Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Barry Bonds
Barry Bonds amid aspersive signs.

Three separate but related banners draped across the top of the left field wall at Citizens Bank Park on Sunday, May 7, 2006. The first said, "Ruth did it on hot dogs & beer," the second said, "Aaron did it with class," and the third posed to the San Francisco Giants' left fielder, "How did YOU do it?"

Those banners were the most extravagant, created and held by Philadelphia fans in attendance for the three-game weekend series. Bonds' season, highlighted equally by his chase for history and by the controversy surrounding the latter half of his career, reached an early May pinnacle as 6'2" 228-pound slugger cudgeled a Jon Lieber pitch 450 feet off of the facade of the upper deck, the 713th of his career.

Prior to that at-bat in the sixth inning of the third game of that weekend series, Philadelphia fans had relished every opportunity to boo number twenty-five, whether he was stepping into the on-deck circle or the batter's box, catching a fly ball, or just simply walking to his position before the bottom-half of an inning. When Bonds made an out, those boos turned to cheers, for his failure to inch closer to history in the City of Brotherly Love.

Surprisingly, a Bonds out and a Bonds homerun evoked the same response out of the crowd. As fans took in how effortlessly Bonds swung to send a baseball so far away, they put down their beers and hot dogs, as well as their prior inhibitions for the man, stood up, clapped and whistled for the duration of Bonds' victorious trot around the bases. He struck out in his ensuing at-bat, each pitch being captured on camera by a large portion of the 39,315 fans in attendance; camera flashes going off like so many fireflies in a coffee can. It was his first attempt to tie Babe Ruth for second on the all-time homerun list. Subsequent to the strikeout, the fans cheered apathetically, as they were more focused on getting out of the stadium as quickly as possible to beat traffic. The game could have been 20-0 either way or a 5-5 ballgame, and fans still would have waited for Bonds' last at-bat and to potentially witness history.

Barry Bonds
Fans wear their Bonds hatred on their sleeves -- literally.

So this is what it has come down to with Bonds: hypocrisy. He's the man fans love to hate; hate him for his surly attitude, his contempt for the media, and apparent irreverence to the history of the game of baseball; love him for hitting awe-inspiring homeruns that make you forget he may or may not have taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs. It was ironic, in fact, that so many boos were converted to cheers just by seeing a ball arc to its peak, then arc in the same way downward until it hit the McDonald's sign, perched just under the upper deck at Citizens Bank Park. Bonds has been on his best behavior all season, so much so that the media had to twist and turn yet another story.

Carlos Oliveras, a 25-year-old Air Force serviceman in Section 202 at the ballpark, emerged with Bonds' 713th homerun ball, and was denied a Bonds autograph at the post-game news conference -- denied in the sense that he didn't get what he asked for, but Bonds never said no, and nor does he have to. He is not obligated to give autographs to anyone that asks, especially since the odds are that the beseeching fan is a Bonds boo-bird in the off-hours. Why should Bonds help a heckler make a profit in the likely event that the autograph goes up on eBay within the hour? The media fails to see this, though; they see it as just another opportunity to paint Bonds as the anti-social, steroid-injector in the burnt orange, black, and gray uniform with "San Francisco" lettered across his chest.

When all is said and done, everyone secretly loves Barry Bonds, and it shows in the attendance figures. The Phillies played the last six of their current nine-game winning streak at home. In the first game of the homestand against the Atlanta Braves, 26,443 attended, and dropped to 24, 842 in the second. Attendance rose significantly when the Giants came to down, as 37,269 came to watch Bonds attempt to make history in the first game of the three-game series; 44,042 attended the second game, and 39,315 attended the Sunday night game that was broadcasted on ESPN. Yesterday's game, the first of a three-game set with the New York Mets, drew the most of the non-Giants games in the homestand when 33,787 paying customers walked through the turnstiles. Fans didn't attend those games just to see a baseball game -- they came for Barry Bonds. And one certainly doesn't hear the Philadelphia Phillies complaining about the increased revenue in advertising, merchandise, concessions, and ticket sales during the Giants series from May 5-7.

Similarly, the more hype that is created over Bonds, the more reward there is for the media to write about him. Why write about the possibility of the general manager of the Kansas City Royals being given a pink slip when you can talk about Barry Bonds spar with principal owner Peter Magowan about his future with the team in 2007? Were it not for Bonds, these journalists might have actually had to concern themselves with real baseball news.

Babe Ruth
George Herman "Babe" Ruth.

Perhaps most importantly and despite rumors that he is a bad teammate, Bonds makes everyone in the lineup better. The all-time leader in career walks is a threat whether or not his knees are healthy, and pitchers would rather face anyone else in the lineup. Due to this, the #3 hitter (Ray Durham until he was injured) will always see fastballs around the plate. Likewise, the #5 hitter (Steve Finley usually) will also see fastballs around the plate because the pitcher can't risk putting another baserunner on right after walking Bonds.

Despite the front everyone puts up by writing witty remarks on signs and holding them up and booing, everyone loves Barry Bonds. He is an enigma wrapped inside an enigma and as much as fans love to hate him, they will keep paying for tickets to attend games and to get the pictures they've taken of Bonds developed. The man currently sitting on 713 career homeruns has been great for the sport of baseball since he landed in the Major Leagues in 1986. He may be at the center of the steroid controversy, but he is certainly not to blame for the matter.

When Bonds hits homerun 714, then 715, then 755, and 756, everyone will act like they are upset or don't care, but they are secretly bouncing off of the walls inside because they've witnessed history and arguably the greatest player ever to play the sport of baseball. Bonds will go down with the social stigma of "cheater," but it will take time for fans to truly appreciate what he has accomplished.