Is it really time to bid Bonds adieu?

Could this be it? Could this really be the last time we see San
Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds turn on a fastball and smash
it deep into the night to land with a splash in McCovey Cove?
Could this be it? Could this really be the last time we see San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds turn on a fastball and smash it deep into the night to land with a splash in McCovey Cove?

Bonds said as much recently at an odd little press conference that had most people scoffing at the notion that he won’t return. And, for the most part, I pretty much agree Bonds will be back, probably by June or July.

But that could be just denial on my part.

Fact is, despite all the steroids allegations, Bonds is still the best thing that has happened to the Giants franchise since it moved to San Francisco. In 1993, when Bonds’ hometown team signed him away from the Pittsburgh Pirates, Bonds was not yet regarded as baseball’s best player in the past 30 years, perhaps of all-time. He was simply one of the best players of his time.

But I was positive at the time that this was the perfect marriage, a brilliant move that would transform the Giants’ franchise. Remember, back then, the Giants were a struggling organization just months removed from nearly moving to Tampa Bay because of a miserable stadium and marginal fan base.

A decade later, the Giants are perennial contenders with a jewel of a stadium plopped smack dab in what has turned out to be an ideal location (one that was roundly panned for decades) and a sell-out crowd every night. Even the weather at the new park seems a lot better than just about anywhere else in The City.

Does anybody really think any of that would have happened without Bonds? If Yankee Stadium is the House That Ruth Built then the Giants’ ballpark (don’t ask me to remember which corporate name is emblazoned on its stationery these days) is Bonds’ Summer Home.

In response to the construction of a park tailored specifically for his power-hitting proclivities, Bonds has raised his play to an entirely new level in the new park’s five seasons, setting the single season home run record and approaching the all-time career home run record.

Many believe Bonds did all this with the help of steroids, though there’s no proof of that. If it’s true, he endangered his health and his already amazing legacy for an assault on the record books. If it’s not true, then Bonds is the perfect example of an athlete transcending both his sport and the limitations of age through single-minded dedication to his craft.

Either way, he has paid the price for immortality. So how can he leave now, just when he’s about to make his final ascent toward the most coveted sports record of all-time?

Unfortunately for Giants fans, Bonds’ exit wouldn’t be unprecedented. At last week’s bizarre press conference, Bonds’ son Nikolai was wearing a Detroit Lions jersey with the number and name of his dad’s namesake – Barry Sanders – on it. The same Barry Sanders who left the NFL just as he was approaching the all-time rushing record.

If it was happenstance, it was an amazing coincidence. If it was intentional, it was pure theater.

Besides, Bonds is nearly 10 years older than Sanders was and the Lions star wasn’t attempting to return from a serious injury when he retired. Bonds wouldn’t be the first 40-plus-year-old athlete whose career ended after an injury. Older athletes just don’t usually have the recovery window to return from a year’s absence, and Bonds has said for years he didn’t want to play past his prime. (His prime was extended as he chased after the Babe and Hammerin’ Hank.) And, the cynics would say Bonds also won’t have steroids to aid his recovery.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the media event, though, was how Bonds blamed the press directly, and en masse, for what he calls his impending exodus. Bonds has had a long history of battles with the press, and he’d like nothing better than to cast the media in the role of “The Reason Bonds Retired.” If he can’t come back from the injury, he’d obviously love to make the media the scapegoat. Since he never once used the word “retire,” though, it’s likely that Bonds was just lashing out in almost comic petulance at the media in a transparent attempt at retaliation for what he regards as unfair and unnecessarily negative coverage.

Bonds has never appeared to understand the media’s role in his career, treating the press as a nuisance rather than the reason he’s a multi-millionaire superstar. Can Bonds possibly believe he would be as rich or famous without the press? He should know that no one actually gets rich and famous hitting home runs in a vacuum. They get rich and famous because people know about it.

By contrast, Bonds certainly seems to appreciate the media’s power to chase him out of the game.

Whether Bonds returns or not, the press conference has to be considered the low point of his career.

But that doesn’t mean the media’s off the hook.

As a member of the media, I’m frankly embarrassed at the way Bonds has been treated. I believe the media has been relentless in its castigation of Bonds over the years and particularly gleeful, not to mention endlessly repetitive, in its reportage on his alleged association with steroids and those accused of distributing them. And, just because the press slaps the tag “opinion” on its often vitriolic attacks against Bonds is no excuse.

By comparison, I believe the media has been much less motivated in its reporting on Mark McGwire and steroid use. And, while I disagree that the cause is racism, as has been intimated, I do believe it has everything to do with favoritism. Quite simply, McGwire was a media darling when he was playing and I believe the media has taken it easy on him in ways it never would with Bonds. Of course, that may change now, after McGwire’s disastrous appearance before Congress.

By way of explanation, the press rationalizes that Bonds is just getting back what he handed out and that his disdainful treatment of the press is merely coming home to roost. But that’s no excuse. It’s our job, as the members of the media, to be as objective as possible in all circumstances and keep our personal feelings out of our coverage, even when we’ve been treated poorly by our subject.

Bonds’ legacy will be as defined by his relationship with the media and the steroid allegations as his exploits on the diamond. And, that’s what made last week’s press conference so surreal, because Bonds seems to recognize that fact all too clearly, in spite of himself.

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