SPORTS

BASEBALL’S RODNEY KING?

As the fans boo Barry Bonds, some players see racism at work

ALLEN ABEL May 1 2006
SPORTS

BASEBALL’S RODNEY KING?

As the fans boo Barry Bonds, some players see racism at work

ALLEN ABEL May 1 2006

BASEBALL’S RODNEY KING?

SPORTS

As the fans boo Barry Bonds, some players see racism at work

ALLEN ABEL

Swollen by steroids and shrunken by scandal, Barry Bonds climbs from the dugout for the twenty-thousandth time and walks to a box drawn in thick white chalk at the junction of fame and infamy. As he comes to home plate on a Monday evening at Chase Field in Phoenix, the hulking emblem of a blemished era in Major League Baseball is chasing one ghost and one god,

but justice has blocked the basepaths.

In ordinary times, the approach of the San Francisco Giants’ slugger to the career home run records of the beloved Babe Ruth and the embittered Henry Aaron would convene a cavalcade of worship, and amazement that a hobbled 41-year-old could still stroke the ball at all. But these are not ordinary times, and even here, in the mannerly Valley of the Sun, the spectators hoot and caw and bellow and rave as Bonds waves his shiny black bat.

He flashes them a peace sign and walks on. At least this is kinder than Los Angeles, the last stop, where the air was thick with

‘I’M VERY PROUD THAT A MAN OF COLOUR

cries of “Cheater!” and “Bar-roids,” and real malice in many mouths.

The Giants lead the Arizona Diamondbacks 4-0 in the second inning, with a runner on second base and two men out. Bonds, who is being paid US$ 17 million per season on a heretofore futile mission to lead the Giants to their first World Series championship since 1954, ignores a curve outside and a fastball a few inches too high. Then the catcher stands up and extends his gloved hand in surrender, and awards Barry Bonds the 6l2th intentional walk of his 21year major league career, which adds up to more than 10 full miles of free passage. At the sight of this submission, the booing from the half-filled stands billows down like steam onto the field, though whether the fans are jeering the home team’s cowardice or a man undeserving of mercy, it is impossible to tell.

Certainly, Bonds in early 2006 has shown little need to be treated with tenderness. Batting a wretched .214 going into the weekend with no home runs—leaving him six behind Ruth’s total of 714 and 47 short of Aaron’s 755 —and with a dozen bone chips floating in the

flesh of his left elbow and a right knee barely held together, he is one misstep from a final physical breakdown as his 42nd birthday nears. But those are the least of his worries.

Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a federal grand jury is investigating whether Bonds perjured himself in 2003, when he swore that the steroid-laced substances he was smearing on his body—concoctions known as “The Cream” and “The Clear”— were, to the best of his knowledge, merely a benign muscle balm and health store flaxseed oil. Bonds’s orthopaedic surgeon and the Giants’ team trainer have been summoned to testify, as the web closes even more tightly.

Thus, the entire uproar can be reduced to this: did Barry Bonds lie three years ago about chemicals he began using seven years ago that were not banned by baseball until four years ago? And if he did lie, what then—Alcatraz? Banishment from the field and the Hall of Fame? Erasure of the records he set, but not those of other ball-crushers from an age when, across the spectrum of world sport, steroids and other banned substances were seen as a universally effective and usually undetectable shortcut to superhumanity?

Though he still is hailed at the Giants’ home park, and is seen as a martyr and a victim by many men within the game, a telephone poll last week of 917 registered voters in California—a state whose governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has admitted using anabolic

steroids during his bodybuilding career—revealed that 58 per cent believe Bonds is guilty of doping. No less an arbiter of probity than the New York Times cited “the tragedy” of his “physical transformation from whippet to mastiff.” And then there is Game of Shadows.

This new, 332-page book, written by two Chronicle reporters who received leaks of grand jury testimony regarding a Bay Area base camp for rule-breaking Olympic sprinters, football pros and major league sluggers, has moved the commissioner of baseball to order “a full investigation,” 10 years too late to preserve the sport’s hallowed statistics from irrevocable pollution.

In Phoenix, Bonds speaks rarely to the dozens of writers who slouch for hours around the double-wide locker where he hangs his baggy jeans. Meanwhile, a coterie of his personal panjandrums, masseurs and videographers haunts the clubhouse, giggling into cellphones and clawing at the free buffet.

On his ESPN TV “reality” blog, “Bonds on Bonds,” seated on the leather cushions of a private jet, he weeps the tears of a pilloried victim, baseball’s Rodney King, while others blame everything—the grand juries and the

0 IS PERSECUTED IS STILL ABLE TO PLAY THE GAME WITH DIGNITY’

book and the commissioner’s commission and last year’s congressional hearings and Bonds’s two decades of surliness and selfishness —on the race hatred of White America, the same nation that has embraced Lebrón James and Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters.

“Barry Bonds is a stud!” offers Arizona second baseman Orlando Hudson, the team’s only AfricanAmerican regular. (This may no longer be literally true; Game of Shadows quotes Bonds’s ex-girlfriend on her man’s sexual dysfunction and the shrinkage of his testicles, a side effect of steroid abuse.)

“What if he’s guilty?” I ask Hudson.

“What if he’s guilty?” he ponders. “Should they take away his records? No. Will they take away his records? Yes. And I don’t want to say what I really want to say about that. Leave the man alone!”

“I’m very proud,” says Felipe Alou, San Francisco’s manager, “that a man of colour who is persecuted—and I say persecuted because in the United States a man is innocent until proven guilty—is still able to play the game with dignity. This guy is carrying the weight of the era. This guy. One guy.

“I come from a dictatorship where you

weren’t allowed to have an opinion,” the son of Trujillo’s Dominican Republic goes on. “In this country, you can have an opinion. If tomorrow, something comes out and I have to change my opinion, then I’ll change it. But not until I have to.”

On this night in Phoenix, in the sixth inning, Bonds will go down swinging to a raucous, derisive, standing ovation. Later, with no one on base and the score tied, 9-9, he will be intentionally walked again. And later, a young man spurned by Bonds for an autograph five years back will heave a plastic bottle, filled

with some substance, from the bleachers to the grass at the left fielder’s feet. Just another night on the road: four at-bats, one single, two walks, one arrested lout. But no home runs.

Babe Ruth, Bonds’s immediate target, played outdoors in daylight against white men and died 58 years ago. Rebelling against a boyhood at a Catholic home for unloved boys, he lived an enormous life as a New York Yankee, and every alcoholic drink he took in the United States from 1919 to 1933 was a criminal act. Yet today, on one website I checked, a baseball autographed by Henry Aaron sells for US$330, a Barry Bonds ball is $700, and a perfect specimen signed by Babe Ruth is $115,000.

At her home in the Phoenix suburbs, Julia Ruth Stevens, the Babe’s 88-year-old adopted daughter and an avid Diamondbacks fan,

tells me that her father would have had no quarrel with being eclipsed by the magnificent Aaron, but that, in Bonds’s case, “he’d like to think that anyone who set a record did it under his own power, without anything to enhance his own ability.”

“People just loved to be around my father,” Mrs. Stevens smiles. “And he loved being Babe Ruth.”

“Do you think Barry Bonds loves being Barry Bonds?” I ask her.

“He probably did before all of this came out,” she replies.

The Ruth family has declined the Giants’ invitation to be on hand when Bonds hits number 715, if it happens. But by phone from Vegas, Tom Stevens, Julia’s son, admits that he came close to trying steroids himself, motivated by jealousy of meatier men in his neighbourhood gym. “I don’t want to be a part of Barry-bashing,” he says. “I can’t help but feel badly for him. He’s been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion. But he’s not the only one.”

In baseball, the only dimensions that have changed in a hundred years are the sizes of the men who play it. A sport for a slower century, it has endured cork in the bats and cocaine in the batters, gambling and gamefixing and walkouts by the unionized millionaires. It is older than the telephone, the motion picture and the motorcar, but it is not immortal. The greatest threat to the game’s survival—and to Bonds’s reputation as a slugger and a man—is not dishonour, but irrelevance. Yet it is this very irrelevance that may offer Bonds, and baseball, a soft landing, if he proves unable to catch the Babe and Hammering Henry, or if he pulls up lame before the law can tag him out.

On Monday night in Phoenix, this seems a likely fate for a fading mauler. But then, in the sixth inning of Tuesday’s game, Bonds pulverizes a pitch to straightaway centre field, a line drive that still seems to be arcing upward when it slams against the high green outfield wall, just below the yellow stripe that marks a home-run clout.

Rounding first, thinking it gone, Barry Bonds pumps his fist in celebration. This time, he stops at second with a double. But if the big man is just getting started, a long, long season of hitting and hatred may have only just begun. M