Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Updated: April 12, 12:44 PM ET
Bonds is wrong to wear No. 42
By Jeff Pearlman
Special to Page 2
On Feb. 7, President Bush took a trip to Shenandoah National Park, where he dressed up in earth tones, stood before some trees and held a news conference to announce an increase in the National Park Service's budget.
It was a glorious time for all. Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, boasted that the president was "keenly committed both to environmentalism and conservationism from the start." Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne went one step further, likening Bush to Teddy Roosevelt.
Yes, that Teddy Roosevelt.
Of course, by now all noncomatose homo sapiens realize that Bush is to the environment what Hulk Hogan was to the Iron Sheik's head. He's pro- Alaska oil drilling, anti- the ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, pro- curtailing the federal standard for arsenic in drinking water and, most recently, anti- the right of states to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from motor vehicles.
He also hates long walks on the beach and birds that chirp.
And yet, when Bush shows up at a forest gate to kiss a leopard, none of us flinch. We are numb to the phenomenon. It is what it is -- a public figure extolling a virtue, then doing zilch to support it.
Which leads us, naturally, to Barry Lamar Bonds.
As announced last week, the San Francisco slugger plans on celebrating the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's big league debut by joining other active players in wearing No. 42. "I'm proud to do this," Bonds told MLB.com's Barry Bloom. "There's no person who was more important to the African-American cause in baseball history than Jackie Robinson. He paved the way for Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, everybody. You just can't underestimate the impact Jackie had on this game."
Though Bonds' words are righteous (Bloom, his personal stenographer, would allow nothing less), his gesture is as authentic as a Sidd Finch heater. Now in his 22nd major league season, Bonds' track record in areas of race and sports is, to be polite, abysmal. Here is a man who, according to infinite associates and peers, has rarely -- if ever -- gone out of his way to assist a rookie African-American teammate trying to find his way; who sees young black fans not as potential heirs to the game, but as autograph-seeking gnats to be insulted or dismissed. Four years ago, Bonds spit in the face of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum by ignoring an invitation to be presented with one of its Legacy Awards (taken aback by the public outcry, he finally visited four months later).
To his credit, Bonds once used his celebrity to influence a political campaign. To his discredit, the candidate he endorsed was former California governor Pete Wilson, an arch-conservative whose stances on minority issues were only slightly to the left of David Duke. In fact, Wilson seems something of a role model for the Bonds Guide to Honoring Dead Civil Rights Icons: In 1995, while promoting the "California Civil Rights Initiative," a ballot measure that would ban all state affirmative action, Wilson routinely evoked the name (but not spirit) of Martin Luther King.
Of the countless transgressions that make Bonds the last man who should wear No. 42, the one that gets me -- that really, really, really gets me -- is the way he has treated his black baseball forefathers like Aaron not as legends to be honored, but as stepping stones in his own maligned assault on the record books.
Whether one believes he cheated or not, reportedly the amount of documentation detailing Bonds' usage of performance-enhancing drugs stretches to Pluto. With this in mind, how can Bonds both wear No. 42 for Robinson and surpass Aaron as baseball's all-time home run leader?
If little else, Bonds is no dummy. He knows of Aaron's legacy: of the hate mail and the death threats, of the extra security guards and the terror that one bullet from the stands would end his life. Surely Bonds knows that Aaron is not simply a baseball hero, but a shining beacon from the civil rights era. The courage Aaron displayed in taking the field each night, usually in a Deep South still dripping with racist venom, is something Bonds can never duplicate.
So, again, how does Bonds break the all-time home run record with a straight face? How can he speak of "the great Hank Aaron" (as he does) while doing everything in his power to expunge his name from the record books?
Answer: Self-denial. Does Bush think global warming is just a harmless hoax? Does Hillary Clinton truly believe her Iraq authorization votes were righteous? Does Sean Hannity actually think that by attending an event on Martin Luther King's birthday he's in touch with civil rights? Does Sanjaya really think he can sing? As my father used to tell me, "Before you fool others, fool yourself."
It's true. We are fools.
I have no doubt Barry Bonds believes that, by wearing No. 42, he is doing what appears to be the right thing. Read that again -- what appears to be. Yet the right thing is seldom about words (ask Don Imus), written or said. It's about intent, purpose and -- most of all -- actions. Who do they impact? What do they mean? What do they say?
Here, on the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson changing the world, is what Bonds is saying: I am Barry Bonds -- and I don't give a damn.
Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero", now available in paperback. You can reach him at email@example.com.