowels of a place that’ll be ash and cinder in less than a year. Neither team won the World Series. Neither team made the playoffs. Neither team meant a damned thing. No one cared. Except I cared. It was real to me, dammit. It was real to me.
On a personal level, it was one of the most meaningful home runs in my life. I don’t know when my casual fandom morphed into an obsessive fandom, but this one home run was in the middle of it. Bonds hit it off Trevor Hoffman, who will make the Hall of Fame before him, even if that’s a glitch, an error in the code, something the techs will be by to fix in the morning.
The home run was everything you hope for when you go to a baseball game, and later that night, I went into a video store with my friends, all still buzzing. We see a kid from our high school, ask him if he’s a Giants fan.
“Not this year, I’m not.”
The Giants aren’t good in 1995, you see, so he checked out early. I want to scream, “But they have Barry Bonds.” I should have made a scene. Pulled the fire alarm, jammed the Apollo 13 display into the door so no one could get out. You’re telling me you don’t realize what Barry Bonds is, what you’re missing?
Here’s Barry Bonds in 1997, on top of a dugout, sliding around in cleats, hugging fans, making everyone very, very nervous. Making everyone very, very happy. Even though Bonds helped save baseball in San Francisco, even though he’s just about the only reason to watch the Giants, even though he’s still playing like an MVP every freaking year, he’s still a chronic disappointment to a lot of weird baseball fans. He’s the surly, selfish player who doesn’t care about winning. Remember Sid Bream? Everyone else seems to.
Except the Giants won the division this year. They were supposed to finish in last place. They were supposed to finish far enough in last place to worry about relegation, but they win the division. Bonds makes the playoffs for the first time since his iconic lob. He will have a chance at redemption. He climbs on the dugout after the Giants clinch the National League West, still in his cleats, clomping around awkwardly like an eight-year-old in mom’s high heels, giving out hugs and high-fives. This is what success looks like for the best player in baseball after he’s told everything around him will fail. No one worries if the emotion is fake. No one wonders if he’s pretending. There’s Bonds, on top of the dugout, redeemed.
Here’s Bonds in the spring of 1999, looking like he swallowed Lyle Alzado. The Giants being good again wasn’t enough. That’s not redemption, not the kind that lasts. His continued brilliance on the field wasn’t enough. Baseball didn’t care about him, not like they cared about a couple of other players. Bonds didn’t save baseball after the strike. These two guys did. Everyone, look at these two guys! Look at them and love them.
Fine, Bonds says. I can do that. I can be the best again. I can be loved.
Bonds walks by us before a spring training game in a tank top, all biceps, triceps, quadriceps, and quintceps stacked on top of sextceps, and my friend says loudly, “Looks like someone wants to do the McGwire and Sosa thing.”
Here’s Bonds in 2001, doing the McGwire and Sosa thing. It isn’t the same. Even before the nation is consumed by inescapable, violent reality, no one cares. The hometown fans do, sure. The rest of the country doesn’t care. Bonds can be the best again, but he cannot be loved. At this point, everyone knows what the McGwire and Sosa thing is, and it’s making people numb. The cans of spinach are an open secret, and everyone is getting tired of it. Looks like we’re just going to have to get used to 70-homer seasons every other year because of these goons, baseball fans sigh.
That minimizes the freakishness of that season, of course. It’s easier to see in retrospect, now that we know it isn’t going to happen often. The chemistry doesn’t help Bonds hit even 50 homers before or after. IVs full of super serum into today’s hitters wouldn’t guarantee 73 homers. Nothing would. The steroids helped, certainly. Possibly a great deal. The unfair advantage that a great many were willing to take, but not all, can’t be ignored or minimized. But there’s still a way to appreciate the robotic eye and artistic triumph of that swing. There’s still a way to enjoy the display of that season, the dawn of the super-human and the unlikely permutations of baseball being wielded like a weapon by a unique talent.
There’s still a way to appreciate a player getting one pitch near the plate in any given game and still hitting the snot out of it.
No one cares outside of San Francisco. Or, worse, people care, but only if it makes them angry.
The carnage continues throughout the postseason. The memories of Bonds supposedly choking, supposedly getting lost under the pressure, are gone. He’s not Iron Man, now. He’s Dr. Manhattan, building dust castles on Mars with his mind. His vast, vast power leaves him expressionless, indifferent. No one can stop him.
Here’s Tim McCarver making sex noises because of how hard Barry Bonds can hit a baseball:
The Giants lose the World Series because of a tiring bullpen, because of a sketchy rotation, because of a weird manager, because of a weird roster. They get so close in the first place because of Barry Bonds, and everyone knows it. He’s not a choker anymore. He’s an untouchable demigod.
Here’s Bonds in 2004, facing someone who tried to recreate his powers, a pretender who thinks that stapling an arc reactor to his chest makes him Iron Man.
Eric Gagne hisses something in elvish or something. Bonds hisses back. They’re speaking a dead tongue. We’re not privy to it. There’s a flash. Then Gagne is dead, literally dead, with Bonds carrying his head around the bases. Literally.
Here’s a picture of Barry Bonds’s blood and urine, tacked to every post office wall just one year later. IRS investigators (?) bring down a performance-enhancing-drug operation about three miles from where Bonds grew up. Everyone knew he was dirty. Everyone knew he was artificial to some extent. Here was proof. He was already hated, but this made him the symbol of steroids. Steroids: The Movie would feature Bonds on the poster. Steroids: The Book would feature Bonds on the dust jacket. Steroids: The Video Game already exists. It was awesome, and it starred Jon Dowd.
Bonds was hated before BALCO. The words of Greg Howard should be shot through time so we can better understand why:
When you’re a public figure, there are rules. Here’s one: A public personality can be black, talented, or arrogant, but he can’t be any more than two of these traits at a time.
Black, talented, arrogant, and cheating is a cocktail that melts the glass tumbler. Suddenly Bonds isn’t just a cartoon villain in that grr-you-rascal sports kind of way. He’s an actual villain, an enemy of America, someone who might harm your children by example. He wanted to be McGwire and Sosa. He did, but it was a version sent through the copy machine 50 times, and it came out jagged and fuzzy. The heroism he expected became a sentence translated from English into Japanese into Arabic into German into Klingon and back into English, and instead of “You are an American hero!”, it read “America murder hero cop rock otter decapitation.” There would be no redemption. He still wasn’t loved by anyone outside of San Francisco.
Here’s Bonds in 2005, seriously hurt for the first time in his career. His knee is done busted, possibly because his frame was never meant to support that much muscle, brawn, or talent. He’s defeated.
“You wanted me to jump off the bridge. I finally jumped,” Bonds said. “You wanted to bring me down. You finally have brought me and my family down. You’ve finally done it, everybody, all of you. So now go pick a different person. I’m done. I’ll do the best I can.”
The Giants start Pedro Feliz in his place. This is the baseball equivalent of buying a ticket to see Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman and getting Kevin Costner. The franchise sinks.
Here’s Bonds in his last season, 2007, in which the Giants basically tell him to go away. He already set the career home run record. The t-shirts were sold. The bobbleheads planned. He’s a free agent after the season, and the Giants announce that Bonds won’t be coming back.
“It’s always difficult to say goodbye,” Giants owner Peter Magowan said Friday. “It’s an emotional time for me. We’ve been through a lot together these 15 years. A lot of good things have happened. Unfortunately a lot of bad things have happened. But there comes a time when you have to go in a different direction.”
Bonds’s reaction is, more or less, what the shit? But it’s couched in PR speak. I’ll be back. I’m not done. He has no idea.
That different direction that Magowan mentioned for the Giants happened to be straight into the ground, but at least the soil was fertilized well.
Here’s Bonds in his last at-bat ever, facing a young Jake Peavy, the flavor in baseball’s ear who was about to win the Cy Young. Everyone knows it’s Bonds’s last at-bat as a Giant, but no one guesses it’s his last at-bat ever. The Padres are leading 9-2. Bonds gets ahead in the count, 2-0. Peavy throws a fastball down the middle — a challenge, a tip of the cap, not a gift. Bonds hits it to the warning track. His career is over. Peavy owns an orange-and-black cable car now, probably because of something Bonds taught him that night.
Because the Giants announced it was Bonds’s last game for them, they have enough time to work up a promotional giveaway, a stupid sign commemorating his last game for the team. “Thank You Barry.”
I hate that stupid sign.
Here’s Bonds looking for work that offseason. He finished the season with a .480 on-base percentage, which hasn’t been topped since. He finished his season with a 1.045 OPS, a point higher than Josh Hamilton when he wins the MVP three years later. He leads the league in walks. He’s the perfect DH, the Platonic ideal. He can’t run, he can’t field, but he’s still the best hitter in the league.
He can’t find work. No one will touch him. Any team in baseball can have him for $390,000. The Phillies win the 2008 World Series, and the other 29 teams should feel dumb for not signing Barry Bonds. The Rays would go on to make something of a strategy out of acquiring sketchy characters with legal problems, but they lost the World Series in the season they declined to have Bonds as their DH.
Here’s Jason Giambi, who testified under oath that he had steroids shot into his butt, interviewing for the Rockies’ open manager position.
Here’s Matt Williams, Bonds’s former teammate who was named in the Mitchell Report, scoring the Nationals’ manager spot and winning Manager of the Year in his rookie season.
Here’s Jhonny Peralta, a season after getting suspended for steroids, almost helping his team to the World Series after signing a contract that was bigger than the one that brought Bonds to the Giants in the first place.
Here’s Tony La Russa making the Hall of Fame after succeeding with the ‘roidiest of the ‘roided players, year after year.
Bonds never swings a bat again. Think of the Derek Jeter farewell, how drawn out it was. Now think of the day when we all said, shit, I guess Barry Bonds is never playing baseball again. It’s about a year later, give or take. Maybe two. I don’t even know. One day, everyone just guesses that he’s done, including Bonds.
Here’s Barry Bonds in 2015, wearing a perpetual smile. This is his profile picture on Twitter:
It’s like he’s removed the Tony Clifton costume, and he’s just thrilled to be here. The tweets aren’t much different. Here's Barry Bonds congratulating the players who got into the Hall of Fame. Here’s Barry Bonds on a horse. Here’s Barry Bonds wishing you a Happy Hanukkah. Here’s Barry Bonds enjoying desserts. Here’s Barry Bonds as a goshdanged Cub Scout.
He’s happy. He’s finally happy. He hated the sport and all of you, but now he’s happy. And he loves you.
What score do you give him? What’s your review after reading all that, after coming to the twist ending where the demons are finally gone? Before you answer, please don’t be the reviewer who gives Macbeth a poor score because he or she doesn’t agree with the choices the protagonist made. Don’t be the reviewer hung up on the details that don't matter. “Chinatown isn’t even in Chinatown most of the time. D-.”
Here is Barry Bonds. One of the best ever. Possibly one of the more flawed and interesting humans baseball has ever seen. One of the most perfect players. This, all of this, is why I love him. You can still hate him. Just consider him. Rate him. Give him and his story a score on a scale from 1-to-10.