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|The game won't come as easily to Bonds as when he was standing in the batter's box.|
This story appears in the June 25 Debate Issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
WHEN HE WAS at his zenith in 2004 -- fortified by a 232-walk, 45-home-run season, a streak of four consecutive MVP awards and a reputation as the most fearsome offensive player since Babe Ruth -- Barry Bonds was untouchable, more powerful than his manager, his owner, the commissioner and the union. Three years before he would be exorcised from baseball, he was convinced he would never need the sport's acceptance or cooperation. "When my time in the game is up, you missed the show," he once said. "You'll never see me again."
Nearly a decade later, Bonds again wants to be seen. He recently showed up in the stands of a Giants game representing Big Brothers Big Sisters and told
He is not an easy man to forgive. Bonds made it clear throughout his 22-year career that he did not care about the karmic notion that nice matters. He was the heir to Willie Mays and his father, Bobby, both of whom told him the game would always screw him as it did Bobby many times. So he took out his rages on friends, foes and strangers alike. And when the game went power mad with a steroid culture that overshadowed the beautiful five-tool way he played, he joined in and beat them all, putting up inflated, dishonest numbers that even his fellow cheaters couldn't touch. The media, feds and grand juries eventually came, forcing Bonds to admit he used PEDs, with one important caveat -- he said he thought steroids were flaxseed oil. He seemed always a step ahead of jail.
But if Bonds believes he can return to the game at his will, on his terms, because it was never proved that he knowingly took steroids, it is he who missed the show. The Giants declined to re-sign him following 2007 -- after he passed Henry Aaron on the home run list -- not only because of drugs but because of who he was: a malcontent. Even though his skills were still very much in evidence (he had a 1.045 OPS at age 43) and he wanted to keep playing, no one else wanted to sign him either. Those he scorned paid him back in the cruelest way possible, by ignoring him.
Bonds was not the first great exiled from the ballpark. Ruth was never allowed re-entry after retiring in 1935, save for a stint as a first base coach for the Dodgers in 1938. He died in 1948, heartbroken and frozen out of the
Still, the hypocrisies in Bonds' case are enormous. The Giants sent Bonds away, but not before they cynically allowed him to break Aaron's all-time home run record first to help pay for their perfect stadium by the bay. Bonds is held as a symbol of the dishonest era baseball wants to put behind it, but Mark McGwire was allowed back into the family. Bonds' records will always have an asterisk next to them in the minds of many fans, but Ryan Braun's accomplishments are largely untarnished.
It is perhaps a sign of Bonds' good will that he has not pointed out these inconsistencies. Or perhaps he just doesn't want to further sabotage his Hall of Fame hopes; he joins the ballot for the first time this winter. In any event, during his recent cameo at AT&T Park, he admitted that his reputation is "iffy." He even referred to himself as a convicted felon, albeit with another important caveat -- he wasn't convicted of knowingly using steroids. "That's who I am," he said.
There is a huge contingent of Giants fans who still love who he is. There is also a front office that remembers the divisiveness and has enjoyed the past five years without him; life at the park has been quieter, more peaceful. It is why Bonds' overtures to the Giants have not been returned with a job offer. For now, it appears they do not see a need for him.
It appears that nice matters after all.
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