Tuesday, April 8, 2008 Updated: April 10, 3:32 PM ET
THE SPORTS GUY
By Bill Simmons
We're guessing the hat's not team-issued.
On the day after baseball's first, second or third Opening Day of the 2008 season—sorry, I can't keep track anymore—SoapNet ran the memorable Beverly Hills, 90210, episode with special guest star Barry Bonds. Actually, it can't even be called memorable anymore. It's incredible. Insane. A startling hour of TV. Imagine O.J. Simpson doing the voice of an aggrieved husband whose wife was brutally murdered by Homer in an early-'90s episode of The Simpsons, then triple the shock value, and you have this 90210 classic.
We'll get to the jaw-dropping details in a bit, but here's what struck me after watching it for the umpteenth time: Opening Day came and went without Bonds for the first time in 22 years, and nobody seemed to notice. I didn't think about him for more than two seconds all spring. Did anyone? Can you remember being a part of a single "I wonder where Bonds is going to end up?" conversation? Did you refresh ESPN.com incessantly in hopes of a Bonds update? Were fans in Baltimore storming Orioles headquarters to demand the team sign the much-needed slugger who had 28 homers and a whopping .480 OBP last season?
Of course not. No one cared. The best hitter since Ted Williams is gone and forgotten. We wanted him to go away, and he did.
The greatest hitter since Ted Williams is gone and forgotten.
Bonds leaves an absolutely perplexing legacy, including a statistical résumé that might be the single most fascinating page on baseball-reference.com, a printout of which could keep you occupied in the bathroom for 20 solid minutes. Put aside those incomprehensible numbers from 2001 to 2004, the ones that give him immortality in Strat-O-Matic and whatifsports.com. The pre-BALCO Bonds was the single best player of the 1990s—a flawless leftfielder who averaged .302/36/108 with an on-base percentage of .434, joined the 40/40 club and earned three MVPs and eight Gold Gloves. Had he finished his career the old-fashioned way, Bonds would have cruised into Cooperstown. Now he'll likely be left out until the day the Hall wises up and opens a wing for disgraced legends.
(Quick tangent: By definition, the Hall is a museum that teaches visitors about baseball history. Shouldn't it reflect that history? It can't pick and choose its lessons, for the same reason the Smithsonian doesn't ignore nadirs in this country's history like slavery, Hiroshima or Vanilla Ice. Pete Rose's plaque needs to be in Cooperstown and so do those of Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and every other disgraced legend, even if the plaques are crammed into a creepy, poorly lit basement that makes every visitor feel like Clarice checking in on Hannibal Lecter. The athletes would be simultaneously honored and dishonored, which is only right.)
For all intents and purposes, Bonds' career has vanished into thin air. His home ballpark has had three different names (Pac Bell, SBC and AT&T), but it was mostly considered the House That Barry Built. This season, though, all traces of his dirigible-size head have been erased. Forget about a statue, inside or outside the stadium; there isn't a plaque, a banner or even a picture. It's like Bonds never happened. Once upon a time in San Francisco, Barry was up there with the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the Dead and the Mitchell Brothers. Now, the Giants do everything short of banning their fans from wearing No. 25 jerseys.
It doesn't stop there. Thanks to MLB's odd YouTube aversion—yet another blown chance for Selig to make his sport more fan-friendly—it's a chore to find any of Barry's bombs online. He shows up only on ESPN Classic in the Pittsburgh-Atlanta playoff game, and that's because he couldn't throw out Sid Bream. Two recent books about Bonds—Game of Shadows and Love Me, Hate Me—came and went. His surreal attempt at a reality show designed to make him more likable was cancelled because of TPAHOABB (The Public's Abject Hatred of Anything Barry Bonds). Even after Clemens' appearance in the Mitchell Report sparked a valid race debate about the media's treatment of the two fallen heroes, nobody could get that interested.
Yup, the collateral damage from Bonds' career has been registered, digested and forgotten. We weren't shocked when he went unsigned this winter. We fast-forward through every Bonds/BALCO story on SportsCenter and ignore every news story about his inevitable prison term for perjury. We know his 762 will be gunned down soon enough by A-Rod, just like we know his 73 will always have a UFO-size asterisk next to it. As the years pass, we'll regard him and Clemens the same way we regard Mike Tyson—as oddities of our sports past, self-parodies who meant a great deal once and then nothing at all.
Will Bonds become an oddity?
Of course, Tyson lives on through YouTube. You can relive his career, one vicious KO after another, and it takes only a few seconds to remember that he was once the most feared person alive. Bonds endures only through memories and numbers, and those have been irrevocably tainted. So everyone will remember him differently. Few, though, will remember him fondly.
I, for one, will have this memory: that 90210 in which Steve Sanders was roped into playing in a father-son golf tourney with his dad, Rush, against Rush's country-club nemesis …that's right, a father with a wisecracking baseball-player son named Barry Larson. (The casting of Bonds wasn't even the biggest leap of faith here. C'mon—we were supposed to believe Rush would ever belong to a country club that allowed black members?) As the tourney starts, Rush is cranking his longest drives in years, and that prompts Steve to confront him because, after all, nobody was allowed to cheat, engage in premarital sex, get drunk or use diet pills on 90210 without serious consequences.
When Steve (played with Emmy-worthy zeal by Ian Ziering) threatens to quit and take his blond curls with him, Rush breaks down and admits to using—wait for it—souped-up golf balls! Why, you ask? As Rush explains, he's past his prime and wants to become a club champ once more. In other words, his fear of getting old has forced him to artificially enhance his performance in an athletic competition against a character played by Barry Bonds! In 1994! I can't stop using exclamation points! Someone stop me!
You can guess how this one plays out: Steve convinces Dad to switch balls and play by the rules; the Sanders boys vanquish the Larsons in sudden death on a 175-foot putt by Steve that features four cutaways from the ball to Steve's face as it's rolling; Senior and Junior Sanders share an emotional hug; Bonds and his TV father graciously congratulate them; and every 90210 viewer learns another valuable lesson—namely, that cheating in sports isn't okay.
That lesson didn't stick with the guy who played Rush's opponent. And now he's unemployed and invisible, disowned by San Francisco, stuck with a tainted batch of records and maybe headed for jail. If you're searching for happy memories of the Barry Bonds era, that goofy 90210 episode might be the only thing you find. Then again, I love that Barry lives on through SoapNet and not ESPN Classic, a simple outcome that explains nothing and everything at the same time. See you in the next rerun, Barry Larson. As always, I look forward to it.
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