Hollywood Ending

Updated: May 26, 2007, 12:38 PM ET
By Robert Miles | ESPN The Magazine

Editor's Note: This story appears in the June 4 edition of ESPN The Magazine and includes additional reporting from Morty Ain, Sam Alipour, Elizabeth Carp, Matthew Cole and Eddie Matz.

Barry, babe. Forget Pirates 3 or Die Hard 4, or the one where the alien robots turn into Camaros. We're weeks away from seeing the most revered record in America's most hallowed sport shattered. In Hollywood, we call such a moment THE BIGGEST BLOCKBUSTER EVER! And you, big man, are the star.

ESPN The Magazine
ESPN the MagazineClick here to subscribe to the magazine.

But we've got a problem, kid. Not since Michael Moore snagged his Oscar have so many people rooted against one man's inevitable success. Your image rivals Mel Gibson's, post-DUI rant. You're in a worse spot than a couch-jumping Tom Cruise or a crotch-flashing Britney Spears. Thing is, people don't think you're crazy, they think you're just mean. People tune in to see crazy, superstar, but mean just don't draw.

And that's about to affect everyone's bottom line. As big as that old Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa buddy film tracked in all four quadrants -- men, young and old; women, young and old -- your 756* project isn't generating the once-in-a-lifetime buzz those MLB bigwigs once imagined. We're estimating your endorsement earnings from breaking Hank's record will be a fraction of the 14 or so million Big Mac and Sammy banked. Forget legacy or a Wheaties box, slugger, your picture is tanking where it counts most.

But don't worry, no crisis is too big for Hollywood to handle. This is the town where Eddie Murphy was found with a transsexual prostitute only to be resurrected as the wisecracking donkey in Shrek. And that's why we're stepping in to give you an emergency polish. If you were a Dodger, we'd have fixed this mess a long time ago. No matter. Our image people are top of the heap, and they have a plan to put out the fires that threaten to ruin your summer of love. Play along, hotshot, and, trust us, 756* will open huge.


First things first: Even an expert can't help if you're not on board. Listen to Michael Sitrick, a veteran crisis publicist who's dealt with wild cards like Rush Limbaugh, Tommy Lee and R. Kelly. "If he cares, we can change the way the public perceives him, but he has to be willing to do the things we recommend." And that means doing more than smiling for reporters, my friend.

Unsolicited advice from ...

Mad Money host, survived SEC investigation

Barry seems like sincerely the most insincere man in North America. He has to lose that. Smile. Be polite. Mike Schmidt is the model here. Schmidt was the greatest player ever in Philadelphia, but he was roundly booed and criticized until he decided to smile and shut up. He was still bitter, quite bitter, but he preserved his image. If you're a prickly person, you don't want to antagonize.

Survived savings and loan scandal

The next time he is tempted -- and as a well-known celebrity he will be -- he has to do what's right, even if at the moment, it's more attractive to do what's wrong.

Shock jock, target of FCC

I think Barry should take more juice. What the hell? Nobody likes him anyway, so he should really bulk up, juice until his head explodes. Maybe people will like watching how he blasts the ball then. More juice. It's his only hope.

Tigers Cy Young winner, later jailed for bookmaking

You don't realize until you're walking into a federal courtroom, just what a pimple you are on the people's ass. Barry needs to understand that, because when his reputation is put on trial, he needs us, the jurors, on his side. Get out there, have fun. Let the people laugh with you. Let the people laugh at you. There is nothing wrong with being taken down a few notches.

Sports agent, fought allegations of sexual harassment

People yearn to love Barry Bonds, so it's within his power to recapture public opinion at any time. He just has to prove he understands the correct standard of behavior. He has to be sorry he failed the public and to take steps to make sure he doesn't fail them again. Once he's done that, he will no longer have to revisit it constantly. But if he tries to weasel out or avoid owning up to his behavior, people will go after him endlessly.

You gotta commit. "Take Britney Spears," says publicist Shawn Sachs of Ken Sunshine Consultants, who reps guys like Leo and Affleck. "We're pretty good at what we do, but if she keeps going out every night wearing what she does, we can't help her." Same goes for you, stud. "Publicists will try to reintroduce their client to the public," says Sachs, "but you can only do that so many times. The public doesn't like being lied to."


We know you're tough, Barry, but it's your human side that's your path to redemption. To get the fans back, you have to acknowledge your warts. Just ask Tom Ortenberg, a big fish at Lionsgate Films (home of Saw and Fahrenheit 9/11). "Like most movie heroes, all of us are flawed," he says. "That's why flawed characters make such good movie subjects -- people relate. But the key is we want to see flawed heroes redeem themselves. As long as redemption happens, we're very forgiving." You see, Mr. Big-Time, if you really want to be a hero, it's time to admit you're just like the rest of us, give or take the killer bat speed. There is precedent for this, according to Barry Levinson, director of The Natural. "Great talent and flawed character, that's the struggle for a lot of athletes," he says. "Take Roy Hobbs. Here's this fair-haired golden boy who went astray, then has to battle his demons and try to put his career back together. Mickey Mantle was the golden boy from Oklahoma who struggled with alcoholism. When someone understands his character flaws and is willing to deal with them openly, we as fans have the tendency to embrace him." So throw us a bone, Barry. Spearhead another Bonds on Bonds opportunity, pronto, and this time show the cameras more than how you pump iron and feed your fish.


The emotional interview is a hallmark of image rehab. The question is, which A-list talking head gets to share your newfound vulnerability with you? You want someone friendly, but with lots of gravitas. "Try to get the Oprah sit-down," says Sachs. "Would she do it? Maybe. But you can't go into these things spinning the story." Mark Geller, a marketing guru at Paramount Vantage studio, the producers of An Inconvenient Truth, agrees -- with a word of caution. "If Oprah is a fan, she'll take care of you," he says. "But don't sit down with a journalist if you know that journalist is going to be hostile." Listen up, Barry: This guy helped inch Al Gore toward cool.


Openness is good, but it doesn't mean you should start making the chat-show rounds. No need to gab with the girls on The View. In fact, Sitrick would go the opposite direction to revive your credibility. "I'd have him do 60 Minutes, because nobody accuses those guys of being softball," he says. "The media has a herd mentality -- they look to their peers. You want a 'lead-steer' interview, so select a journalist they respect. I wouldn't go to Oprah, she's not tough enough." You may want to stay away from Mike Wallace, though. We hear he's crankier than Lou Piniella.


Honesty is all well and good, but if you're not willing to talk about yourself (and frankly, given the rumors, we understand), there are other options -- specifically, redirecting attention elsewhere. "Put the focus on other sluggers," says Matthew Hiltzik, a publicist for Alec Baldwin and Katie Couric. "Remind people that this is about the history of the game, not one man. Get people thinking about Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. Make this thing about the history of the home run. Where it is, where it's been, where it's going." Which also means getting a little help from your peers. Ask other players to help broaden the focus. Barry Zito, for instance. He likes you, right? (Yes, he does; see "Barry Just Needs to Be Barry," page 54.)


No matter the problem, there's always a well-timed stint at Promises Malibu to smooth it over. "The minute he pulls within one homer of Aaron's record, any publicist worth her crisis-managing retainer would send Bonds off to 'rehab,'" says Mark Lisanti, editor of Defamer, the blog in which most Hollywood gossip gains traction. "The reason can remain nebulous.

'Substance addiction' can mean whatever one wants it to mean." We admit that strategy didn't exactly change the public's opinion of Britney or Lindsay, and it may sound a little drastic, but you, Barry, you could make the most out of a month on the shelf. "Upon satisfactorily completing his 28 days of soul-searching, he will emerge a new man, show off a head that has shrunk two full hat sizes and humbly resume his chase." Okay, we're not sure where he got that hat-size thing, but Lisanti is on to something: "His very public struggle with those undefined demons could gain him some sympathy with baseball fans." Hey, it's working for Robert Downey, Jr. Iron Man looks hot.


Normally, with your image rehabbed, our impulse would be to create as much of a splash as possible leading up to your big day. But, let's be honest, there are a lot of haters out there. So in the days leading up to your momentous swing, it's probably best to keep your head down. Try, if you can, to quietly be the bigger man. "Our job is to create a fever for our opening weekend," says Paramount's Geller. "But here, you have conflicting feelings about that because of how polarizing Barry is and the sensitivity of the record. I don't know that there's a better way of handling this than sort of letting it happen." In other words, Bondsy, let's just get this thing over with.


Fact is, big guy, your story will one day be a movie, and you can either get in on the action or buy a ticket like everyone else. There's no time like the present to prepare for your post-baseball close-up. Listen to producer J.C. Spink (A History of Violence, Red Eye), who thinks getting fans to reconsider their hatred for you sets the table for an image-defining biopic.

"This is a guy who loves his family, loves his kids," says Spink. "Whether or not we want to believe it, he's not evil. This is what he should show people." And what would your life-as-a-movie look like? "I'd tell the story from two sides," Spink continues. "I'd have Terrence Howard play Bonds -- he's so unlikable you need someone with built-in empathy to play him. Home in on the moral quandary. Make it about two characters and two viewpoints, Bonds and a newspaper reporter pursuing the story. Get Tom Hanks for that part. This is a mystery a much as a character study. Did Bonds use knowingly, or didn't he? Market it to two different audiences: 'Meet the man who broke the record,' and 'Meet the man who will find the truth.' " Brilliant!

Even if 756* flops, don't get discouraged, kiddo. Time is the best healer.

"Remember, movies are sometimes perceived one way when they open and another way years later," says Lionsgate's Ortenberg. "Whatever the perception of Bonds is now, it can change." So keep swingin' for the fences and mull our advice, slugger. We'll give this thing legs yet.

Click here to subscribe to the magazine.