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Wednesday, April 5, 2006
Taking in 'Bonds on Bonds'

By Roy S. Johnson
Page 2

Editor's note: ESPN.com hired Roy S. Johnson, who is not affiliated with ESPN, to review the new reality show "Bonds on Bonds" that debuted Tuesday night on ESPN.

I could have done without the tears shed over John Legend's soulfully embracing melody. Together they almost ruined the otherwise compelling premiere of "Bonds on Bonds," ESPN's much-debated reality show on the life and trials of Barry Bonds. Until then, until Bonds broke down as he claimed, "They can take me down. I don't care. But so many people depend on me to stay strong," the one-hour peep show was engaging, almost riveting television.

No surprise there. Like him or not, Bonds might be the most intriguing celebrity of our age. Yes, celebrity. He passed being a mere athlete about a million allegations ago. With his physical gifts, surly public persona, soap-opera private life, historic home run chase and, of course, the steroids thing, how could B on B not be engaging at the least?

"Bonds on Bonds": Steroids & Jealousy

ESPN360: Selected segments ESPN Motion

It was also clear that the producers, Tollin/Robbins Productions, award-winning creators of quality films ("Radio") and television shows ("Arli$$"), would tell the story well. ESPN reportedly paid the company $4.5 million to produce the series, and it shows. (Disclosure: Tollin/Robbins partner Mike Tollin and I attended college together at Stanford, where we shared an interest in radio broadcasting and softball.)

But would Bonds and the producers tell the story? And not just the story that exploded in recent weeks surrounding the release of two books offering perhaps the most credible details to date supporting the allegations that Bonds, now chasing Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, used performance-enhancing drugs somewhere along the way. Would they also confront the full measure of the Bonds persona, including his oh-so-not-touchy-feely relationship with sportswriters and his sometimes inexplicable treatment of fans?

Bonds wouldn't face the camera and say, "I did it, OK? I'm not proud of it. I let myself, my family and my teammates down. Now, can we all just get along?" But would he at least man up to his actions and behavior through the years and not offer us a Bond-washed version of the drama that has been his life and career?

Thankfully, he did (for the most part), and that's why I couldn't stop watching.

The voice and mood of the one-hour show was all Bonds. There was no celebrity narrator or moussed-up reporter asking obvious questions. Images of his past and present were linked by scenes featuring Bonds, usually slouched on a couch in a T-shirt, sweats and socks clutching a security pillow, talking mostly to the camera. Although still defiant, his tone was less acidic than we typically get (Maybe he should hug a pillow during all interviews), and his thoughts more introspective. Heck, at times, he even tried to smile.

Most heartening was that Bonds did not shy away from the Bonds we've come to know and, well, scratch our heads about. An early scene showed him walking past a group of young fans begging for autographs at spring training without offering a single signature. We saw an all-time kiss-my-Barry glare during one media crush when Bonds repeated to a reporter hell-bent on asking about steroids: "Do you want to talk baseball, or do you want to not talk at all?"

We also heard from friends and critics who openly discussed Bonds' failings and what impact his behavior and steroids likely will have on his legacy. Giants broadcaster Jon Miller was honest and forthright about how the steroid controversy will cloud his home run calls as Bonds climbs toward the record.

Dusty Baker of the Cubs -- who managed Bonds in San Francisco ("I thought we'd get lynched," Bonds said of when he signed to play with the Giants with their black manager and his father as the batting coach) -- said: "Barry told me that when he retires, he'll have a lot of people to apologize to. I told him by then it might be too late."

Of course, Bonds didn't directly address the allegations revealed in "Game of Shadows," the book that exploded in the headlines in March and offered details of Bonds' alleged drug use, saying he was restricted by his lawyers, among others. But he did confront the charge from another book that, during a 1998 dinner at the home of longtime friend Ken Griffey Jr. in Tampa, Fla., he told Griffey and two others he was "tired of fighting" the steroid issue and was going to "start using some hard stuff" in order to compete with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. "I wasn't even in Tampa in 1998," he said during the show.

These stains were all balanced by images of the Bonds we know less: The smiling, engaging Bonds who is playful with teammates, kids and supportive fans on the streets of San Francisco, and who dotes over his own preciously cute daughter like, well, a doting father. (Although I'm not sure one line he said to her playfully, "Good thing you're 6, I would kill you," would pass muster in Parenting 101.) I don't doubt Bonds is genuinely friendly to many. Too bad he hasn't shown us more of that through the years.

The show fell a bit short when it came to his own family. It has been reported widely that Bonds is going through a painful divorce, and since B on B was being reasonably honest about steroids, I expected to see something on the drama unfolding at home. Never did.

And at times I was confused about whether I was listening to Bonds today or years ago. Footage from Bonds' past was juxtaposed with images from today, leaving me to wonder whether what he was saying was in reaction to what I was watching on the screen or perhaps was out of context.

All told, Bonds was surprisingly revealing, especially when recounting his troubled early relationship with his father, three-time All-Star Bobby Bonds, and the pressure of having a godfather named Willie Mays.

The show's best segment featured Bonds talking about how Bobby browbeat him when he coached Barry as a child, often calling his son "stupid" when he didn't quickly grasp an instruction. There was footage of young Barry as a freshman at Arizona State (yes, he was skinny) talking about how expectations of him were different from those of his teammates simply because he had a father who played in the big leagues and they did not.

The producers failed to take full advantage of the period surrounding Bobby Bonds' death from lung cancer during the 2003 season. He was only 57 years old. Looking back, that period might have been the last time Bonds was embraced almost universally by baseball and baseball fans, and the segment of the show detailing how Bonds handled it on and off the field ("I went home and watched my father die," he said) seemed to move by too quickly.

The segment ended most poignantly, however, with Bonds sitting at his father's grave site, plucking blades of grass from around the headstone. "I never played against another team; I played against Dad and Willie," he said. "Am I as good as they were?" After a few moments, Bonds, still recovering from the knee injury that plagued him last season, stood up and limped back to his car.

The show opened and closed with footage from Opening Day, when Bonds went 1-for-4 in the Giants' loss to the Padres in San Diego and endured intense boos from fans, one of whom threw a plastic syringe onto the field. The show offered footage of Bonds' postgame media crush and angles of that scene not seen on the highlight shows. Being on the news like that will enrich upcoming episodes.

As for the tears Bonds shed, I didn't quite know how to react. They were so sudden and unexpected I wasn't quite ready to go there with him. Not that his emotions weren't genuine (Lord knows, he probably could use a good cry), but the sudden shower seemed to be a bit much -- considering how much of Bonds' drama is of his own doing. I didn't quite chuckle, but almost. Perhaps it was a sign of breakdowns to come.

The John Legend song playing over the scene was "Ordinary People," which only added to the absurdity of it all because, of course, Barry Bonds is oh-so not ordinary. If he were, why would we watch?

Roy S. Johnson writes a sports column every Monday for AOL Black Voices and is sports business analyst for CNBC.