Thursday, September 27, 2007

They Came To Praise Barry, Not To Censure Him

Last night, the most hated man in baseball -- and the most talented player I've ever seen -- played his last game as a San Francisco Giant. A sell-out crowd of nearly 43,000 people watched, standing and cheering his every at-bat, and cheering the video tributes that were presented before and after the game and in between each half-inning. It was, simply put, the end of an era.

I know many people are happy to see Barry Bonds go -- and some of them think he should have been shown the door a long time ago -- but I'm not writing this to rip either him or the Giants. Yes, I think it's time for him to go as well, but I look back on the 15 years he spent in a San Francisco uniform, and most of the memories I have are positive ones. He was exciting to watch, and he could change a game with one swing of the bat. He's the only member of the 500-500 club (500 home runs, 500 steals), and has hit more home runs than Willie Mays, Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron. He had a great career with the Giants.

One of my most enduring memories was seeing the Giants clinch the NLCS against the Cardinals in 2002, putting them in the World Series for the first time since 1989. The emotion that ran through the stadium with the final out of that last NLCS game was electrifying -- and that would not have happened without Bonds on the team. That World Series looked as if it would finally give Bonds the championship ring he had wanted his whole career -- until Game 6, when Robb Nen's arm, which had been held together with baling wire and Blackjack chewing gum up until that point, finally gave out. The Giants had the game won... until the Angels came back against Nen and snatched victory away, tearing the hearts out of the fans and the players, and effectively ending Dusty Baker's tenure as Giants manager. It was the closest Bonds got -- and probably ever will get -- to a ring. That season still hurts me, and I'm sure it always will.

A lot of people complain that Bonds is aloof and arrogant, that he treats fans and the media disdainfully (to put it mildly). Is he a jerk in regular life? Probably, but he's certainly not alone in that among the elite of any sport or entertainment industry. Would I want to hang out with him? No. Then again, there are very few baseball players I would want to hang out with. Most of them are less-than-brilliant, full-of-themselves individuals who tend toward conservative politics and heavy doses of Jesus. I don't watch baseball because of who the players are as individuals, but because I love the game. And for many years, Barry played it better than anyone alive. Did he take steroids? Probably. Do I care? No. He did the same thing that dozens -- if not hundreds -- of other players did at the time (and some still are); and if steroids were all it took to make a player great, we'd all be talking today about the mighty feats that players such as Marvin Benard, Bobby Estelella, Armando Rios and Jeremy Giambi had accomplished over the past five or six years. Honestly, I don't give a skinny (or artificially bulked-up) rat's ass whether he did or not, I was just happy to see the team win in the many years that Bonds played for them.

Of course, that's the rub now. The team has endured three losing seasons in a row, and Bonds' skills have declined precipitously. Though he's still a good hitter, he doesn't strike fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers and managers the way he did just a couple years back. For $18 million a year, I would think the club could find a couple of younger guys with some pop in their bats and the ability to run down balls in the outfield or leg out a single or steal more than two or three bases a season. It's time for the Giants to rebuild, maybe two or three years past time. But you couldn't have convinced too many fans attending last night of that. Even with Bonds going 0-for-3, they were unconditional in their adoration of him in his final game, cheering and yelling and waving signs. After his final at-bat, when he hit a ball to the warning track that some thought at first might go out, he waved to the crowd, went back to the dugout, came out again for one final curtain call, then headed into the clubhouse and was gone before the game even ended. The final score, 11-3 Padres, coupled with Barry's early departure, seemed to illustrate the Giants' 2007 season in microcosm.

I always found the dichotomy of the Barry-haters interesting. Perhaps the most illustrative of that was the trip Mrs. Generik and I made to Boston in June for the inter-league series against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. For three games, the fans there booed Bonds unmercifully, calling him a cheater and holding up disparaging signs and plastic syringes and foam rubber asterisks. In his third at-bat in the final game, he hit a long home run to right field, and all those same fans who had been booing him just moments before dropped their signs and their asterisks and stood up and cheered. They hated him, but they all wanted to see him hit one out.

Announcer Mike Krukow told a story about that same series on the radio last night that sort of makes the same point (I'm paraphrasing here). He said that as he and the rest of the broadcast team were leaving the stadium, a Red Sox fan approached them on Yawkey Way, saying that the Giants had "the biggest bum in baseball on their team." "That guy, Bonds," he said to them with contempt, "is a bum!" Krukow told the guy that the Red Sox had just announced a deal with the Giants after the conclusion of the game, and that Barry would soon be joining the Boston club. "Really?" the guy asked, his eyes lighting up, obviously excited. "We're getting Bonds?"

Everybody hates him, but they love to see him hit the long ball.

The question now is what happens next year? Personally, I think he should retire as a Giant, and make this the end of his career. He's said he wants to keep playing, and wants to pursue 3000 hits (he's less than two hundred short), but where would he go? I don't believe that there will be much demand for him in the off-season, though it's always possible that he could show up as a DH next year in a Texas Rangers or Baltimore Oriole (or some other second-tier American League team) uniform. Though I don't think it's likely, maybe George Steinbrenner will discover a couple pallets of money just burning a hole in a warehouse somewhere and decide to put Barry in pinstripes. To mis-quote H. L. Mencken, nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American baseball club owner.

Whatever happens, he'll never play another game for the San Francisco Giants. It's been a hell of a ride, but I'm okay with that.
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