Today, I will, in all likelihood, watch Barry Bonds play for the last time in person, and I have no idea how I feel about that. As a lifelong Pirates fan, that’s probably surprising for some of you to hear. After all, we in Pittsburgh were ahead of the rest of the country when it came to despising Barry Bonds. During a six month period in 1992, he ripped the town and the franchise for being racist, played a key role in a third straight NLCS loss, and completed the dismantling of a potential dynasty by bolting to San Francisco for the richest contract in baseball history.
While there’s more than a kernel of truth in each of these grievances, there’s also a black and white simplicity, the kind of logic that played perfectly into my pre-adolescent mindset. So for a long time I did what most everybody else in Pittsburgh did: I hated Barry Bonds.
But now, fifteen years later, on the eve of Barry Bonds’ first trip to Pittsburgh as home run king, it’s interesting to look back on the list of grievances and how now, in 2007, their absolute certainty has dissolved. Part of it is the way baseball has changed, particularly with regards to the dynamic between town and superstar, but mostly, it’s the perspective that comes with time, the way distance can force you to read between the lines.
In December 1998, a little more than five years after Bonds’ first contract with the Giants, the Dodgers inked Kevin Brown to the first $100 million deal in baseball history. The record breaking signing was a shocking reminder about the changing economics of the game, but there was another aspect of the agreement that marked a shift in the baseball landscape well beyond dollars and cents.
The previous season, Brown went 18-7 with a 2.38 ERA and 257 strikeouts for the San Diego Padres. He was even better in the post-season, besting Randy Johnson and the Astros in the division series, then Tom Glavine and the heavily favored Braves in the NLCS. The Padres lost to the Yankees in the World Series, but due in large part to Brown had the most successful season in franchise history.
Coming into October of that year, San Diego had a pretty good idea that their number-one starter would be successful in the playoffs. Why? Just a year earlier, he had pitched the Florida Marlins to that franchise’s first championship. When Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga decided he no longer had the money or desire to pay his superstar team, he held a fire-sale, selling off the major pieces of his world championship roster to the highest bidder. Brown was among the first to go, getting traded to the Padres for a series of prospects. In case you weren’t keeping track, arguably the best pitcher in the game donned three uniforms in three different seasons.
At the time, Bonds’ departure for the Giants was so shocking because then, baseball was still a sport where superstars spent the majority of their careers with one team. The economics of free agency had already re-shaped the game, no doubt, but for a player as young and talented as Bonds to jump ship for more money was something that fans were still trying to fully grasp. But instead of being the greedy anomaly we in Pittsburgh all painted him to be, Bonds was really at the start of a trend for players like Alex Rodriguez and Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson who will have to make a decision as to which team’s cap will adorn their plaque at Cooperstown.
It sounds funny to say now, but the first time Sid Bream came back to Pittsburgh he got a standing ovation. This was in May of 1991, almost a year and a half before his mad dash home in Game 7 of the NLCS would rip out the heart of an entire city. Bream had been a well-liked, solid but unspectacular member of the Pirates, a grinder who played a key role in the resurgent teams of the late 1980s. As more talent arrived from the farm system, Bream had been reduced to part-time duty, but when his contract came up, he wished to stay in Pittsburgh on the condition the team give him a no-trade clause. They didn’t, so instead he signed with the Atlanta.
In his first game in Pittsburgh as a member of the Braves, Bream launched a pinch-hit solo home run that brought the Three Rivers Stadium crowd to its feet. It stood and applauded long enough that Bream had to come out for a curtain call to acknowledge the cheers and allow the game to continue.
A year later, former Pirates superstar Bobby Bonilla returned to Pittsburgh for the first time after signing a then record contract with the New York Mets. Bobby Bo had averaged more than 100 RBIs during his last two years in Pittsburgh, even finishing second to Bonds in the 1990 MVP voting. Although he would come to be known as a clubhouse cancer during his tenure in Queens, Bonilla was beloved in Pittsburgh, known for his cheery smile and light-hearted attitude when it came to young fans. He was also Barry Bonds’ best friend and closest ally on the team.
There was no standing ovation this time. Instead, Three Rivers Stadium rained jeers every time Bonilla’s name was announced. He trotted out to his position in right field during the first inning, only to be greeted with a shower of monopoly money from some enterprising fans in the general admission seats. As the game progressed, and the beers flowed, fans switched from paper bills to golf balls and batteries, forcing Bonilla to wear a batting helmet into the field for the bottom of the eighth inning.
I don’t know if either Bonds or Bonilla specifically compared Bonilla’s treatment to Bream’s a year earlier, but it’s doubtful the contrast escaped either of them. During spring training in 1991, both players had been involved in intense contract negotiations with the Pirates, and had taken the team to arbitration. At the same time, the Pirates had signed their older, less accomplished and white teammate Andy Van Slyke to a long term deal, in many ways selecting him as the one superstar hitter they could retain. While Bonds and Bonilla ultimately ended up with contracts far exceeding Van Slyke’s, and white pitcher Dough Drabek was also allowed to walk away via free agency, it’s not hard to understand how when discussions on a new contract for Bonds broke down, his frustration became palpable.
The last time I saw Barry Bonds play in person in a Pirates uniform was Game 4 of the 1992 NLCS. It was an overwhelmingly frustrating game that saw John Smoltz beat the Pirates in the playoffs for the fourth time in two years. In the 6-4 loss that put the Pirates on a 3-1 series hole and on the cusp of elimination, Bonds was 0-for-2 with two strikeouts, including one late in the game with men on base. His post-season failure were well documented at that point, and he returned to the bench to a chorus of boos so loud it shook the rafters of Three Rivers Stadium.
Because it came on the heels of two other division championships, Bonds’ performance, and importance to the 1992 Pirates was probably lost on the hometown fans. With the presence of fellow thumper Bonilla removed from the line-up opposing pitcher’s had no reason to pitch to Bonds. Despite a career year from Andy Van Slyke, no other Pirate besides Bonds hit more than 14 home runs, and only one other had more than 65 RBIs. Despite the lack of protection around him, Bonds hit 34 home runs, knocked in 103 runs, had an on-base percentage of .456 and slugged .624.
It’s not hard for me to picture how Barry Bonds looked in a Pirates uniform that season. He had a sleek, athletic build; a solid core with rubber bands for arms and legs that seemed as though they could spin and move twice as fast an any other player’s. He used a small, thin bat that he choked way up on and while some people compared it to a toothpick between his slim fingers, it actually resembled more of a whip that could snap instantly to attention and re-direct a pitch he liked more than 400 feet in the opposite direction. The ball made a beautiful sound off of his bat too. Not the deafening thud of a Mark McGwire blast, but a reassuring snap that let everyone watching know he’d hit the cowhide just so. And he stole bases then too. At will. And won gold gloves.
In discussing Bonds’ performance that season, Pirates catcher Don Slaught, an underrated hitter and currently the batting coach for the Tigers said “I don’t know how he’s got the numbers he does. [He] gets to swing the bat about once a game.” I didn’t realize that at the time. I’d like to think it was because I was nine years old then, but I somehow doubt the 50,000 other people who showered Bonds with jeers that October night in 1992 knew that Bonds wasn’t one of the reasons the Pirates were in the playoffs that year. He was the reason.
I don’t try to pretend that Barry Bonds is perfect. Every sports media member who’s been in this town long enough has a horrific war story from dealing with the enigmatic and temperamental superstar. Hell, I think half of my friends have stories about the time Bonds snubbed them for an autograph, or their parents saw him snap at the wait staff in a local restaurant.
He also probably took steroids or HGH or some wicked cocktail of performance enhancing drugs in order to achieve the most hallowed record in professional sports. But instead of getting worked up or incensed about that, these days, I’m more just sad about it. The Barry Bonds I grew up watching in awe wasn’t a behemoth home run slugger, an overgrown, glorified-DH for whom defense and base-running are just after thoughts to his moonshot home runs. He was a complete player, the absolute definition of a five tool athlete and a lethal combination of power, speed and defense.
I’m buoyed, however, by the knowledge that that’s the kind of player he will always be in my mind. In fact, I think we’re lucky as Pirates fans that we got to witness that Bonds, up close and personal for more than six years, three of them coming with him at the height of his prowess. And while it would have been nice if he’d stuck around a little longer, we’ll never have to live with the legacy of doubt that surrounded him in his later years.
My best memories as a Pirates fan involve Barry Bonds. I’m going to try to remember that when I hear his name announced, live, over the PA system tonight for what is likely the last time.
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