Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Baseball [Print without images]

Monday, November 15, 2004
Mr. Popularity

By Ray Ratto
Special to ESPN.com

The scene was by any stretch surreal. Barry Bonds flew into St. Louis to receive the National League half of the Hank Aaron Award before Game 4 of the World Series, and was taken to a media gathering to do a handshake-and-trophy-exchange with the man himself.

No questions were taken. This was a photo op only, made necessary in the minds of Bonds and the San Francisco Giants by the latest BALCO revelations -- you know, the one where Bonds' trainer, Greg Anderson, was apparently caught on audio tape saying that Bonds had possessed the offending steroid-enhanced glop.

Barry Bonds
His star status aside, Barry Bonds continues to live in a most secret world.

Bonds was then taken to the field to be re-presented the award, whereupon the Cardinal fans, already in foul humor given their team's stunning acquiescence to the Boston Red Sox, booed Bonds both liberally and aggressively, while largely applauding the American League winner, Manny Ramirez, who was still beating their favorite team's brains in at the time.

In other words, it has sunk to this for Bonds. He is now officially a cardboard cutout of himself. In moments of triumph, like the Aaron award, he is hustled out of the room with everything but an overcoat over his head, choosing not to engage the media on any level because he has to hurry outside so that the regular folk can hail him like a conquering flu virus.

All the hens have come home finally to roost. The single dominant baseball figure of the past two decades is now a figure of scorn, borne of his sometimes diffident, sometimes combative, sometimes charming and sometimes controversially magnetic public image -- his connection with the steroid scandal and his general persona notwithstanding.

He has chosen this path, seemingly with eyes wide open and aware of the dangers, and he will hold to this path into retirement, and very likely beyond.

Indeed, his seventh NL Most Valuable Player award is part of this, the end game of his career. His greatness and capacity for instilling fear is saluted with yet another brass and mahogany bauble, but he can only take the trophy in passing because the unpleasantness is always at his back.

He doesn't want to talk about his apparent culpability in the scandal of the age. The Giants, who are in this mess up to their necks, don't want to. And baseball very definitely doesn't want to.

As a result, Bonds has been reduced in this, his last few years of triumph, to be a stealth figure. He comes, he bats, he walks (or homers), and then he disappears.

But don't feel sad for him, for this is the public life he chose, and it is one he seems ultimately confident of completing. Many athletes have chosen a combative persona over the decades, the better to do their jobs while keeping the green flies away, but almost all of them soften their stance near the end, because the energy it takes to remain defiantly aloof wears upon all but the most stubborn figures.

Bonds is one of those most stubborn figures. Oh, he craves acceptance, don't be fooled. He would like to be held in Aaron's esteem, or Willie Mays', or Frank Robinson's, or Stan Musial's, but it cannot be for him. So he tacks the other way, choosing devotion through distance.

He can rationalize his image as the media's revenge, although he forgets how servile and compliant the media was during his 73-homer season or his brilliant 2002 postseason, and he ignores the fact that he has always regarded it as either a tool to be used or an annoyance like dry rot.

Which is fine. He has been given more than his due as a player over the years, the reward for being a magnificent player in one of our nation's most egalitarian pursuits.

Besides, being a media darling isn't nearly what it's cracked up to be. It is less than the bother athletes make it out to be, but it is also less than the ticket to ride that it can be. See Ray Lewis and Terrell Owens for further edification.

The point here is a simple one. Bonds has hit a P.R. cul de sac, a cone of self-enforced silence on the one end, and the baying jackals at the other. And he seems utterly comfortable with the cone of silence. He is what he always said he wanted to be -- judged by his numbers, free in his mind of the benefits and punishments of the outside world. He wins his trophies and honoraria, and then he is hustled out of the room as quickly as good taste and manners will allow.

Sad? No. Just desserts? Frankly, a personal call to be made by every person individually.

Mostly, it is what it is, the story of a man whose enjoyments were private, whose perceived slights were public, and who will be viewed coldly and without sympathy as the finest player of his age.

Could be worse, of course. Then again, it could also be better. Either way, same as it ever was, like the philosopher says. Same as it ever was.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com