Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Year of the Barry (Bonds)

The Chinese calendar suggests 2007 is the Year of the Pig. For Major League Baseball the 2007 season will be a year consumed by Barry Bonds’ pursuit of Hank Aaron’s 755 career home run record. Few if any media pundits are prepared to embrace Bonds’ surpassing Aaron’s record. The media for a variety of reasons have anointed themselves the guardians of the game and in particular being highly critical of anything whatsoever to do with Barry Bonds.

The St. Louis Cardinals opened a two game series at AT&T Park against the Giants Wednesday night. The St. Louis Post Dispatch used the opportunity to run a feature “The 'Hating Game' with Barry Bonds”. If you want to understand how the media feels about Bonds all one needed was to read the headline that emblazoned the front page of Post Dispatch sports section.

The story in part focused on Tyler Snyder, a teenage baseball fan from Pleasanton, Calif., who was at Oakland's McAfee Coliseum when Bonds hit home run number 714 to tie Babe Ruth for second on the career home run list. Snyder was fortunate to have caught the historic baseball. Stadium officials made sure Snyder was fine and asked him if he was interested in meeting with Bonds after the game to see if the two could come to an arrangement regarding the baseball. Not only wasn’t Snyder interested (as is his right) but according to the article told the security people: ‘I hate that guy.' Hate is a powerful word for anyone to use when talking about another person, yet Snyder chose to make his feelings known to anyone who cared to hear what he had to say.

"I don't have any idea why anyone would express hatred to any other person that you don't know,'' Bonds said at the time.

"People tend to have difficulty balancing their own perceptions,'' said Dr. Richard Lustberg, a New York-based psychologist who directs the website "It's easy to take an extreme position. It's like 'The Wizard of Oz,' with good witches and bad witches. It makes it easy on ourselves.''

According to the Post Dispatch report: Davie-Brown Talent, a Dallas-based firm that matches companies with endorsers, has researched the appeal of 1,500 current celebrities. In the most recent rankings, Bonds placed No. 1,486 for likability and No. 1,488 for trustworthiness. That puts him on the level of troubled celebrities such as actor Mel Gibson. Actor Tom Hanks was top-ranked for trustworthiness.

“There definitely is a wide number of athletes who have this love-hate mentality,'” said Scott Sanford, senior talent director at Davie-Brown Talent in the Post Dispatch report. “There are people that others aspire to be like or at least look up to. ... And then you have guys like Bonds and (Baltimore linebacker) Ray Lewis. There are questions about their character or their personality, and lots of individuals nationally seem to have a dislike or a disdain toward those athletes.'”

"Anyone who is outspoken in this country tends to be polarizing,'' Lustberg said. "Look at Hillary Clinton. She's running for president, and she's very polarizing, too.''

In the recent USA Today of the 50 most influential people in baseball Bonds finished 15th. If you consider how much attention will focus on Bonds throughout the 2007 season it’s not unreasonable to suggest Bonds should have been much higher on the list.

"To me, he has more influence than any player in the game," Giants pitcher Russ Ortiz told the USA Today. "Everybody I come across, they want to know what it's like to play with Barry. They want to know everything about him. He's not just a baseball player. He's an icon in this game."

"Good, bad or indifferent," says Giants first baseman/outfielder Mark Sweeney, "he's in the news. You have to respect what he's done in the game. He's the Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan of this sport. He's done incredible things for this game.

"When you think of baseball, you think of Barry Bonds."

According to the USA Today report Bonds has earned more than $170 million in his major league career.

"Great players have this aura, this mystique about them," Peter Magowan, the Giants' president and managing general partner said in the USA Today report. "But I don't think he gets nearly the credit for who he is. People have no idea how smart he is, how prepared in life he is.

"You used to worry about people in this game pissing their money away and ending up under some freeway.

"Trust me; you won't see that with Barry Bonds."

One staunch defender of Barry Bonds remains his agent Jeff Borris. Consider even at 3.5 percent how much Borris has earned having Bonds as his client.

Borris, to ESPN this year: "Baseball fans around the world owe Barry Bonds a debt of gratitude for being lucky enough to watch him."

And here's Borris, to the Associated Press last year: "They should feel fortunate that they'll have the opportunity to see him break probably the most hallowed record in sports."

Trevor Hoffman, the Padres' closer and a likely Baseball Hall of Famer (and also a client of Borris) laughed when The Los Angeles Times Bill Shakin related Borris’ positive reinforcement concerning Barry Bonds.

"I don't think he's going out on a limb by saying the things he's saying about the things Barry has done as a player," Hoffman said.

"He will speak up for his guys. He's definitely not a schlep. He's very calculated in his thought process. He's not going to go into any type of negotiation or commentary about a client unprepared. While it might seem like he's laying it on a little thick, I truly believe he goes to war for all his clients."

An agent defending his client, what else would anyone expect of a sports agent? If coaches and managers are hired to be fired, as Tom Cruise portrayed in the film “Jerry McGuire” agents have to stand and deliver for their clients.

"I've heard that fans either love him or hate him, but even the fans that hate him don't get out of their seats when he's at bat," Borris said in the Los Angeles Times report. "They don't go out and buy a hot dog and a beer when Barry's hitting. If they're watching the Giants on TV when Barry comes up, they don't switch the station.

"So I think those fans might be a little hypocritical. Love him or hate him, you're still going to watch him play."

A recent New York Times report questioned how the Baseball Hall of Fame intends to handle Bonds approaching and surpassing Aaron’s record.

“Our job is to present the game’s history,” Jeff Idelson of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum will become his shadow said in the New York Times report. “Our fans expect us to do that.”

Idelson has been tasked with following Bonds as he approaches and likely sets a new career home run mark.

“Baseball doesn’t tell us what artifacts to take,” he said. “We have a great relationship with them, but we’re completely independent of M.L.B.”

“You can’t tell the story of baseball without telling Pete Rose’s story or Shoeless Joe Jackson’s story,” Dale Petroskey the President of the Baseball Hall of Fame told The New York Times. “Just because they don’t have plaques on the wall, that doesn’t mean you’re not a part of history.”

“If Bonds is breaking home run records, we have the responsibility to record it,” Petroskey said.

Regardless of when Bonds sets the new career home run mark Bonds’ career will end in the next few years. Once Bonds Hall of Fame career comes to an end, the countdown will begin to first time Major League Baseball’s greatest home run hitter will appear on a Baseball Hall of Fame ballot for the first time, five years after he plays his last baseball game.

"Barry better be unanimous, 100%, first ballot," Borris said. "If the Hall of Fame is what it stands for, how can the greatest player ever to play the game not be a unanimous selection?"

Borris’ obvious bias aside, the media’s reaction to Mark McGwire appearing on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year. To be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame a player needs to appear on at least 75 percent of all the ballots cast. McGwire appeared on just 23 percent of the ballots.

Does Barry Bonds belong in the Baseball Hall of Fame? The short answer is yes, and the Baseball Hall of Fame has to be the destiny for Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire as well. The four players have all hit more then 500 home runs which usually means an instant ticket into the Baseball Hall of Fame. With the exception of Palmeiro’s positive test which ended his Major League Baseball career on August 1, those three didn’t break baseball’s rules.

You can judge anyone’s character anyway you wish based on your sense of morality but as long as they didn’t break the existing rules that existed when they played baseball it would be wrong to ban all four from the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The facts as they are – Barry Bonds didn’t break any Major League Baseball rules that existed when he may have used steroids and other performance enhancing drugs. There is an avalanche of evidence that suggests Barry Bonds made the personal and professional decision to become a better baseball player, and he did so by adopting a regimented exercise program that included the use of supplements and performance enhancing drugs.

As a result by the time he retires he’ll have hit more home runs than any other player in baseball history and he still holds the single season home run record. He will likely set the new career home run record this year. Once that takes place it’s a done deal; Barry Bonds will hold the Major League Baseball career home run record one of the sports most cherished records. If Hank Aaron decides not to attend any ceremonies related to Bonds (as Aaron has suggested) breaking his record that is Aaron’s right. If the Giants as they certainly will, will honor Bonds that is the Giants right, and if baseball fans choose not to attend or to ‘boo’ Bonds that will be their right as well.

The biggest challenge MLB commissioner Bud Selig will face during the 2007 season will be Barry Bonds approaching Hank Aaron’s career home run mark. It remains to be seen when (and if) Bonds will establish a new career home record, but there is little if anything Selig will be able to do about the approaching “perfect media storm”. MLB didn’t a policy against performance-enhancing drugs until 2004 and Bonds hasn’t been caught with a positive test since. Legally Selig doesn’t have any real options in dealing with Bonds, ethically it’s a no win battle for Selig and MLB. Barry Bonds is a hornet’s nest; one Selig is going to be forced to deal with sooner or later.

“As for steroids, prior to 2002, we didn't have a policy, no agreement with the union. I don't know what more I could have done. We got a program, tightened it once, and tightened it twice. Where are we now? We have the toughest testing program in American professional sports.

“I've thought a lot about that. (Managers, general managers and scouts are) as enraged as I am about the comments that we all turned our heads, should have known (there was a steroids problem). I don't honestly know what we could have done differently.

“I even went back and talked to a lot of my players. I knew everything about them. None of them ever called. When the andro (stenedione) thing broke with Mark McGwire (in 1998), I was stunned. I walked into my pharmacy the next Sunday morning where I've been going for 30-40 years.

The guy said, "Right over there, Commissioner," as he pointed to andro on the shelf. I said, "How do you know what I'm here for?" He said, "I can read the papers." Selig told the USA Today

Those sentiments aside if Barry Bonds is looking for any respect from Bud Selig he can forget about that happening, if you simply read between the lines as to how Selig reacted to Hal Bodley’s question about who Selig believes is the greatest home run hitter of all time. Reading between the lines at least Selig seems to be coming to grips with something most baseball writers have failed to understand – MLB had a steroid era and the sooner everyone associated with MLB accepts that the sooner the sport will be able to move forward as an industry.

“There's no secret about my relationship with Hank Aaron. … We've been friends for 50 years, really good friends. Every era is different, but by my standards he's the greatest home run hitter.”

And here’s a final thought if Bonds historic home run number 756 lands in the hands of a baseball fan who is disgusted by Bonds accomplishment then let that fan take that baseball and throw it on the field. However you count on anyone lucky enough to catch that baseball they’ll auction it for millions and millions of dollars. The media; ESPN, Fox, Major League Baseball and anyone else who intends to cover the event if they really and honestly do not believe Barry Bonds is a legitimate home run hitter then treat Barry Bonds as the person you believe he is. At the very least in not speaking to the media and in not suing everyone Barry Bonds is being honest in making it clear how he feels about what is taking place. He really and truly could care less what anyone thinks of him.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The St. Louis Post Dispatch and The Los Angeles Times

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