Late in the first episode of ESPN’s seasonlong look at Barry Bonds, the superstar breaks down. “I’m drained,” he says as tears come to his eyes. “You don’t see me bringing anyone else into this. I take it myself.” But after watching sportswriters, fans, a few legends and teammates talk about his plight and inner strength, we’re not sure Bonds — who got full editorial control of this project despite the protests of purists who believe ESPN has crossed a major line — isn’t playing to the camera in the hour’s emotional peak.
The series debut feels like a career wrap-up rather than a warmup to the inevitable — the surpassing of Babe Ruth’s home run record — and the heretofore unattained: a World Series ring for the Giants. Bonds says, with sincerity, that his goal is a world championship ring, but, of course, few would be asking what he thought if the steroid scandal and a book that details his use of various body-building chemicals weren’t on the shelves.
To his credit, Bonds, bound by lawyers’ advice and a rarely explained allegiance to his fellow ballplayers, never points fingers and never appears to vent his frustration at anyone except sportswriters.
Baseball buried its head in the sand the first time the steroid situation arose because it was enjoying a renaissance focused on two guys hitting long balls — Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. On top of that, two books with similar accusations preceded “Game of Shadows,” but this one hooked the big fish — recent steroid culprit Rafael Palmeiro didn’t count — and Major League Baseball started taking action.
And “fans” have certainly made up their mind: They have found Bonds guilty without a trial, can’t wait to holler from the stands, have made signs with derogatory comments and, as on opening day, toss syringes in his direction.
“It’s a Greek tragedy,” notes Jon Miller, the smooth announcer for the Orioles, Giants and ESPN. But creators Mike Tollin and Brian Robbins don’t really have the option of setting up the Barry Bonds story in classic Greek fashion. He is not a fallen idol. Instead, as “Bonds on Bonds” does show, he has been an enigma since his youth who’s baffled and frustrated many sportswriters who have torn away at him for his entire career. Baseball needed a villain, Bonds says, “and I became the villain,” taking blame for his place in the baseball pantheon that currently lists his “crime” above corked bats, spitballs, gamblers and the other 200-300 juiced players of the past decade.
“Bonds on Bonds” covers his recovery from three knee surgeries during the 2005 season, the just-concluded spring training and Monday’s opening day in San Diego. ESPN, which wants to reap the benefits of having one of the most polarizing players on their channel, opens the show with some strongly worded buck-passing: Tollin/Robbins, the announcer tells viewers, is responsible for “the content and vision of the show.”
Perhaps that’s a lesson learned from the net’s “Playmakers” series that annoyed the NFL, but this just further illuminates the problem: As much as everyone says Bonds is tainted goods, they still want to be in business with the man.
Bonds seems to have a perfect handle on his situation — half the fans hate him, half cheer for him. “Why should I let (that half) down?” he asks. He doesn’t want to let anyone down — an honest sentiment — and that starts with his late father, mother and godfather Willie Mays and works its way down to the kids in the stands wearing his No. 25.
He’s a difficult and complex guy. Peter Gammons says he’s one of the smartest ballplayers he has ever met. But the cloud of suspicion won’t go away during his lifetime, no matter what he says during this series and regardless of what Major League Baseball finds in its investigation. And as long as there is a probe being conducted and this show is airing, ESPN’s news operation will be working with a taint as well.