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February 28, 2001

The Daily Prospectus

Defending Barry Bonds

by Jeff Hildebrand

Over the past week we've seen many stories about greedy players. Jayson Stark's "Rumblings and Grumblings" column on ESPN.com listed the principal complainers as Gary Sheffield, Barry Bonds, and Frank Thomas. A feature on ESPN's "SportsCenter" about the complaints featured clips of the same three players. Even our staff has recently castigated Sheffield and Thomas for their unreasonable positions, so it might seem natural for Bonds to take his turn against the wall.

Unfortunately for those of you smelling blood, there's one small detail preventing us from doing so: Bonds does not remotely deserve to be lumped into the same category as Thomas and Sheffield.

Thomas and Sheffield have each signed long-term contracts that have multiple years remaining. They have agreed to terms and now are unhappy because they think they could have gotten more. They're probably right, but that's no one's fault but their own for signing a long-term contract. On the other hand, Bonds's contract expires after this coming season. While Bonds, Sheffield, and Thomas are all talking about their situation, Sheffield and Thomas are concerned about their current contract while Bonds is talking about his next contract.

And that makes all the difference in the world.

Over the past few years it has become standard practice for teams to open negotiations with their superstars the year before they can leave as free agents. Sometimes this leads to agreements, such as Derek Jeter's recent megadeal with the Yankees, while other times the negotiations fail, as they did when Alex Rodriguez parted ways with the Mariners. It's a practice that makes sense for both sides. The teams may beat salary inflation by signing the player for a number of years and get a marketing boost by assuring their fans that the player isn't going anywhere. The player gets some peace of mind knowing that he is guaranteed millions of dollars regardless of his health or performance, and can comfortably put down roots in his team's city, if he so chooses.

Bonds is justified in feeling a little uneasy about his situation. With just one year to go on his current deal, he is nearing the end of a period of security. He's not asking to have his current deal discarded nor threatening to not play if his wishes aren't granted. He is simply asking that his current employer, with whom he'd like to continue a relationship, come to the table and negotiate their next agreement.

The unjustified reports painting Bonds as a greedy doubletalker going back on his contract are not entirely surprising. Bonds has long endured a stormy relationship with the media, and as a result rarely gets the benefit of the doubt. The proper comparison for Bonds right now would be with Sammy Sosa, but the smiling extrovert Sosa has a much better rapport with the media, so he has not received the harsh criticism that Bonds has.

Personalities should not play any role in how these situations are reported, only the facts and the context. Bonds may very well be a cranky, arrogant lout, but if so he's a cranky, arrogant lout who is in the right this time.

Jeff Hildebrand is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by clicking here.

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