I am deeply uncomfortable when I see Barry Bonds playing in front of a hostile crowd away from home. It’s understandable why he is unpopular. It appears that he took steroids. He is a huge prima donna, notoriously surly and probably not that nice of a guy. Fine. But none of that explains the absolute rancor with which he is often greeted. It’s not the boos that make me uneasy; it’s the magnitude of the vehemence that is spewed at him by fans, who are, in most cases, white.
I’m not saying that every person who doesn’t like Barry Bonds is a racist. But to say that the public reaction to him has nothing to do with race is being stupidly optimistic. It’s all about race. If this were a white guy trying to break Aaron’s record under a cloud of steroid allegations, if this were Mark McGwire (who, by most accounts, was not exactly the nicest guy either; he wouldn’t sign autographs for kids unless they called him “Mr. McGwire”), sure, he’d get booed. Sure, he’d be unpopular. But would the attacks on him by the media and by fans be as poisonous? I really don’t think so.
In my mind, there are some interesting parallels between Barry and O.J. Simpson. Both black sports stars, accused of doing something reprehensible which, in all probability, he probably did. And as before, certain white people (or, more fairly, non-black Americans) will absolutely deny that public sentiments have anything to do with race. I don’t think some of these people realize how deep rooted their own biases run; the worst thing is that they aren’t self-aware to the point that they can realize that their own emotions are arising out of certain latent prejudices.
The difference is that Barry Bonds didn’t murder anyone. Even if you assume all the allegations are true, he is guilty of taking a performance enhancing drug, which 1.) baseball was deliberately turning a blind eye to at the time, 2.) a preponderance of other players were also taking, and 3.) he is no longer taking now, and still performing at an elite level. He was taking every advantage he could, borderline legitimate or not, to gain an edge in his chosen profession. It was a stupid mistake. It’s dishonorable to the game of baseball. But I don’t think it’s that much different from lying on a resume or cheating on a test in high school. (Neither of which I have ever done or would condone in any way, by the way. But I’m sure that you probably have a friend or two who has.)
Bottom line, Barry Bonds is, steroids or not, a once in a generation athlete. He has been flirting with greatness, something magnificent that goes beyond stardom. His achievements have been diminished, sadly, by these allegations, and if they are true, then deservedly so. And what I feel is disappointment, a pang of regret on his behalf. His life has all the elements of Shakespearean tragedy. And I can understand if some people feel deceived, if they feel a twinge of anger. But when those feelings turn to self-righteous indignation, when distaste turns to loathing, one has to stop and wonder exactly what additional ingredient is feeding that flame of revulsion. Smells like racial bias to me.