Forget terrorism and war today. I just want to say how pleased I am that Barry Bonds broke the Major League home run record. Not because the record was broken or because I wanted to see Mark McGwire eclipsed, but because it was Barry Bonds.
He managed it without bending to the winds, without changing who he is, without putting on a false face. Barry Bonds is an individual (and apparently a somewhat moody and prickly individual). I rather doubt if he would like me or be nice to me if he knew me. That’s part of what I admire about him.
As he was closing in on the record, I scanned sports writers for explanations of why this pursuit wasn’t generating the same excitement as when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing the record three years ago. Some said it was because there wasn’t a contest. Some said it was because it had been only three years since the previous record, and fans get more excited about busting records of long standing.
There’s something to both explanations. But the real reason, I’m convinced, is that the sports writers of America – with a few exceptions – had convinced many fans that Barry Bonds is a jerk – an insufferably arrogant, egotistical loner.
How did Bonds get this reputation? Mainly by not being nice to sports writers. Sports writers are a fickle lot. By and large they prefer hero-worship, even as most political reporters are inclined to lionize the power-grubbers they cover. But they like to be catered to. If they aren’t, they seek out the offender’s quirks and bemoan them until he acquires a reputation as difficult, as odd, as not quite right. And, soon enough, as arrogant and insufferable.
There’s little doubt Barry Bonds hurt himself. He hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves for his on-field exploits and he hasn’t gotten big endorsement deals.
But I get the feeling there’s a kind of quiet integrity to his stubbornness. I believe he thought that he was declining to be a glad-handing phony. It’s a shame in a way, because it seems he really is a nice enough fellow, based in part on the way he handled himself during the run for the record.
I base this in part also on a chance encounter a few years ago. My wife used to work at the Lake Elsinore Diamond, a minor-league stadium. At one exhibition game, I sat next to some people who said they were cousins or aunts or something of Barry Bonds, from nearby Riverside where the Bonds clan has roots. We got to talking and, before long, they were explaining what a raw deal Barry had gotten from the media. He really is a nice guy, they said – he just doesn’t go for the schmoozing that seems so essential in this media age.
This was also a good year for another player with a sometimes prickly personality: Ricky Henderson, who got to the 3,000-hit mark and broke Ty Cobb’s old record for runs scored. Henderson was the opposite of Bonds – far from being aloof, he would shoot his mouth off. Most sports people like him fine now, toward the end of his career, but he made enemies early on. What I like about him is that he was always himself, a real individual.
Whether Bonds and Henderson really were jerks or not, the real jerks (and there are plenty) illustrate why it is such a mistake and unfair to them to look to athletes to be role models. It’s curious that we do so. It’s hard to imagine anyone who went to high school seeing most jocks as role models. Coaches and teachers tend to pamper them and not to hold them fully responsible for stupid or even malicious actions. Then we’re surprised that so many of them act like spoiled brats.
We should quit expecting athletes to be role models in part because it enhances the appreciation of those whom we wouldn’t mind our children emulating. Baseball had two of those retire this year: Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr. Loyal to their franchises, gracious to fans and hard workers, they both deserve thanks.
There will be plenty of time to worry about terrorists tomorrow. For today, I’d like to celebrate both the individualists, cantankerous as they sometimes are, and the few real role models in the world of sports.