Bad News Barry: Will Bonds Find a Home in 2007?

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Bad News Barry: Will Bonds Find a Home in 2007?
A number of news sources have reported that Barry Bonds made a surprise appearance at the baseball winter meetings today.  The reason that this came as such a shock is that generally players of Bonds' caliber only show up if a major deal is being announced. Barry, on the other hand, was presumably in Florida to court an employer, for he has yet to sign a contract for the upcoming season.

Intent on breaking Hank Aaron's record (he's 22 homers shy), Bonds needs a home...and if in-person meetings are the way to do it, so be it. But it's not at all clear that the personal cameo is going to make any kind of difference. Indeed, many insiders have speculated that Bonds' agent may be exaggerating both the number of teams interested in Bonds and the levels of interest expressed by them.
 
Though it's hard to imagine Bonds not landing with a team in 2007, the tepid response to his availability is one way in which baseball seems to be making a statement about the high profile players of the Steroid Era.

One can hardly think about Bonds' current predicament without seeing flashes of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.  Though he continues to avoid the spotlight, McGwire has been all over the news recently as the first Steroid-Era superstar to be listed on the Hall of Fame ballot.  Many argue that the slugger should be shut out of Cooperstown because his biggest accomplishment - breaking Roger Maris' home run record - is a tarnished one.  The counterargument is that the Hall of Fame documents both the good and the bad of baseball history, and that McGwire's pursuit of Maris brought the sport back to life.  Many contest that McGwire was a star player who rejuvenated the national pastime...and that that alone is enough to earn him a plaque.
 
The ongoing debate certainly foreshadows the one that will emerge during what is likely to be Bonds' record-breaking season.   Bonds is on the verge of making baseball history, and by any conventional measure is the greatest player of his era.  In fact, signing Barry would seem to be a boon to any team: a big name player who will attract more fans, enhance publicity, and provide the opportunity for a franchise to be part of history.  Plus, there's nothing like a dominant power hitter to make each at-bat exciting. 
 
So why doesn't anyone want him?
 
Maybe Bonds is this year's Sammy Sosa, and teams have learned from the mistake that the Baltimore Orioles made when they signed Slammin' Sammy in 2005.  In that season, Sosa was expected to be both a power hitter and a guy who could bring excitement back to a town that hadn't seen a contender since the mid-90's.  Instead, he finished with a batting average of .221 and only 14 home runs.  It was Sosa's worst season in more than ten years, and though he claims to be healthy and ready to play again in 2007, he isn't high on anyone's offseason wish list.

Bonds wasn't the only big name visitor at the winter meetings this year.  Cal Ripken Jr., also on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time, was there to market his new turf company.  When asked about the Hall of Fame controversy surrounding McGwire, Ripken replied, "I understand the interest, I understand the debate that's going on right now. I personally don't want to be drawn into that. I don't feel comfortable judging anyone in that particular debate. I'm not qualified."

These are easy words for Ripken, a man who will be voted in both for his on-field accomplishments and for his consecutive-games record, which many view as the saving grace of the Steroid Era.  Such positive PR goes a long way towards explaining why Ripken will go into Cooperstown on the first ballot despite career numbers that pale in comparison to Bonds' (or McGwire's, for that matter).  Indeed, what has evolved is a debate over what makes a player worthy of the Hall of Fame.  Is a major personal accomplishment enough?  Should overall stats play a more crucial role?  Should a player's leadership role and reputation be factored in?  At the very least, Bonds presence at the winter meetings suggests that reputation may be the sole factor when it comes to signing a controversial superstar.

In all fairness, it's worth noting that Bonds has other strikes against him besides the steroid rumors. He is, for example, both expensive and injury-prone—but then again so is J.D. Drew, and he just signed a monster contract with the Red Sox.  Plenty of teams are going to take risks with their rosters and their checkbooks by signing players with questionable durability.  The difference with Bonds: Not even a poor sport like Drew can tarnish a whole team's image.

There's never been any doubt that Bonds is a great baseball player...just like no one's ever doubted McGwire's skills.  However, the lesson here seems pretty obvious: Talent and stature alone aren't enough to get a player signed anymore.  Bonds is coming off a good season and is standing on the doorstep of history, but he can't find any takers. The problem, it seems, is that team presidents aren't just looking for a particular kind of player these days; they're looking for a particular kind of person.

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