The Pirates announced last Friday that as part of their Opening Day festivities, the team’s two living previous MVP winners will be on hand to help present last year’s winner, current center fielder Andrew McCutchen with his award.
One of those two past MVPs is Dick Groat, the shortstop on the 1960 World Series winning team and former All-American basketball player at Duke. A beloved, avuncular figure, Groat has been a long-time resident of Pittsburgh where he’s served as the radio color guy for Pitt Panther basketball games for more than 30 years. The other past MVP who will help make the presentation is Barry Bonds
Let’s get a couple of things straight first. When it comes to despising Barry Bonds, Pittsburgh was well ahead of the curve. Furthermore, the reason for all the vitriol had nothing to do with PEDs. No, Pittsburgh’s disgust with Bonds stemmed from both his prickly, brash personality, and more so, because he skipped town for a bigger payday.
It’s doubtful that anyone, including perhaps Bonds himself, would argue that he was anything other than a miserable jerk while playing for the Pirates. There were blow-ups with manager Jim Leyland. Friction with teammates. Accusations of racism after management gave a big deal to Andy Van Slyke instead of him and Bobby Bonilla (he was probably right, at least in part). Declarations that he was a better player than Van Slyke (he was definitely right). And countless reports of him blowing off charity work or treating anyone he viewed as beneath him (pretty much everyone) like garbage.
Bonds’s disposition was tolerated if not accepted by fans when he was winning MVP Awards and leading the Pirates to the postseason. However, once he made the appalling decision to, you know, get paid fair market value by signing a monster contract with the Giants in 1993, Bonds became public enemy number one in Pittsburgh. In truth, while his off-the-field persona certainly played a role, the contract itself was probably what angered so many Pirates fans.
Free agency in baseball was already old hat, but Bonds’s deal was one of the opening salvos in the big market/small market divide that marked the game for the next decade. Players getting paid like Bonds did in San Francisco, while leaving the team that had drafted and developed them behind were greedy and selfish. They broke the unspoken principles of loyalty and team-first attitude that fans had grown up learning to not only idolize but expect. That Bonds’s big contract in San Fransisco came on the heels of thee NLCS losses where he failed to make an impact only exacerbated the feelings of anger, hurt and frustration towards him in Pittsburgh.
For much of the rest of his career, Bonds was booed when he returned to Three Rivers Stadium or PNC Park. The jeers came lustily and with genuine disgust in the early years, before largely turning into catcalling out of habit rather than any honest emotion. Perhaps it had to do with how bad a product the Pirates were putting on the field in those years, and how it was hard for fans to feel much of anything but apathy. Though there’s evidence the actual answer is much more interesting than that.
In 2007, Bonds made his last appearance in Pittsburgh, less than a week after breaking Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record. With that monumental achievement under his belt and all signs pointing to Bonds retiring after the season, the Pirates honored him with a short video tribute. The small crowd applauded respectfully, and while maybe not raucous, the energy in the park was certainly positive. Considering Pirates fans’ feelings about Bonds when he left town, such a reception even less than 15 years later would have seemed inconceivable.
All signs seem to indicate the reaction to Bonds on Monday will be even more positive. The reaction on Twitter when his appearance was announced was excited, with the general tone conveying how appreciative we all should be in Pittsburgh of being able to witness such an all-time great in his prime. Predictably, maybe even understandably, the local sports media was less than enthused by this impulse.
Perhaps Bonds will still get booed on Monday. The demographic of baseball fans in Pittsburgh certainly skews a little older than those who use Twitter. But really though, that’s kind of a more interesting point. If Pittsburgh was well ahead of the curve on hating Bonds, perhaps this detente in our relationship with him, spurred by a younger generation, is ahead of the national curve, too. It’s a fascinating microcosm for how outrage wanes over the years, and how when put in historical context, things like cocky athletes and massive free agent deals no longer seem like affronts against humanity.
Tolerance shifts, and the next generation that wasn’t so close to transgressions is better about putting them in context, about not letting them overshadow remarkable athletic achievements or letting emotionally charged moral grandstanding rule the day. Pittsburgh’s Twitter’s reaction to the news that Barry Bonds was coming to Opening Day is the best and strongest evidence we have yet that he and Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza and a whole bunch of outstanding baseball players from that era will one day have their plaques hanging in Cooperstown.