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Same old Barry

Back in '93, Bonds was just as difficult, determined

Posted: Wednesday April 5, 2006 12:50PM; Updated: Wednesday April 5, 2006 4:24PM
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Barry Bonds wasn't the easiest guy to get a hold of for an interview back in the day.
Barry Bonds wasn't the easiest guy to get a hold of for an interview back in the day.
Ronald C. Modra/SI

I see that Barry Bonds is in the news again. Used the "clear," something like that? And now he might be banished from baseball, or break Hank Aaron's record, or jump off the Empire State building? Something like that? I'll say this about Barry -- twilight of his career or not, he can sure stir it up.

The last time I ran into Bonds -- and I do mean the last time -- was about 13 years ago, after he'd been traded to the San Francisco Giants. At the time he was merely a fine player, hadn't yet become the greatest power hitter of his era, wasn't likely to polarize the public the way he apparently has. The idea then, as in most magazine assignments, was I'd hang out with him, get to know him a bit, write a long profile. We hadn't really done Barry Bonds to that point. And then we did.

That profile, which ran as the cover story in the May 24, 1993 issue with the cover line, "I'm Barry Bonds, and you're not," produced a little firestorm in the clubhouse, although if you were to read it today, you might find it unnecessarily kind to the slugger. What Bonds didn't like and what some biographers say forever doomed his relations with the press was the depiction of a moody, spoiled brat. Talented, of course, but strangely juvenile when it came to dealing with people.

I have to say that, all the same, he was not horrible company. In this business you tend to depict lots of moody, spoiled brats, and he was just one more. But Bonds had a kind of innocence about him that forgave him some of his interpersonal failings. I remember that he had recently become acquainted with the singer Michael Bolton, through some celebrity softball game. He kept bringing Bolton up, was unapologetically agog at the singer's fame (1993, remember?) and his marginal association with it. In one of baseball's strangest ceremonies, it was Bolton who handed Bonds his MVP trophy at Candlestick. I realized, here was a guy whose default personality in public was a sneer, who was on the other hand an adoring fan. He might have had Michael Bolton's posters on his bedroom wall for all I knew.

The one part of the profile that remains relevant, and which his biographers quiz me on to this day, was the little dance Bonds and I did over the actual interview. I showed up to cover him while the Giants played in Pittsburgh and ended up staying with the team for more than seven days. Every day, in slightly increasing increments of recognition, Bonds would find a way to blow me off. "Gotta stretch, dude," he'd say, and there would go another day. His teammates, who really hadn't gotten to know this guy yet, were enjoying this clubhouse tango immensely. Willie McGee heard one such exchange and had to shake his head in admiration. "Man," he said, "dude's been here a week." I couldn't tell if he was admiring my tenacity or Bonds' orchestrated carelessness.

In fact, I began to find this amusing enough that I was almost disappointed when Bonds finally did grant me a sit-down. We had kept this up for seven days and I guess there was a mutual exhaustion at that point. But not surrender! Keep in mind, I'd spent much more of my career covering Mike Tyson than any baseball player. Bond's idea of churlishness was small potatoes for me. Still, I couldn't help but include the negotiations in the story (and it was a very small part of the story), not to spite him (what did I care; I was on an expense account), but to suggest the combination of aloofness and cluelessness Bonds operated under. He was determined to show his independence, his indifference, yet was sabotaged by his own neediness at the same time. He wanted to be loved. By fans, Michael Bolton, even me. He gave me everything I wanted in the interview, heartfelt stuff, human stuff. If I'd pushed him even a little bit, I remember thinking, I could have had him bawling like a baby.

I haven't really kept up with him since. I have no particular opinion on his status in baseball history, on whether he was juiced or not, or what it might mean to the record he's sure to break. What I have found interesting, familiar even, is his public attitude while under attack -- part defiance, part indifference and part amusement. He refuses to engage the issue in any way at all and seems determined to plow through it. And the one thing I know about Bonds, whatever's going on inside that huge noggin of his, he can be determined.