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October 23, 1997

The Sun Glinted Off His Jewelry as He Homered to Win the Game...

Sportswriters and Barry Bonds just don't mix

by Gregg Pearlman

Gregg Pearlman returns with a look at the frustrating relationship some sportswriters seem to have with San Francisco Giants all-world OF Barry Bonds. You can read more of Gregg's work at the Official San Francisco Giant Fan House Of Pain: EEEEEE!.

Sportswriters hate Barry Bonds. They point to his surliness, unfriendliness, and arrogance, and, not knowing Bonds ourselves, we take their word for it. These things are convenient excuses, though, and make Bonds an easy target, but I think the real reason for the hatred is simply his staggeringly huge paychecks.

For instance, in an August 28 column about Bonds' tendency toward self-criticism, Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle writes, "'It's just frustrating, that's all,' said Bonds as he idly fingered a couple of $100 bills." There's no other reference to money or Bonds' salary -- Jenkins may as well have said that Bonds "idly fingered a couple of squirrels" -- but that sentence typifies the general nastiness.

Three prizewinners exemplify more specific hatred. One is a May 23 column by Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that looks like it was written by someone who's angry about Bonds leaving the Pirates and knows he can use his column to retaliate. Smizik says, "Barry Bonds unquestionably is a very good player, but he's far from the best player in the game." ("Far from," "Damn near": it's a fine line.) He asserts that Bonds is "only in left field for reasons of ego. He should be in center field, where he began his career." ("Larry Walker should use that wonderful arm on the mound, where it's needed.") He declares that Bonds is "a speed and power guy, but he trots to first base." ("Brilliant surgeon, but ugly socks.") And here's the cherry on top: "Consequently, he doesn't get as many triples as he should be getting, which dictates to me that he's not much of a team player and doesn't get the most out of his ability." (Ah. Team players hit triples. I see.)

Smizik maintains that Bonds is "aloof... and he openly criticizes his teammates." But on almost the same day, Tim Keown of the Chronicle actually produced quotes -- in other words, he chose to be accountable -- in a column calling Bonds selfless, well-liked by his teammates ("for the first time"), and "just one of the guys."

Smizik insists that giving interviews cordially is "part of [Bonds'] job." (Presumed job description: "Position -- Left fielder. Salary -- $11 million. Duties -- hit baseballs; catch baseballs; throw baseballs; be nice to the media.") Smizik's job depends partly on Bonds' cooperation, but that cooperation isn't implicit; we know this because teams sometimes boot the writers out of the clubhouse.

Smizik also demands that superstars be "credible with the media" (Certain words come to mind: pot... kettle....) and "accessible to the fans." He says that Bonds "should be a hero in Pittsburgh for what he did, but the fans haven't forgiven him for all the things he did."

Like leaving. Smizik specifies no other offenses.

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat gores Bonds in a post-elimination column: "What you remember is Barry Bonds standing there in the bottom of the sixth, his bat on his shoulder as the plate umpire rings him up. Strike three. You're out of here." So if Bonds weren't a congenital choker, the Giants would've hammered Florida, right? (Ask the Braves.)

"Bonds just stands there," Cohn says. "You think of a deer caught in the headlights. You think of all the money they pay him for big moments like this. You think of all his swagger. At least take a swing. Foul the ball off. Miss it, if it comes to that. But, for goodness sake, try.

"He does nothing. It is the quintessential moment of failure...." Quintessential. Clearly writing this article gave Cohn unparalleled pleasure.

No one did much for the Giants in the Division Series. Roberto Hernandez surrendered the winning hit in Games One and Two, but he elicits sympathy for his "misfortune" of being on the mound when that happened. Is he a choker? Nah -- these things happen. But Bonds is.

Cohn eventually outdoes himself: "And then the game is over and the Giants are eliminated, and Bonds is sitting at his locker. The picture of grief.... And he's crying. Such sadness. Such mourning."

So Barry's just a big fat sissy. Or is it a put-on? It can't be genuine; Bonds can't just be upset that he and his team didn't succeed.

Columnist R.E. Graswich of the Sacramento Bee offered this theory on September 5: "There is one big reason why the Giants will finish second behind the Los Angeles Dodgers this baseball season. His name is Barry Bonds, and he just can't help himself, or anyone else.

"Bonds embodies much of what's wrong with professional sports. He found an owner willing to pay lots of money, and that's great. But Bonds sees no reason to go out and actually earn the dough."

So why was Bonds so critical of his performance earlier in the year? ("I suck!")

Graswich says, "With the pennant race heading to the wire between the Giants and Dodgers, Bonds has already begun to fold his tent and evaporate." "The Houdini act is slick and sophisticated, practiced to perfection."

Yeah. Bonds practices failing.

Bonds just won a Silver Slugger award. His 1997 OPS was 1.027, but he's a "choker" because of a .244 batting average with runners in scoring position (RISP); ignored are his .950 OPS with RISP and a 1.036 OPS with runners on base. His OBPs in those situations are about 40 points higher than his overall OBP -- a monstrous .444; this tells me that teams didn't pitch to Bonds with runners on.

Ignoring this, Graswich reaches new depths of mean-spiritedness with, "it's surprising that more baseball people haven't figured out what the stats have known since Bonds broke into the major leagues. The guy is useless when it counts.

"His legacy is a .191 playoff batting average." Now it's an even .200 (in 80 at-bats) after Bonds' first postseason action since 1992. Looks awful, and any future postseason greatness probably won't help Bonds shed that "choker" label. Other players, sure, but not Bonds. He's too hated.

"It's not that he can't produce in September," says Graswich. "His talents aren't bound by the calendar. It's just that for some bizarre reason, he chooses not to produce."

Bonds' performance during the 1993 stretch drive -- the Giants' only other stretch drive since 1989 -- provides convincing evidence to the contrary: With 16 games to go, the Giants were four games behind Atlanta; according to Baseball Prospectus writer Steven Rubio, Bonds went 18-for-53 (.340) with seven doubles and six homers (.811 slugging percentage), 15 runs scored, and 21 RBIs. But the Giants lost by a game, which must be Bonds' fault.

Graswich ends with, "So please hold it down, Giants fans. It's gut-check time, which means Barry's trying to sleep."

This kind of "journalism" leads me to believe that instead of stressing objectivity and purely factual reporting, college journalism professors should be more realistic and emphasize libel laws -- and this:

"Become a columnist. Columnists can say anything, however nasty, ludicrous, or bereft of fact, as long as they don't cross the libel line -- and all without fear of reprisal. The press is a powerful thing, and you can be a powerful person. Your opinions can become the public's opinions. You can tell people what to like and whom to hate, and you won't be held accountable."

Columnists such as Bob Smizik, Lowell Cohn, and R.E. Graswich prove this. Their messages are offensive, though far less so than their abuse of the medium. For them, credibility and accountability are non-issues. And meanwhile, Bonds -- and whoever the sports media's next whipping boy will be -- can do nothing about it.

It's disgusting.
Related Content:  Barry Bonds

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