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September 30, 2001
The Daily Prospectus
RedemptionThere's an unfortunate but natural tendency to ascribe to players the qualities they exhibit on the field. Great players are often treated as great people, even if they aren't. There's a quality of redemption-through-performance that we see most obviously in players accused of big things, like murder. The reverse is also true: while some of the nicest people you'll meet are peripheral, bad players, we regard them as bad people because they can't hold up on a 12-to-6 curve that plunks the front of the plate, or hit a three-pointer against the league's best defenders.
This relates, as do all things this year, to Barry Bonds. I've written before that Barry Bonds is one of the greatest players of his generation, but as Curt Schilling once said, "Barry Bonds is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I'd vote for him every day of the week and twice on Sundays, but when he retires, he's still going to be the biggest ass who ever lived."
Bonds, you see, is the only player who has done nothing wrong and been unable to find redemption by being the best.
I'm cheering for Bonds this year for a couple of reasons--he's always been underappreciated, he's playing for the Giants--but mostly because Bonds, having never gotten the respect he deserves, has done the one thing that makes it impossible to ignore him: make a run at the home-run record. Bonds's home runs can't be criticized as weak tappers, or as not helping his team, and it's a ridiculous stretch for anyone to argue that his performance hasn't been a big part of the Giants' success.
As has been mentioned in this space before, writers who don't like Bonds have made his poor relationship with the press part of the story. In fact, this year we saw a burst of "How will Bonds handle the press?" articles, which were followed by some "Bonds is juiced" speculation, which was about as shameful a display of naked avarice as you're likely to see, an attempt by those who don't like Bonds to inject doubt and disgust into the home run chase.
They seed quotes from unnamed sources, goad teammates who don't have recliners and TVs in the clubhouse, and try to find support for their own ill will. But reporters who don't like Barry aren't the story, and never have been.
I don't know Barry Bonds. I haven't interviewed him, just followed his career, watched him play. I've been awed, impressed, and disappointed when he wasn't able to play all nine positions at once, Bugs Bunny-like, and carry the Giants to a World Series title.
But because Bonds doesn't get along with the press, for years he's been unredeemable, the greatest player who couldn't get MVP votes, year after year, and denied the nationwide recognition as the one of the best players in baseball. I would say that prior to this season, more fans would have said Derek Jeter was a better player than Bonds, a result of Jeter's sunny disposition and highlight-friendly position, but a ridiculous thought in any year.
Most athletes would hire a better agent, get a PR person, and you'd see, Gary Sheffield-style, articles start to trickle into ESPN The Magazine, Sports Illustrated--those long feature pieces about how the player with the bad rep has just been misunderstood and (where applicable) goes to church, gives to charity, loves his kids, is kind to puppies, and so on.
Barry Bonds, however, has refused this hollow redemption, has never altered his line to the press. As positive articles began to appear this year, his reaction was classic: "I've been the same all along," he said over and over. "You all have changed."
Bonds didn't break, or compromise, or kiss Ahmad Rashad's feet. He didn't shill his charity work, or his love for his daughter. Now, after years of turning in one of the top performances in the league, he's having one of the best seasons by any player ever to play baseball.
Bonds has been the same all along. It's everyone else who's coming around to him, and it's about time.
Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.