Barry Bonds in Twilight: Re-Emerging to a Less Judgmental Generation

J.R. Gamble@@FANalyst1Special to Bleacher ReportAugust 7, 2015

Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today

This past spring, Barry Bonds didn't reprise his somewhat scene-stealing cameo as special hitting instructor at the Giants' 2014 spring training camp. The Giants, however, are looking toward a more meaningful return to the fold for Bonds.

"Noted players have contributed to the franchise," team CEO Larry Baer told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We're trying to make him consistent with his godfather (Willie Mays) and others."

This might irk Hall of Fame voters and public judges, but if you talk to baseball folks, you'll see a climate that, if anything, veers toward welcoming.

Eight years ago, as Bonds inched closer to Hank Aaron's all-time home run record, the hate for a prolific slugger—a man also viewed as a suspected steroids cheat and considered a bad dude—grew to unprecedented proportions.

It seemed like nobody in the world outside of San Francisco wanted Bonds to be the guy to break Aaron's coveted mark.

In a game against the Brewers on July 20, 2007, Milwaukee fans at Miller Park planned to protest Bonds' appearance. The plan was to pass out more than 100 sheets of paper with asterisks on them. For baseball fans, it was a clear message that the San Francisco slugger's pursuit of Aaron's record was tainted.

Check any "Most Hated" list from 2005 to 2009, when Bonds was forced into retirement, and the surly savant was prominently placed.

A GQ article from 2005, "The Ten Most Hated Athletes," illustrates how reviled Bonds was in the baseball community at this time:

At no time in recorded history have coaches and teammates spoken admiringly of Barry Bonds' interpersonal skills. Bonds himself concedes that at every level he's played, from high school to the pros, people have said he's had a bad attitude. His coach at Arizona State described him as "rude, inconsiderate, and self-centered," adding, "I never saw a teammate care about him." In 1989, beat writers dubbed Bonds, then a budding star in Pittsburgh, his team's "MDP"—most despised player.

"He has the world's biggest chip on his shoulder," says a reporter who's covered him. "He's got a screw loose. One day he'll be smiling and friendly. The next he'll be A-----e Barry."

The closer Bonds got to the record, the more fan- and media-manipulated hate soared. It didn't help that, as former UC Berkeley sociology professor and organizer of the 1968 Olympic Games' "black fist" moment Harry Edwards said in a 2006 USA Today article, Bonds' abrasive and cocky demeanor, as well as his "reluctance to nurture his public image," hindered him.

"Barry has never really cultivated the media and cultured the media the way Magic Johnson did and Michael Jordan did or the way Tiger Woods has done," Edwards said. "So he doesn't have the reserve of public relations capital to call upon."

The hate mail came in droves. The letters containing death threats were sent to the league's security officials. Despite the hate, Bonds kept his swag and stuck to his story, refusing to admit to knowingly using PEDs and fighting vehemently in court to clear his name.

While most suspected PED cheats eventually gave up the fight and copped to it, Bonds' arrogance in refusing to admit his guilt and the fact that he can smugly say he never failed a test only further incensed his detractors.

"Doctors ought to quit worrying about what ballplayers are taking," Bonds told the Associated Press in a 2002 interview (h/t USA Today). "What players take doesn't matter. It's nobody else's business. The doctors should spend their time looking for cures for cancer. It takes more than muscles to hit homers. If all those guys were using stuff, how come they're not all hitting homers?"

It was a great question that never got answered, and it made his accusers even more anxious to discredit him.

And then, from his "Slugout in the Dugout" with teammate Jeff Kent in 2002 to his berating of managers and beat writers, Bonds built a legion of haters longer than any tape-measure shot he hit in his heyday. Despite never failing a drug test, his recent Hall of Fame failure is part of a direct message sent by voters as to how they perceive the most visible and unapologetic culprit of MLB's darkest hour.

Following the 2007 season, a 43-year-old Bonds led baseball in OBP (.480) and walks (132) but didn't receive a single offer from a team to suit up the following season. His stats were killer, but Bonds' PR was at an all-time low. He was toxic.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 16:  Former Major League Baseball player Barry Bonds (C) is flanked by security guards as he leaves federal court following a sentencing hearing on December 16, 2011 in San Francisco, California.  Bonds was sentenced to 30 day
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Fast-forward to 2015, and some folks still consider Bonds a stain on the game, especially the ones who were vexed to see his 2011 obstruction-of-justice conviction concerning his 2003 testimony on PEDs overturned by the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in April.

The majority of baseball nation, however, especially the young ballers, seems to be able to separate Bonds The Juicer/Jerk from Bonds "the only guy in MLB history with at least 500 homers and 500 steals."

Now that the public outcry about steroids has subsided, some of baseball's fallen legends (Bonds included) are reintroducing themselves to a younger generation and getting back into the game in some capacity. So far, nobody's objecting to itregardless of their parents' past or present feelings about the entire PED drama.

Ballers like Jon Jay and Matt Adams of the St. Louis Cardinals and Lucas Duda and John Mayberry Jr. of the New York Mets were all high school standouts with big league dreams when Bonds was accumulating homers as fast as he was enemies. Now they are the tastemakers and veterans of the same league Bonds once dominated. They were in awe of Bonds as baseball babies, and the respect for his prowess remains intact.

Mayberry Jr. is a smart guy. His pops played in the pros, and he graduated from Stanford with a political science degree in 2006. The 31-year-old Mets outfielder says Bonds was "must-see TV for me. Going to college in the Bay Area, I made it my business to try to make it up to see the Giants when I could. He mastered the game."

Cardinals outfielder Jay, 30, was in high school in Miami when Bonds was destroying the record books.

"What I remember is guys not pitching to him and him finding a way to capitalize on that one mistake they made," Jay said. "I still vividly remember those dominating games."

Duda, 29, said, "In my view, I think he's the best to ever do it. I remember watching him on TV growing up in California, and to this day, he has no equals as a hitter."

It's clear the younger generation has its own feelings about Bonds and his accomplishments. Maybe to his benefit, when those young fans became teenagers, their rebellious nature made them even more intrigued with Bonds—a perceived rebel continuing to shine despite being ripped by adult fans and media daily.

According to AllPsychologyCareers.com, a study titled "Risk-taking in Adolescence: New Perspectives from Brain and Behavioral Science" argues that "risk-taking and rebellious behaviors are linked to the development of logical-reasoning abilities in teenagers." APC.com asserts the study implies that "teenagers are almost hardwired to make more risky decisions and participate in behaviors their parents deem unacceptable."

Maybe that's why a guy who at the turn of the century was most hated by the sports establishment now gets nothing but love from players who were too young to despise him. He's just a sweet, nostalgic reminder of their young renegade days, when they played baseball just for the love of it and left things like moral outrage to their elders.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Mets infielder Danny Muno, 26, grew up in Long Beach, California, and attended Loyola High School in Los Angeles. Muno told Bleacher Report that "some of the younger generation is unsure about how to view Bonds' level of greatness or judge him as a representative of the game because of the PED speculation."

That's about the worst thing you'll hear when fishing for Bonds detractors in today's major league locker rooms.

"I'm from Central Pennsylvania and grew up rooting for the Pirates," said 26-year-old Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams, another '90s baby awed by Bonds' greatness. "My dad took me to games growing up. We lived about four hours from Pittsburgh, and all the kids in my grade were always rocking Bonds' Pirate jersey shirts. He's still a legend. I think that when the name Bonds comes out, guys still give him all of the credit he deserves."

Adams had a chance to work with Mark McGwire in 2011 and 2012, when the fallen legend was trying to make peace with his baseball past and St. Louis brought him back into the fold as a guest hitting instructor.

Bonds took a similar path back to the game last spring when he spent a week in Scottsdale, Arizona, as a special batting instructor for the Giants. As early as 2008, Bonds expressed a desire to coach baseball at some level.

A guy so antisocial as a player that he was given half of the locker room in San Francisco just to isolate himself flipped the script and became a teacher. There was no strike or boycott. The baseball world didn't stop spinning. In fact, prominent players like Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval appreciated the interaction and praised Bonds' jovial attitude and patience.

After the experience, however, Bonds, as reported in a San Jose Mercury News article, expressed uncertainty about coaching regularly.

"I like the other side better. It's hard to sit back and watch," Bonds admitted. "...I felt like I needed to put on my No. 25 and go out there and play.

"I just couldn't run. But I can still hit, though."

John Swart/Associated Press

Jason Heyward was a 12-year-old in Georgia when Bonds broke the single-season home run record in 2001. Heyward, who was compared to Bonds in his early years with the Atlanta Braves, says Bonds is still revered as a legend by the newbies.

"Anybody in this generation that saw him play respects his game," J-Hey said. "If he still loves the game and wants to be around it...then I say, why not?"

Even the older guys, whose careers intersected with Bonds' reign, seem to have a forgive-and-forget attitude toward him. When asked if the steroids allegations taint Bonds' legacy, most players respond by protecting MLB's integrity while still validating Bonds' accomplishments. For cooler heads, they go hand-in-hand at this point.

Players who actually faced Bonds in battle are the real barometers. Randy Choate is a 39-year-old lefty specialist and a 15-year MLB pitching veteran who broke in with the Yankees in 2000 at the height of baseball's steroids era. He says any locker room animosity toward Bonds is a thing of the past.

"I don't think it's really as much up in these young guys' faces," Choate said. "So they never really had to deal with it to the point where it might cost them a job, because someone used and they didn't. The only way they are really affected by it is we have a lot more drug tests.

"The PED stuff is just something a lot of people don't want to talk about or take a side on because you can't prove or disprove it. All I've ever seen is that he's not been found guilty of it. Bonds was the best at it. For me, it doesn't matter what era a hitter was the best in. It doesn't lessen his knowledge of hitting."

In speaking with MLB players from different generations, it seems the real disconnect concerning Bonds' place in baseball lore is between the old-school purists and media—who have made it a personal vendetta to ensure that certain players don't sniff Cooperstown's stoop—and seemingly every other segment of baseball people tired of legend-bashing.

With the exception of the omnipotent Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), Bonds has seemed to outlive most of his enemies, and public sentiment has switched to a more empathetic tone.

Mets outfielder Michael Cuddyer played 11 of his 15 MLB seasons with the Minnesota Twins, starting in September 2001. Cuddyer witnessed the rise and fall of Bonds and believes Bonds, despite his reputation, is a baseball gem.

"My generation saw his whole career from his rookie year with Pittsburgh all the way to the end of it. Our generation knows more about him. Our generation sees what he's done for this game. And at the root of all of this, with him coming back to the game, it's about making players better. It's about instilling the knowledge he's had over the course of a 20-plus-year career and helping young kids play the game. And I think that's great. I think you have to put those personal things aside when it comes to learning baseball from somebody like him."

Then again, some, like SNY sportscaster Ron Darling—who pitched 13 MLB seasons and faced Bonds as a NY Mets pitcher in the '80s and during stints in Oakland and Montreal in the '90s—think such coaching jobs are beneath Bonds.

"I don't know...to me...batting coach?" Darling asks, incredulously. "I can't even see him wanting to do that. Who wants to work 12-to-12 when you're Barry Bonds? He shouldn't have to do that. I would hope that at some point, he's back in our game with the suits in a good place."

Curtis Granderson is a 12-year MLB vet who was a Bonds admirer since his days at Thornton Fractional South High School in Lansing, Illinois. He knows, regarding Bonds, that the PED whispers will always be there, but his respect for Bonds as a player is uninfluenced by them.

"You know what, it is interesting that certain guys have gotten second chances, whether it be jobs in baseball or not being discussed consistently," Granderson said. "Then there are guys [like Bonds] who get talked about a lot more, which makes their offense seem worse than a guy who did the exact same thing."

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 31: Former San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds waves to the crowd during the San Francisco Giants World Series victory parade on October 31, 2014 in San Francisco, California. The San Francisco Giants defeated the Kansa
Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

In 2006—at the height of Barry Bonds hate—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Jon Caroulis wrote a piece outlining author Jeff Pearlman's new book, Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero.

Caroulis wrote, "The 'story' of Barry Bonds' life unfolds in almost novel-like fashion to its present state: A man who is hated despite his accomplishments, whose great gifts created a sense of entitlement and invincibility, which then led to mistakes like using steroids and believing he could get away with it."

Bonds was portrayed as a separatist and antagonist back then. It seems the younger MLB regime is willing to shed the judgment of its predecessor, hold Bonds in his proper statistical place and embrace the isolationist.

In his twilight, Bonds is on the cusp of reimagining the portrait of a former public enemy and taking his proper standing in MLB as someone who has more to offer the game besides his middle finger and a bomb into San Francisco Bay.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.