The Importance of Being Barry
The Giants' Barry Bonds is the best player in the game today -- just ask him
By Richard Hoffer
Issue date: May 24, 1993
The players cluster childlike about their cublicles. They brag or they sulk, depending on whether they've won or lost, whether it's before a game or after, or whether Jupiter's moons are in alignment or not. ''You should see my house,'' Barry Bonds is saying to Mike Jackson. This occurs in the San Francisco Giants' clubhouse before a game, the moons just so. ''Major cribbage,'' Bonds continues. ''Ceiling 40 feet high! Bring you a videotape.'' Jackson nods in appreciation.
This clubhouse is like any other, an enclave of protracted adolescence where the players needn't mask their pride, or even their confusion, over fame and fortune. A little later the same two players confer over pay stubs that have just been distributed. They are two teens comparing report cards. This invites talk of contracts.
''What's yours?'' Bonds asks Jackson, a middle reliever.
''Two. What's yours?''
''Four,'' says Bonds, who is somewhat more than twice the ballplayer Jackson is but still good-natured about the discrepancy. ''But soon it'll be eight.'' They are talking in millions of dollars.
But brag turns to sulk, just like that. ''What is this $30,000 for?'' Bonds suddenly asks, examining a deduction, and the moons are jolted out of orbit. An interview, so incidental to life in the clubhouse that it has now been put off six days running and is a source of comedy among the players, is once more deferred. ''Dude,'' Bonds says, waving the writer away, ''later.'' And he vanishes.
The clubhouse is otherworldly. The players are empowered by vast contracts, based on unusual, delicate, hard-won -- and, in any other world, useless -- skills. It seems they cannot ask for, or receive, enough. For them life is oddly generous. For example: Shoe salesmen -- shoe givers, actually -- come and go, delivering all manner of athletic equipment to the players, from gloves to golf clubs.
''I'd like some of those T-shirts, too,'' a player reminds the shoe giver.
''How about a driver with a jumbo head?'' the shoe giver asks.
This clubhouse, like any clubhouse, is redolent of the perfume of entitlement. A player uses the clubhouse phone to arrange for repairs to his BMW. ''This is Robby Thompson,'' he says, adding, ''of the Giants.''
They have learned they are beyond normal citizenship. Why else would 40,000 people in Candlestick Park clamor to get close to them, to touch them? Why would the shoe givers grovel to have them wear their brands? Why would writers wait six days to be granted interviews?
In a corner of the clubhouse, Willie Mays, so far beyond citizenship as to be baseball royalty, practices golf swings with an invisible jumbo-headed driver while schmoozing with some shoe givers. Mays, the greatest Giant there ever was, is a special assistant to the club's president and general manager and is an all-purpose reminder of its past glory. Sometimes he's also a reminder of the Giants' past churlishness. Just this morning, in the San Francisco Chronicle, columnist Glenn Dickey compared Mays with Bonds -- both great players, of course, but both mercurial characters. ''Both men,'' Dickey wrote, ''can be a royal pain in the rear.''
''Glenn Dickey,'' says Mays, lifting a magnificent drive onto the fairway, ''is an ---- .'' Mays is especially upset about a passage in the column in which he reportedly said to another player, '' ---- the fans.''
''I never said that,'' Mays is saying to the shoe givers. ''And anyway, that was 40 years ago.'' The shoe givers agree that even if he had said that, it was probably with reason.
Suddenly Mays seems determined to obliterate that column with a single public-relations act. ''You still waiting to see Barry?'' he asks the writer, whom Mays himself had blown off just five minutes earlier (''Gotta work, gotta work, gotta work,'' he'd said). Bonds is his godson. Mays played with Bobby Bonds, who had a record five seasons with at least 30 homers and 30 stolen bases and is Barry's father, but Mays's ties to Barry go beyond that. ''Knew the boy's mother,'' he says. Now Mays seems friendly, as if to say, ''Is this a royal pain in the rear? I don't think so.'' He volunteers to retrieve Bonds and set things straight. ''I'll go get him,'' he says. ''He's not as bad as you think.''
Mays walks off to the trainer's room to get this job done. After a minute he returns, hacking at his hamstring. He is pantomiming treatment. ''Ice,'' he whispers. ''He's getting ice.'' And no more is said about Bonds, who snoozes undisturbed in the trainer's room. Mays and the shoe givers go back to their golf swings.
Once this spring, or so the story goes, Bonds hit an impressive home run, then turned in the batting cage to face his teammates and said, ''Am I not a special ---- person, or what?'' Bonds claims it wasn't that way at all. He says he made a boastful comment, but that it was meant to be playful and not to be mistaken for arrogance. When Bonds is arrogant, there is no mistaking it. Yet the incident articulates two important facts: Bonds is quite special, and he knows it. You cannot deny his performance. Why should he?
In the last three seasons, during which he won two MVP awards and narrowly missed a third, he averaged 111 RBIs, more than 30 home runs and nearly 45 stolen bases a season, and he won three Gold Gloves in leftfield. And he's only 28. He began this season, his eighth in the big leagues and first with the Giants after seven years with the Pittsburgh Pirates, as if he were just hitting his stride. In April he batted .431 with seven home runs and 25 RBIs and won the National League Player of the Month award. And his torrid pace continued right into this month; at the end of last week Bonds was hitting .419 and ranked either first, second or third in seven offensive categories. After he hit two home runs (one of them one-armed) in a game against the New York Mets, Jeff Torborg, the Mets' manager, said, ''Bonds belongs in a higher league.''
He is so complete a player that it's almost infuriating. ''Let's think of the things he can't do,'' said Ted Simmons, the Pirates' general manager. He is joking; there's nothing Bonds can't do. The day before Simmons said this, Bonds had climbed the leftfield wall to rob a Pirate of a homer.
Giant shortstop Royce Clayton is just as admiring. ''I've never seen anyone like him,'' he says of Bonds. ''Barry is like Magic Johnson -- he makes everyone around him better.''
How good is Bonds? Good enough to make you suspicious. The day he hit that one-armed homer against the Mets, it happened that teammate Matt Williams had just gone ahead of him for the league's home run lead. Can Bonds just turn it on and off? Well, Syd Thrift remembers watching Bonds in Triple A back in 1986, when Thrift was Pittsburgh's general manager. During batting practice before a game in Phoenix, Thrift saw Bonds pull five or six balls over the rightfield fence. ''I told him any good hitter can do that,'' Thrift says, ''but I'd like to see him hit a few over the leftfield fence. He hit five in a row and said, 'Is that good enough for you?' I said it was fine. I had the manager take him out of the game in the fifth inning, and I took him back to Pittsburgh that night.''
Thrift, who used to make sure to talk to Bonds for at least five minutes every day to reassure him that he was appreciated, remembers one other thing: ''The first five home runs he hit in Pittsburgh -- they were over the leftfield fence.''
In Bonds's return to Pittsburgh, on April 9, he was hailed with boos and buckets of fake dollar bills to deride his free-agent defection to San Francisco, but he went 2 for 4 with a double, a triple and three runs scored. In the Giants' home opener he homered in his first at bat. If Bonds hadn't failed to produce in each of the last three National League Championship Series -- he averaged .191 for the Pirates in those playoffs, all of which Pittsburgh lost -- it would be reasonable to suspect that he was toying with the game.
Even with his poor postseason record (''Call me Mr. July,'' he says), Bonds has become the richest player in a very rich sport. However, the money seems incidental to his story. With the kind of numbers Bonds has put up and continues to put up, nobody seems to mind how many numbers the Giants have put up. In fact, nobody makes a peep about Bonds's contract anymore. Who, besides Reggie Jackson, ever produced the way Bonds has during the first year after a big free-agent signing? San Francisco, which had an opportunity to sign him for $75,000 out of high school in 1982 (it lost him to Arizona State when it refused to offer more than $70,000), finally got him last December for $43.75 million over six years. In two or three seasons, if salaries continue to escalate and if Bonds continues to perform at anything like his present level, he'll seem like a blue-light special.
What the Giants may not get for their money is goodwill. Bonds does not create it. And it's not because of his enormous and highly visible self-confidence, which is expected and forgiven in great athletes. If Bonds makes a basket catch or struts around the bases after a home run and then faces the fans and asks, ''Am I not a special ---- person, or what?'' he will still be loved. Nobody minds swagger at his level. Many people pay to see that. But his complaining, his rudeness, his insensitivity to teammates can wear a franchise out.
His return to Pittsburgh may serve as a cautionary tale for the Giants. In his seven years with Pittsburgh, Bonds couldn't have played much better or harder. Still, it seemed the Three Rivers Stadium fans would have welcomed a flu epidemic more warmly than they did Bonds. They went well beyond the usual free-agent-leaves-Pittsbur gh booing.
It wasn't just the fans, either. When Bonds entered the Pirate clubhouse for what he may have imagined would be a joyous homecoming, the players didn't even look up from their card games.
There was just too much history between Bonds and the Pirates. There was the 1990 playoff game in Cincinnati after which Bonds blasted teammate Jeff King. King had been scratched from the game after aggravating a lower-back injury the day before. (The injury would cause him to miss much of the next season.) ''When we play Friday, Bobby Bonilla will be playing third, and Jeff King will be sitting there getting his back healthy. He'll be getting ready for spring training,'' Bonds said to reporters. On the trip back to Pittsburgh, R.J. Reynolds grew tired of Bonds's beefing -- Reynolds and other Pirates had been outraged at his attack on King -- and told him to grow up. Their argument on the team plane reached a climax when Bonds shoved a slice of pizza in Reynolds's face.
Then there was spring training of 1991, when Bonds, sulking over the Pirates' victory in his off-season arbitration hearing, got into a yelling match with Jim Lachimia, a club p.r. man. He then exchanged words with Jim Leyland, the Pittsburgh manager. This episode grew out of Bonds's decision to freeze out the press that spring; the argument began over whether two photographers could snap pictures of him. But the enduring moment was when Leyland yelled, ''I've kissed your butt for three years! If you don't want to be here, then get your butt off the field!''
When the Pirates did not keep his close friend Bonilla from defecting to the Mets, Bonds wondered aloud if racism was at work. He wondered if Pirate centerfielder Andy Van Slyke, whom he called the Great White Hope, would have been treated the same way. It was no wonder that a Pittsburgh player was once quoted as saying, ''I'd rather lose without Barry Bonds than win with him.''
Van Slyke, for one, has often wondered why Bonds didn't own Pittsburgh. All he had to do was perform with the professionalism of a Mario Lemieux or a Willie Stargell. Just keep your foot out of your mouth. ''If Barry is guilty of anything,'' says Van Slyke, ''it's of not attaching meaning to his words.''
The press certainly did not help Bonds in his relationship with the city. Most of the local writers, who had often been rebuffed by Bonds, disliked him by the time he left. Although Bonds was often a hot quote, he was also combative and moody. Or unavailable. Or just rude. Several times he explained his relationship with the media this way: ''I thrive off you guys because I love to make you come back to my locker begging.''
Such arrogance can be tough to swallow, especially when it seems calculated. The Pittsburgh writers still tell the story of one of their brethren who penetrated Bonds's inner circle just long enough to be invited for a round of golf. The next day Bonds passed the writer without speaking. The writer insisted it was nothing personal -- ''That's just Barry,'' he said, invoking the all-purpose explanation of Bonds's behavior. But to judge by the vitriol that greeted Bonds's return to Pittsburgh this spring, plenty of writers took his behavior personally.
It's likely none of this mattered to Bonds. He professes to be thick- skinned. ''None of you know me, anyway,'' he likes to say, brushing aside his bad press; anything written, he insists, is irrelevant. He told one player last year that Bonilla made a big mistake in going to New York. ''I can handle New York because I don't get my feelings hurt the way Bobby does,'' Bonds said.
At least on the subject of Bonds, Bonilla agrees: ''He doesn't care what people say. Barry hears it, but he pays it no mind.''
Says Van Slyke: ''I know Barry doesn't care what people think. It can't matter to him whether he's beloved here or not. It just can't, not the way he has behaved. All he's ever wanted -- it's like his religion -- is to be judged by what he's done on the field.''
Van Slyke holds no grudge. After all, look what Bonds did on the field for the Pirates. After the final game last year, when it was obvious that Bonds would no longer play for Pittsburgh, Van Slyke told Bonds that he wished Bonds could stay for five more years. ''He is,'' Van Slyke says, ''the greatest player I ever played with, or will ever play with.'' Still, the day Bonds returned to the Pirate clubhouse, Van Slyke didn't budge from his card game.
Bonds has always been insulated from his peers. He grew up in a privileged neighborhood in San Carlos, Calif., the son of a famous Bay Area athlete. He had friends; to this day, one of his best friends is Bob McKercher, who works for a recycling company in San Francisco. McKercher has known Bonds since they were both six-year-olds. By his account Bonds was, and remains, a fun guy. He remembers Barry making fun of his dancing ability and then setting about with Barry's mother, Pat, to give this ''Italian-Irish kid some soul.'' He remembers sleepovers with Barry that degenerated into all-night gigglefests. ''And we'd go to each other's Thanksgiving dinners, like a revolving door, back and forth, and tape them on a video recorder,'' says McKercher. ''I think people would pay to see Barry in his Afro.''
But Barry could be aloof. The athletic director at Serra High, an all-boys Catholic school of 700 that Barry attended, remembers that other students tended to see Barry as ''moody -- basically keeping to himself.'' Kevin Donahue, who coached Barry in basketball at Serra (''He loved the limelight, loved to take over the game with two minutes to go''), says, ''He was not cold, but if you weren't in his inner group, it might seem he was just keeping to himself. He might not say hi to everybody.''
But in a pattern of behavior that continues to this day, Barry won attention from his elders. Donahue, who admits to having had minibattles with Barry (a pattern of behavior that also continues to this day), says that Barry demanded a lot of time and that Donahue was glad to give it. ''You had to take time to get to know him, and I did that,'' Donahue says. ''We'd talk often, about the jealousy in high school and how to handle it. It hurt him; we'd talk about it a lot.''
When Bonds returned to the Bay Area this spring, one of the first things he did was to address the student body at Serra High. Donahue was not surprised by the gesture, not surprised to be remembered. Bonds walked up to him, first thing, and gave him a big hug. ''That's Barry,'' Donahue says.
But another part of being Barry is to invite misunderstanding. This may be genetic. His father certainly invited it during his playing days, and he doesn't seem to have taught his son any of the social skills necessary to avoid misunderstandings. ''Important to be popular?'' Bobby huffs, his jaw muscles revealing the strain produced by any relations with the press. ''All the superstars I've met, popularity wasn't important to them. Barry just wants to play baseball. He's not pushing ballots for popularity.''
It's hard to say what Bobby's indifference to popularity or his independent streak has cost him; his peers have granted him the utmost respect as an athlete and as a hitting coach, the position he now holds with the Giants. However, until his close friend Dusty Baker got the San Francisco manager's job in December, Bobby was in baseball limbo, out of work for five years. And no one can say why.
As a kid Barry had much less attitude, and even now he can't manage the surliness of his father. Even so, he could be a handful at times. Donahue once had to cajole Barry into doing weight training, for example. ''But it was a game I won,'' Donahue says. ''I would not call him rebellious or argumentative. He was a fairly typical, if highly gifted, high school kid.''
Yet he came out of high school with something of a dubious reputation. Before offering Barry a baseball scholarship, Arizona State coach Jim Brock even went so far as to quiz a long-ago baby-sitter of Barry's. Brock was suspicious after Bonds, for all his talent, was left off one of California's most important high school all-star teams. ''It was not totally clear to me why,'' Brock says. According to McKercher it was because tryouts for the northern California team were held the morning after Serra's senior prom. Bonds nodded off during the workout, and a coach -- who perhaps was envious on behalf of the less-gifted and less-privileged kids trying out -- left him off the team.
Brock was pleasantly surprised by Bonds once he arrived at Arizona State. He remembers a kid with a ''twinkle in his eye, never malicious, but a kid who might say silly things at any time.'' Like every one of Bonds's coaches before him, Brock was somehow drawn into Bonds's world, even though few of his teammates were.
''There are some players who come and go here,'' Brock says, ''and you never get to know them. Who is Bob Horner? He came here, he went. Now, Barry, I got to know him a lot better. It was attention I wanted to give him. I really liked the hell out of him. In fact, you know what the other kids called him? Barry Brock.''
But Brock admits there were difficulties and that Bonds got special handling. ''There was an inherent jealousy among the other players,'' he says. ''Of course, he did roll in here with that big black Trans Am, he did have more money, he did have a bigger name. And he wasn't real interested in living any of that down.'' Brock's memory is that the team -- ''half white, with a redneck factor'' -- simply froze Bonds out.
''I had to talk to him a lot,'' Brock says. ''He wanted to be liked, tried so damn hard to have people like him. Tried too hard. But then he'd say things he didn't mean, wild statements. I tried to tell him that these guys, 20 years from now, would be electricians and plumbers, but he'd be making millions. I didn't know how many millions, of course. Still, he'd be hurt. People don't realize he can be hurt -- and is, fairly often.''
Brock has a harder time getting through to Bonds these days; there are layers of agents and secretaries who screen all calls. And Brock says, laughing, that Barry still holds a grudge against him for not recruiting his brothers, Ricky and Bobby Jr. ''Those Bonds people are awfully loyal,'' Brock says. But Bonds did return to Arizona State this spring for an awards ceremony. ''Nobody hugs me,'' Brock says, ''but Barry walked right up and hugged me. Kind of embarrassing. But that's Barry.''
As far as anyone can remember, nobody who has really wanted to interview Bonds has failed to get his man. But negotiations for his time are not for the fainthearted or deadline-driven. A writer might spend the first three days just trying to establish the possibility of an interview. Bonds might fail to ! look up or register any recognition during conversations with the would-be interviewer, might pick at imaginary scabs on his arm and repeat ''Whatever, dude'' over and over. The next phase might be a series of decreasingly vague promises by Bonds as he warms to the idea of the interview. This part of the process also includes actual recognition of the interviewer.
The third, most tantalizing phase includes specific appointments, at first broken and later delayed. For Bonds it's a kind of social aerobics. Day Seven: ''Aw, dude! I forgot about stretching!'' he says, slapping dude on shoulder as he breaks yet another appointment and heads out to the field. Teammate Willie McGee, who is passing by, is not so much amazed by the excuse -- Bonds, alone among his teammates, does not stretch -- as by the sheer determination of the interviewer. ''Man,'' he says under his breath, admiringly, ''dude's been here a week.''
But later on Day Seven and on Day Eight, Bonds finally sits down, as he promised so long ago.
''He has made his point,'' a club official explains. And that point would be. . . ? The club official shrugs.
''Why talk about things?'' Bonds says, explaining his aversion to interviews. ''When you talk about stuff too much, you overkill it. You get your glory when the people are happy. That's the glory of it all -- when your team wins, you got that big hit, made that big play. That says enough. Why talk about it?''
He is mystified by the amount of attention he gets and mildly depressed by its nature. ''You can look and look into the life of Barry Bonds,'' he says, ''and the worst thing you'll find is about four traffic tickets, and all of them before I came to the majors.''
Certainly he is mystified by the demands that fans make on him. He believes that he discharges all of his obligations to the public on the field. He prepares well (whatever you do, don't ever try to talk to him before a game), and he plays hard. He does not let the game down, ever. The elder Bonds, whose own career was damned by the word potential, says Barry is never satisfied at the end of the season: ''He tells me, 'I've got to throw, got to get better.' ''
As if all that weren't enough, Bonds performs with a flamboyance that hovers between annoying and spectacular, but is good value however you see it. ''Why can't people just enjoy the show?'' he wonders. ''And then let the entertainer go home and get his rest, so he can put on another show? But in baseball, you get to see us, touch us, trade our cards, buy and sell jerseys. To me, that dilutes the excitement. Autograph seekers! When I go to a movie, after the final credits roll, I get up and leave. It's the end! But ((at a ball game)) I'm supposed to stand out there for three hours and then sign autographs?
''If fans pay $10 to see Batman, they don't expect to get Jack Nicholson's autograph.''
In fact, Bonds does sign autographs from time to time. But otherwise he doesn't feel he needs to share his life off the field -- with anybody. That house of his? The major cribbage, where he lives with his wife, Sun, and their two children, Nikolai, 3, and Shikari, 2? You ask the style. ''Mediterranean,'' he says. You ask the setting. ''Oh, no you don't. I don't want you finding my house.'' It's hard work being this private.
But he has had practice. Says his father: ''When he was a kid and all the other kids were out playing, he'd stay in and entertain himself. He didn't need a lot of people. He didn't even like sharing a bedroom with his brothers, that's how private he was.''
Anyway, why go public? Barry dismisses his celebrity; he says he's like everybody else. ''The other day, I mowed the lawn with my cousin,'' he says. ''I eat at McDonald's, I eat at Denny's. People want to know what Barry Bonds eats in the morning, where I go at night. And I don't do anything different from anybody else. Off the field, I'm an average guy.''
This average guy has had bit parts in two upcoming movies, Rookie of the Year and Jane's House -- ''The usual, act like a stupid ballplayer,'' he says -- and he clearly enjoyed rubbing shoulders with actor James Woods. And then, of all the people he might have chosen to present his second MVP award -- his father, his manager -- he chose Mays and singer Michael Bolton. It was an odd scene at Candlestick Park before this year's home opener: Mays handed the trophy to Bolton, who handed it to Bonds. What was wrong with this picture? It was as if Bonds, who had met Bolton when he played in one of the singer's charity softball games, were saying that his personality could no longer be contained by baseball. He would henceforth like to be identified with entertainment supernovas.
Obviously Bonds doesn't fight fame with all his heart. ''Well, it's nobody's fault but my own,'' he says. ''It's like my dad said, I didn't have to go out there and do all those things, draw all this attention to myself. Could have been an average player.''
What can you do? Cursed with greatness. Still, it's a shame that a game of such purity has to be complicated by all this attention, and so much of it negative. ''The only time in my life I feel free is when I'm on the field,'' Bonds says. ''No one can bother you, no one can talk to you. You can do whatever you want, be whoever you want.''
The sanctuary of leftfield also becomes a stage for him, and he is often surprised by how much he enjoys it. ''It's my showtime,'' he says. He once watched a tape of one of his home run trots and was amazed to see himself pointing a finger as he rounded first base. ''It was something that just happened,'' he says.
Does that make him a jerk, or does it make him interesting? Thrift, one of the father figures in Bonds's high-maintenance career, thinks it only makes Bonds unique. ''The Little Drummer Boy wasn't written for Barry,'' Thrift says. ''Just because he doesn't grin when everybody wants him to . . . well, that's Barry.'' Thrift is told that hardly anybody can speak of Bonds without concluding ''that's Barry.'' He laughs. ''Now, isn't that nice?'' Thrift says. ''To be just Barry?''
Mostly it is, certainly while playing baseball. But the game is not held as sacred as Bonds would like it to be. ''Why can't you just do your best and walk away from it?'' he wonders. ''Why can't you just make it as good as you can for as long as it's going to last? Dude, the one thing I know: When it's over, it's just over. I know it's not going to last forever.'' So why can't he be left alone to enjoy it?
But nobody leaves him alone. And the attention and expectations grind at him. The reflection he sees in people's eyes -- a rich and spoiled brat -- disappoints him. He once popped a foul ball that struck a child on the head. A reporter, noting that Bonds had shown his concern by giving the kid a bat, asked Bonds if he had done it to curry the fans' favor. Bonds tells you that and quickly reminds you, ''But I don't care what they think.''
He does, of course. Doesn't everybody? For some reason Bonds is reminded of his own childhood, of a play in which he performed in elementary school. He had to go onto the stage and introduce each new act, each time wearing a different costume. He remembers that for one introduction, he was supposed to wear a wet suit, but he didn't have time to don it and, instead, went out bare-chested. It wasn't much of a gaffe; maybe there haven't been many of those in his nearly perfect life. But what he most remembers is that nobody booed. ''Kids never get booed, no matter how they mess up,'' he says. ''You never see a five-year-old get booed. Always applauded, because they're trying. Always getting encouragement or praise. Because that little boy is trying.''
It's an odd thought for a rich superstar, years and MVPs removed from grade school. But then Bonds says something even odder. More that little boy than anyone might believe, he says, ''That's the way it should always be.''
Issue date: May 24, 1993