|Are you having fun yet, Barry?|
By David Halberstam
Special to Page 2
I am sitting here at home watching The Great Narcissist at bat, and he is as good as advertised, perhaps the best player in the game these days, perhaps -- who can really tell about these things? -- the best player ever over the last two years.
The Great Narcissist takes two steps toward first base, pauses and watches adoringly as the ball disappears, adoration on his part worthy of Michelangelo after finishing the Sistine Chapel. The pause at this moment, as we have all come to learn, is very long, plenty of time for the invisible but zen-like moment of appreciation when Barry Bonds psychically high-fives Barry Bonds and reassures him once again that there's no one quite like him in baseball. It is a perfect scene for the modern era of sports, the wondrous me-me-me of it all. There is a moment there where he must be wondering if he's as wonderful as he thinks, and the answer, of course, is yes.
And then he continues to circle the bases. Ever so slowly, I might add. Lest any of us at home take the opportunity to go to the bathroom, he will still be circling the bases when we get back. It is surely the slowest home-run jog I have ever seen. I think that Major League Baseball, which keeps records of almost everything else, should keep records on this, timing the home-run trots so we can tell who is the best (read: the slowest) ever at it. I blame Bud Selig for this, too, for not establishing a record here. I clocked TGN once, but, of course, it's unofficial. I didn't even have a stopwatch, but it seemed like 62 seconds to me, which surely must have been a record.
In all fairness, however, it's hard to time Bonds' home-run trots properly, because the TV people are inadequately respectful to him, and they keep switching the camera to other people -- the fans, Jeff Kent, the opposing pitcher, Dusty Baker, Mike Scioscia, the many children in the nursery in the Giants dugout and the requisite pretty girl wearing Giant orange.
I watched it all, and to tell the truth, who I missed was Bob Gibson. Here's what Gibson would have done the first time Barry Bonds took him deep, and then did his self-adoration look and then his home-run strut. He would have knocked Barry Bonds on his butt the next time up. (And if this had caused a fight, would anyone have run out of the Giants dugout to take up Barry's side? I think not.) The strut would be, in Gibson's book, disrespectful. Gibson is and was a man who cared a great deal about respect. The way Barry Bonds behaves would be more than a misdemeanor to Gibson, but rather a felony for showing the pitcher up. The ensuing knockdown would be done as a favor for the fans, for Gibson's teammates, for Bonds' Giants teammates, and most important of all, for Barry Bonds himself, who surely would be a better person after being singled out for such an honor.
I got to know Gibson about eight years ago, when I was working on a book on the Yankees and the Cardinals in the 1964 Series. He was and is in all ways an admirable man -- smart, funny, elegant, strong, proud, with a profound sense of the etiquette of the sport and a belief that it was the players themselves who were the keepers of and the teachers of etiquette, and there were things you did and things you did not do. He was, in the best sense of his sport, a combination of fire and ice, and when I wrote a book about Michael Jordan, I signed a copy for Gibson which said, "The player he reminds me most of is you."
I should state a couple of things here: (a) I had no great rooting interest in this Series at the start, which was among other things for the California State Title and I'm an East Coast guy, but it was a superb Series; (b) all things begin equal, I favored the Angels because of the terrific way that they had come into New York and handled the Yankees, playing baseball as it should be played, and maximizing every at-bat, but that was hardly a deep rooting passion on my part, (and by the way, I want the dreaded rally monkey gone, out of here right now, send it where it belongs, to that stupid domed ballpark in Minneapolis); (c) this is not a bandwagon piece, and most of it was written on Saturday during Game 6 when it looked like the Giants were going to win; (d) it should be great fun for someone like me to take pleasure from what Bonds has done. I'm an old guy, and he's an old guy, and I often root for the old guy these days.
Besides, I tend to admire athletes who work hard and get better late in their careers. He's a brilliant hitter, he's zoned in as I don't think I've ever seen a hitter locked in before, and he dominates the game, casting a shadow on it, even when he's not up, as I've never seen a power hitter do in the past. He's strong, his eye is magnificent -- worthy of a Williams, or a Musial -- his pitch selection is awesome, and yet he manages to take the fun out of the game for me, and many others. Simply stated, it's hard to root for Barry, because it's hard to admire him as much as he admires himself. He might be athletically a work of art, but even more accurately, he's a piece of work.
In Game 6, he hit another Bondsian home run, but the Giants did not win, and afterward the reporters came by to talk to him. Reporters, as we know, are impertinent (even if it did look like the on-field reporters were already showing a good deal of suck in their questions midway during the Series, adjusting themselves for the dilemma of dealing with him if the Giants won). But reporters are often difficult, and as many a baseball player and national security official knows, a free society like ours would surely be better without them. So if baseball's authorities can invent the DH, why can't they invent the DR, the Designated Reporter, someone chosen by Major League Baseball, questions to be written out by the players and owners and managers themselves, and answers supplied by the above as well. I think it might be a lot better that way, and it would certainly take some of the heavy burden off Barry.
See, you have to understand something that only a handful of great athletes understand -- the reporters questioning the ballplayers do not make nearly as much money as the players, and they're not as big physically. Well, if they made as much money as Bonds did, that might be another thing. So again, I put the blame on Bud Selig, and, of course, Peter Magowan, and Dusty Baker, because of the burden they've placed on Barry, letting so many people invade his space after a game, separating him from his God-given right to privacy. I think he has a right to dress in a locker room all his own, no reporters allowed before or after the game, and, if need be, to play in a ballpark all his own, with no fans or media people there to distract him. And no newspaper would be allowed to write about what happened in his lonely little ballpark.
It reminds me of a story of the early Kennedy years, when the Kennedy people were feeling very cocky and generally full of themselves, and Ted Sorensen, who was a top White House aide, started bullying a young and not very well known White House correspondent from the New York Times named Tom Wicker. Scotty Reston was the Washington bureau chief for the Times then, an admirable and very tough-minded man who had already won the Pulitzer Prize twice, and one day he sought Sorensen out, and he said very simply, "Ted, we were here before you got here, and we'll be here after you've gone." That, by the way, turned out to be true -- Sorensen left Washington relatively soon afterward, and Wicker became a columnist and then, in due time, the Washington bureau chief.
I feel much the same way. I've been doing this -- writing and reporting for a living -- for a long time, and I don't want to find another line of work, probably any more than Barry does. Nor do, I suspect, any number of young sportswriters who work very hard because it's what they love to do, and don't need someone bigger, stronger, richer and more famous trying to intimidate them from doing their job. And that, by the way, is all too typical of Barry Bonds over a very long period of time. There are a lot of stories out there, and they are of a kind -- of a great athlete who takes a surprising amount of pleasure from the leverage he has as a star to use his power against people less powerful and less influential, just for the pleasure of showing he has the juice to do it.
Anyway when I read what he had suggested, I pondered (ever so briefly) giving up my career, and then I went back and decided to compare my own curriculum vitae with his, and it's an interesting study. The year Bonds' godfather Willie Mays broke in, 1951, was the year when I started working my way through college, some of it as a college newspaper stringer, and I got my first byline in a major metropolitan paper, the Boston Globe. The year and month Barry was born, July 1964, I had just come back from my first tour of Vietnam and was working in Philadelphia, Miss., the scariest place I've ever been in, more dangerous -- or, at least, more threatening -- even than Vietnam, and there were a lot of people who wanted me and the other journalists there, all of us terrified, of course, to change our professions and go into another line of work, and almost all of them were members of the Ku Klux Klan. The year Barry's father, Bobby, broke in was 1968, the year when both Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were killed, and I covered all of that. So I'm not changing my line of work; if anything, if my health holds, I intend to be writing long after Barry has had his last swing, and I hope my younger colleagues will feel the same way, and believe that when we were given these wonderful First Amendment freedoms, the Founding Fathers thought that we were as important to the country's future as any future athletic hero.
What I really think is so unfortunate about all of this is that it should be fun to cheer for him, someone playing so well so late in his career, but it isn't. Even more, it doesn't look like there's very much fun in it for him. I've watched closely over the last year, and in sharp contrast to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in their hour of fame, for instance, I don't think it's a cumulative portrait of a man having a very good time. Brilliant at what he does, yes, but enjoying it ... I don't think so.
My friend Johnny Bach, the basketball coach who used to coach in Chicago, who now coaches the Washington Wizards, and who was one of Michael Jordan's favorite coaches, used to say about Michael, a throwaway line really, that when Michael was playing, it never looked like he was doing it because some judge had sentenced him to play basketball. Regrettably, that's a fairly incisive thing to say about all too many of our contemporary athletes, and especially about Barry Bonds.
Something's wrong here when someone who is that gifted generates as little pleasure among the wider world of baseball; I've never seen any position player dominate games the way he's dominating them now, but he also seems to be signaling in some bizarre way that he'd rather be somewhere else. He might think all of this is part of a war with the media, but to me it looks like something very different, part of an old unresolved war with himself.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 best sellers, including "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made," "The Best and the Brightest," "The Powers That Be," "The Reckoning" and "Summer of '49," writes occasionally for Page 2.