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Friday, June 29, 2001
Updated: September 13, 6:48 PM ET
Playing Barry Bonds

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

We wake up in the City By The Bay. We smile. We know this is gonna be big fun, for you, for me, for the lovely and talented Ms. Moon, and even for Road Dog. We're all gonna be Playing Barry Bonds, and soon.

Barry Bonds
Step into Barry Bonds' shoes and take a casual stroll around the bases at Pac Bell.
Imagine. We are going to tell the story first, before we go in to see it. We are going to make up our minds about the situation before we know it for what it is. We are going to anticipate, sit on a certain pitch, even though we have never been to Pac Bell, the Ballyard That Bonds Built, under the big toe of San Francisco.

We get to go into this ballyard tailored to our swing. We Are ... Barry Bonds.

We get to stand in the batter's box, feel it in our own hands with him if he gets all of it. We get to watch it get small fast. We get to see if it hits the water, McCovey Cove, against the Cardinals -- team of the reigning home-run king, Big Mac (at least for now) -- during the last week in June 2001, as We, Barry Bonds, go for his/our 40th home run. We get to talk to people involved in this latest Great Home Run Chase. We get to hang out, walk a mile in his shoes.

We even get to see whether it matters a little what kind of dude Barry Bonds is in the hotel lobby, or if it as Ms. Moon says, "All those flashbulbs popping aren't for nothing; if it's history, people want to be part of it."

And, special bonus, if that's the way we want -- or feel compelled -- to go, we get to hate Barry Bonds, too.

In other words, we get to be in on history, you, me, Moon and Dog. We're Playing Barry Bonds. Check this out ...

***** ***** *****

"So, Dog, Barry Bonds had a press conference at Pac Bell after the Giants got back to San Francisco after losing two of three to the Cards in St. Loo over last weekend. He was 1-for-9 with walks. Been walked more times that anybody in ball, and he has not yet begun to be intentionally walked. ..."

Barry Bonds
We all go out to the park to see history -- not to see the Cardinals pitch around Bonds.
"All we gonna see is Cardinal pitchers walking 'im," grouses Dog. "Plus, I dunno as I like him, noways."

"Then stay back at the hotel," I suggest. Dog ponders this. "Naw," he says. "I'm going, all right .."

You might believe Dog don't want me alone with the lovely, talented Ms. Moon. Or, you can come back down to Earth, face facts and realize the Dog's human -- he wants to see if Barry Bonds will hit a home run, too.

"... 'Cause who I like ain't got nothing to with it," Dog says. For even though Barry Bonds had only one knock off Cards' pitching last weekend, that one was his 39th dingo. This is a record for most bombs hit before the All-Star Game, more than by Ruth, McGwire, Reggie, Mays, Aaron, Oh, Roy Hobbs, more than by anybody, real or imagined.

"Who I like don't mean do-do," the Dog says. "I don't like George Bush either. But that don't mean he ain't President."

So you get to sit at Pac Bell at a press conference with Barry Bonds. You get to curl your lip at him. Or, you get to beam up at him. Or you get to try to bet inside his head. So stick around.

It seems like a sensible time to have a news conference, especially with all these minions from Time, People, the Illy, The New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, ESPN the Magazine and various TV cameras beginning to circle. Of course, Barry's going none-on-one with nobody but the pitchers from now on. So, really, it's between them, and him -- and you, and me, and Moon, and Dog. We're in there.

  Now if they all tell us that Barry Bonds is wack, that he is egotistical, unapproachable, insufferable once approached, even more egotistical than Ted Williams, even more unapproachable than DiMaggio, even more insufferable than Mays, even worse than Chevy Chase, back when he was famous, then we will be forced to buy that.  
  

You get to look out at the media with Barry Bonds. You get to think whatever he thinks: "What? I can't answer all these questions. I don't even want to answer some of them. Yes, my divorce impacted me. No, I don't think I'll catch McGwire. Whatever. This is ridiculous. You people are ridiculous."

Still, Barry Bonds talks. He talks about ants walking to food, and whatever's good they cling on -- talking about the media. So you get to be the media, too. You get to be everybody. You get to play them all. The ants thing was bad enough. Not that we media folks aren't like ants, but it's being reminded of it that cuts us to the quick. Worse is the "cling on" part. Cling on? Is that, like, Klingon? Is Barry Bonds playing us that hard?

Not if we can play him first. And we can.

The job's half done already. Barry Bonds has already got 39 bombs. He's already made his bed. He already has his rep. Nothing can change. Nothing, but another home run.

So how bad is Barry Bonds?

Glenn Schwarz, sports editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, is a great guy. So is Dusty Baker, manager of the San Francisco Giants. So is Brian Sabean, the general manager. So are Shawon Dunston and Eric Davis, grizzled, seen-it-all vets on the ballclub. Now if they all tell us -- you, me, Moon, Dog, that Barry Bonds is wack, that he is egotistical, unapproachable, insufferable once approached, even more egotistical than Ted Williams, even more unapproachable than DiMaggio, even more insufferable than Mays, even worse than Chevy Chase, back when he was famous, then we will be forced to buy that. We know they all like us, and we like and, better, respect them. In that company, Barry Bonds becomes the prove-it-to-me player.

Barry Bonds
Bonds' personality runs along the lines of any great artist. Think Nijinsky, Jackson Pollock or Springsteen.
We'll talk to them. We'll find out the deal. We'll find out just how mighty the Home Run, The Great American Knock, is. We'll see.just how powerful a lure History is.

Maybe it's a cure-all. Maybe not. Maybe we're about to find out. Because you, me, Ms. Moon, Road Dog, we all are about to go into Pac Bell as a fly on the wall, gulls on the wing, as ants, so to speak, watching the latest assault on yet another Sacrosanct Baseball Record. Just in case you haven't noticed, Sacrosanct Baseball Records ain't what they used to be. Most walks in a career, most home runs in a season, most consecutive games played in a career, most strikeouts in a career, most stolen bases in a career, most runs scored in a career; pretty soon, maybe, most home runs in a season. Again. The only two of those that meant anything, somehow, were most consecutive games played in a career, and most homers in a season, done by Cal Jr. and Big Mac, respectively.

But now we're talking about something other than hitting home runs, aren't we? Let me just drop this in here. You think I, any more than you, want this to be about "race?"

Think I need it? Think me, you, Moon, Dog, the Page 2 Crew, Barry Bonds -- think any of us need it?

Some people may need it, just to make payroll. Jesse Jackson comes to mind. Al Sharpton. And their mirror reflections in society, the bigots that keep them in business. In a recent ESPN interview, Roy Firestone mentioned "race" and asked Barry Bonds if he thought that had any impact in people's perception of him. Now, did Roy Firestone invent the concept of prejudice -- the act of pre-judging -- and bigotry, because he brought it up?

Because he wanted to know if Barry Bonds felt it was around him, palpable, in some way, like the dream of the shadow of smoke, or odorless gas? Because what can Barry Bonds do with that? What would you do? Or think? What would you say? Would all three be the same thing?

Bonds & McGwire
As he chases Mark McGwire, Bonds is going after one of the baseball records that we truly care about.
Think: "Think I want it to be about race? Think I want to be the one to reveal the beloved fan and the public to himself, herself, themselves? Think I want to be the one to make them face themselves, to make freedom real? Why even ask? Don't you know anything, white man? Not you, Roy. You cool. But ..."

Say: "(Pained) Probably. I guess. Let's face it. There's still a KKK."

Do? Well, what can anybody do?

***** ***** *****

Everybody knows the drill by now. The Winning is Everything mantra. Everybody knows Lombardi's is the Way, Truth and Light. His theory that Winning is Everything is supposed to make everything all right. It worked for the old Packers, a group of overachieving football players stuck up there somewhere in the Fargo of our collective memory. Give us new men, burning brightly. It makes them good guys, too, the new men, if they stick to the notion that The Team Must Win For It To Be Right.

Barry Bonds says it, too. It's what we've been taught: When you retire, if you don't have a ring, you failed, and are supposed to pine for one. A ring -- something utility men from Brian Doyle to Billy Martin to Luis Sojo to Mariano Duncan to Wally Backman have? Please. Believe you're less ballplayer, less a man, because you don't have a ring?

Maybe Barry Bonds really means the stuff he and everybody else have learned to say about winning being the only thing you play for. But if that's so, why cash the checks? The Wise Old Head of sports, the man who should be regarded like Lombardi, but isn't always, the one who shall go nameless, he always said the real job, the real greatness and challenge of sports, is not in winning, but in trying to win. Giving it your best shot.

Barry Bonds
No matter how the fans feel about Bonds, everyone wants to see what he'll do.
If you do that, and still don't get a ring, you can sleep at night. If you can't, you are Charles Barkley.

Pick up on it: How many home runs will Barry Bonds have by the 2nd of July, by the time you, me, lovely Ms. Moon, Road Dog, the Dodgers and the Cardinals have left Pac Bell Park? 40? 41? 42? That's trying. That's trying some, I'd say.

All this talk of rings being the only thing that matters is not really right. It's accurate, but it's not true. It's like saying winning an Oscar and scoring at the box office are the only things that matters to actors. Actors should be interested in challenging, rewarding roles, how they can exemplify humanity by representing a segment of it.

Barry Bonds has one of those roles. Ain't a question of whether he likes it, either. He might not like it all. That might be why the Great Casting Director gave him the gig in the first place -- just to see the look on his face, our faces, when we saw what we were all in for.

What can Barry Bonds do about it? Nothing. Except hit another bomb. An Oscar is nice, makes you more famous, gets you more roles, roles which you might or might not be able to perform. An Oscar gives you a place in the cultural consciousness, more money. Being Home Run King, season or career, gets you all those things, too. Which destiny would you rather live out?

Would you rather be Playing Barry Bonds? Or, would you rather be played by him?

Think it's crazy, to speak of actors and Barry Bonds, or Nijinsky, Dunham or Nureyev and Barry Bonds, or Jackson Pollock, Picasso or Basquait and Barry Bonds, or Miles Davis, the Boss, Stevie Wonder and Barry Bonds? It's not crazy -- especially not since Barry Bonds bears strong facial resemblance to Stevie Wonder.

  Think it's crazy, to speak of actors and Barry Bonds, or Nijinsky, Dunham or Nureyev and Barry Bonds, or Jackson Pollock, Picasso or Basquait and Barry Bonds, or Miles Davis, the Boss, Stevie Wonder and Barry Bonds? It's not crazy. ... It's just that Barry Bonds's personality would be more in line with those artists' than it would be with, say, Ed McMahon's.  
  

It's just that Barry Bonds's personality would be more in line with those artists' than it would be with, say, Ed McMahon's. This is our conjecture going in. That's how we'll face him, with that presumption. Maybe that will help us get to know him better.

Ed McMahon seems more likeable than Barry Bonds. As does the Dominican Slammin' Sammy Sosa. Ed and Sammy are natural second bananas, they don't mind being that at all. When Sammy Sosa was part of the Last Great Home Run Chase with Mark McGwire, he gave great Ed McMahon. And it paid off handsomely for the Slammer. People love Sammy Sosa, the way they loved Campy. They feared Jackie Robinson at first, didn't love him 'til later. Sammy, Campy, Ernie Banks -- good guys. Like you. Like us.

Deep belly laughs by Barry Bonds at our stale jokes, his rapt attention to our own little quests for just a little piece of him and history, would make him seem so much more likeable. He doesn't need that Steve Hoskins guy, his assistant, standing between him and us. Does he? That's not helping us touch him, having our own claim on history.

Who doesn't want to be liked? You do. I do. We all do. A writer named Scott Malcolmson wrote a book where he said all a black man needs to do is feel inferior and be happy about it, and he'd have it made in the shade in America. Barry Bonds is oh-for-two on that. So he's gonna get heat.

Me, you, the mighty fine Ms. Moon, Road Dog -- we'll all go into Pac Bell together, today, to see what the deal is. It's not going to stay Status Quo, once we're there. There is going to be Movement. There is going to be Change. We'll see to it. We'll go a layer deeper into history.

That's why we're there. Not because we like or dislike Barry Bonds. But because he's history now. Otherwise, it's just a three-game series of big-league ballgames and wild horses couldn't drag me, and if I'm not there, Ms. Moon, the Dog and you ain't either.

But it isn't "just" a three-game series.

We are about to get to Play the Game of Playing "Barry Bonds, Home Run King*?"

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."