Flickr photo by Kevin Rushforth
Slugger Barry’s Bonds’ donation of $20,000 to the National Association of Black Journalists is fraught with irony.
Throughout his long and exciting baseball career, the former San Francisco Giants star – now retired and awaiting trial on perjury charges – routinely treated the journalists assigned to cover him like dirt.
That was true during his early years in Pittsburgh, when Bonds proved so truculent that the baseball beat writers gave the young outfielder their "MDP Award" – for Most Despised Pirate.
And it was especially true in San Francisco during the pressure-packed years when Bonds was driving to break Hank Aaron’s home run record, even as federal agents were investigating him for using steroids from the BALCO drug lab.
In those days, the writers and broadcasters covering the home run chase endured grief, static and jacking around from the Giants star, along with occasional physical threats.
In giving the press a hard time, Bonds wasn’t status conscious.
He once invited Rick Reilly, then the superstar columnist for Sports Illustrated, to San Francisco for an exclusive interview, kept him waiting around for five days, and then told him to get lost.
But earlier in the journey, Bonds spent an entire Pittsburgh summer tormenting a $500-per-month media relations intern. (Kevin Guilfoile, who now writes mystery novels, wrote a brief memoir of his Bonds encounter for The Outfit, a collective of Chicago crime writers.)
Perhaps there was nothing personal about it: As Mark Fainaru Wada and I wrote in our book Game of Shadows, Bonds seemed to play his best when lots of people were mad at him. His confidants came to believe that his surly behavior with the press was calculated and deliberate, to kick his game up a notch.
Still, if you were a working reporter with a deadline and an editor who expected a quote from the star of the Giants’ game, covering Bonds in the glory years could be miserable. Here’s Bonds, circa 2005, from the book:
Now that he had the new contract, Bonds was more difficult than ever with the press. Bonds deployed (his personal weight trainer, Greg) Anderson and (Harvey) Shields, his stretching coach, to keep the writers away from his wing of the clubhouse when he didn’t want to see them, as was often the case. After games, the media scrum would edge toward Bonds’ locker, trying to penetrate the cordon and put a question to the Home Run King that would prompt a response other than a fusillade of obscenities that would be unusable in a paper.
'Uh, Barry – they really seem to be pitching around you. Are you frustrated by all the walks?' a writer would venture.
'Can we talk about something else besides my fucking walks?' Bonds would reply.
Thankfully, I never had to endure this.
Performance-enhancing drugs weren’t Bonds’ favorite topic, and he absolutely refused to speak to us for "Game of Shadows" – or earlier, for the series of investigative stories about Bonds and banned drugs that we wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Instead, Bonds would duck comment on tough stories, then take out his wrath on Henry Schulman, the Chronicle beat writer.
We hated to add to Schulman’s already heavy burden. As we reported, Bonds once had told Schulman that if he held grudges, "I would have punched you a long time ago," adding, "I’m not a vindictive person. There would be a lot of dead people if I was."
In a recent blog, Schulman described the grief he endured over our 2005 scoop about Bonds’ ex-girlfriend testifying before the BALCO grand jury. (Unfortunately, Schulman is unaware of the efforts I made to speak to the Giants’ traveling secretary, who was mentioned a single time in the story.)
Game of Shadows outraged Bonds, and he sued us, but not for libel – after all, as we pointed out, the book was true. Instead, he accused us of an unfair business practice in violation of the California Business & Professions Code, because we quoted from Bonds’ sealed grand jury testimony in the steroids investigation. The Chronicle threatened an anti-SLAAP countersuit, and Bonds dropped the whole thing. After that, his lawyers urged the government to put us in jail for violating grand jury secrecy.
Bonds isn’t the first big sports star to warm up to the media only after his career was over; and anyone facing felony charges in federal court (Bonds is accused of lying under oath when he denied using banned drugs) can use a little good will.