Letter from the Editor

Monday, July 3, 2006

Male Bondsing

Is it just me, or was that long-awaited, monumentally-hyped moment that Barry Bonds passed Babe Ruth kind of uncomfortably flat?

I think I'll always remember that touching, heartwarming feeling when the reporter asked teenager Tyler Snyder, who caught The Bondsbino's record-tying homer ball, if he would present the ball back to the slugger.

"Hell no," the kid said. "I hate that guy."

And then he left midgame, no doubt headed for the nearest computer terminal to punch up e-Bay.

On ESPN that night, they mused that only one of Bonds' teammates, a rookie who was out on deck anyway, was waiting to hug him at the plate.

Oh, there was the expected fireworks shooting out of the scoreboard, streamers fired at the crowd, the three-minute adulation-fest, the champagne in commemorative etched stemware that had been crated in the clubhouse for three weeks in order to stage a spontaneous scene, and by all means, about three gigaseconds after the hit, a $38 official Bonds achievement t-shirt ad all over the jumbotron.

And yet, did you care? Really?

America, a land that lives and breaths baseball stats, seems almost universally ambivalent. I've yet to see a kid in a Bonds jersey in Storm Lake.

There was none of the excitement of the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa summer of dingers, or even the sincere appreciation that marked the close of iron man Cal Ripken Jr.'s career.

Some would like to play the race card - if Bonds where a white man, he would be the ultimate American hero. Nahhhh...

Years ago, when racism was still more prevalent than it is today, black athletes like Muhammad Ali and Willie Mays were still revered and beloved by most people regardless of color, for all they gave to us.

Some didn't want Hank Aaron to pass Ruth, but songs and poems celebrated his feat.

So why not cuddle Bonds?

On paper, he's a better athlete than Ruth or Aaron. One of the best all-around ballplayers of all-time, and the guy has a closet full of MVP's, Espys and Gold Gloves to prove it.

What he doesn't have is that certain something - if nice guys really do finish first, he seemingly hasn't qualified.

The easy answer is that he is seen as a cheater - getting the record through illegal use of steroids. McGwire had that rap too, among others, and it didn't stop fan or teammate support.

We've idolized athletes who have wobbled through careers drunk as skunks, hopped up on pain pills, speed or coke, using corked bats or Vaseline balls - we are quick to forgive.

So what don't we love about Barry? Are we jaded by his $20 million salary and the fact that he is the only player in the major leagues to have his own name and face registered as marketable trademarks? Nah, if we'll watch Donald Trump's reality show, we sure aren't embarrassed by filthy richness.

That Tyler kid said it - we just don't like the guy.

He's gone out of his way this year, perhaps in hopes of winding down his career with a brighter legacy, to promote his charitable donations and even to show up in a Paula Abdul off-shoulder gown for a photo op. One of the fellas. Hoo. Rah.

But throughout his career he has been a brooder, a complainer, often seeming angry at the world and never seemingly having enough. He's been rude to the sportswriters, often ignored the fans, and seemed to have limited loyalty to teammates.

To Barry, it has certainly seemed to be All About Barry.

And on his short-lived reality TV show, it seemed really awkward to watch ungodly wealthy hulk literally bawl about the raw deal he and his are supposedly getting. He can pound his way into the record books, it seems, but not into the hearts.

During a recent visit to St. Mary's 2nd grade, the kids thrust at me a book about Babe Ruth to read. They hung on every word, the girliest of girls included, and they all knew who he was. Barry couldn't be another Ruth. But he could have been a nicer Bonds.

Reading the comments of our local baseball and softball coaches on the Pilot sports pages, it strikes me that they seldom stress the achievements of the kids with the most extra-base hits or highest strikeout totals, but always seem to want to talk about that kid who battled back from a jam, the second-stringer who came off the bench to contribute in even a small way, the undersized kid with that kind of character who lifts his whole team up just by coming to the ballpark.

Watching the Little League games over at East Field, I can't help but notice the occasional player with a bit of a physical setback. When they come up, the teammates in their dugouts yell their hearts out, even if chances are slim that batter will make it to first. Hero or goat, a kid gets a hand-slap from the next batter and a good word from the coach. You can tell it doesn't even cross the young players' minds to be mean or critical - that isn't baseball.

Most of the crowd - bless their hearts - knows no disappointment. A kid who falls down striking out to end the inning hears a chorus of "Good Swing!" Simple - it's called being nice.

I suppose all athletes start out that way, for the love of playing a game and being a part of a team. But somewhere along the line toward fame and fortune, for those elite few who can reach it, a lot of them get way full of themselves and start to confuse talent with goodness. As fans, we encourage it by seldom questioning it. An NBA playoffs halftime show celebrates in contrived fashion to the point of nausea the civic generosity of the ballplayer who has just bargained his way out of a rape charge, and we say not a word.

Surly, foul-mouthed prima donnas? Thugs? Cheaters and drug abusers? Money-grubbers for sale to the highest bidder? Fine by us, long as they keep our fantasy team in the hunt for the beer money.

The lesson? Grow up screwed up, but for goodness sake swing wildly for the fence on every two-strike pitch with runners on base and your team a run behind.

For all I know, it is entirely possible that Barry Bonds leads a wonderful life, walks elderly women across streets, is kind to stray animals and reads aloud from the Bible each night to orphans.

He's got his records and his fame and his money, and he deserves it all. But he just hasn't been a nice enough guy to touch us any deeper than that. He gets what he deserves in that respect, too.

Few of the kids on the Little League field will ever know what it's like to be a superstar, but all of them can keep on knowing what it feels like to be a nice guy (or girl.)

As Barry Bonds may be learning just a little too late, that might be more important in the long run that your statistics and awards.