If sports have value, it is as art. They are a platform on which athletes and teams stretch themselves to species capacity for the ephemeral brilliance of a perfect swing, pitch, or shot. Sure, games are played to be won, but the victory incentive chiefly brings forth the best performances. It is the athletic accomplishments themselves that makes games worth watching: the players’ total mind-body dedication, the innovative moves that make you shake your head and say, “I didn’t think humans could do that.” A football field or basketball court is no less legitimate a site for art than a dancer’s stage or a painter’s canvas, but it is baseball, with its dramatic pace and tense confrontations, that has always thrilled me most.
In little league, I was a subpar second baseman. My true calling was as a fan. In elementary school, I would wake up early every morning and spread the sports page flat on the floor so I could read the box scores, I woke and went to sleep to the comforting buzz of sports radio — and the only gods I ever prayed to were the baseball gods. Though I first fell in love with baseball in Boston, I inherited my father’s loyalty to the San Francisco Giants, and after we moved to the West Coast, I couldn’t sleep the night before I was to attend my first game at Candlestick Park. The problem with Boston’s American League team (this was before the unholy abomination known as interleague play) is that they never played my Giants, which meant I had never seen my favorite player: Barry Lamar Bonds.
In the Bay Area, he was always just “Barry.” His stance was a thing of beauty, with so much wound potential, he belongs on a vase, waving the bat more like a wand than a sword. Number 25’s presence at the plate changed games, forcing opposing managers to shift their fielders into unorthodox formations and use the intentional walk as it had never been used before and probably never will be again. On the pregame shows, radio hosts always wanted to know one thing: How will they pitch to Barry? Fans waved rubber chickens and booed when they didn’t give him anything to hit.
Barry’s successful chase for the single-season and then career home run records electrified the Bay Area. When Barry hit his 715th, passing Babe Ruth on the career list, I was walking with a friend while listening to the game on a portable radio. As we heard the call, we started shouting to anyone who could hear. Cars honked their horns and strangers celebrated together as his triumph brought a little touch of the carnivalesque to our suburb, an hour south of San Francisco.
But Barry was more than just the hulking home-run machine he was depicted as in the press. He maintained a disciplined eye in the batter’s box even when his restraint seemed like mercy to opposing pitchers, setting a record for walking an insane 198 times in 2003 and then breaking his own record two years later. He could use the other team’s compensatory tactics against them, jabbing a strategic single to the left side of the field when needed. Unlike most home-run hitters, Barry almost never struck out, and his Gold Glove fielding and more than 500 stolen bases complicate the media portrait of his one-dimensionality. At games it wasn’t uncommon for fans to mock-bow and yell, “We are not worthy!” when he stepped into the batter’s box. If he’s not the greatest player of all time, he’s certainly the greatest I expect to see.
Like a lot of artists, Barry has always been frustrated with the parts of his job unrelated to the art. But while we expect actors and directors to dodge the press and we don’t trust painters and novelists who aren’t moody and/or troubled, we expect athletes to whistle while they work. Nobody who watched him play could doubt his passion on the field, but Barry didn’t want to be a personality. In interviews, his soft voice seemed ill-suited to his physique, and he didn’t smile enough for the cameras, but Barry never owed San Francisco fans anything he didn’t deliver with style and grace. Rather, he made it a privilege to root for a middling team for over a decade.
Gradually the narrative consolidated that Barry was aloof, short-tempered, and moody — the local and national sports press did everything but actually call him uppity. But Barry taught me young that though artists work for their audiences, we don’t own them. When he throttled a harassing reporter, I called in to a sports radio talk show to defend Barry, mad that his play on the field wasn’t enough for them. I was eight years old.
When I consider the quality of most sports media, I stop wondering why dedicated fans of other forms of art can’t get into it. Only the worst literary criticism would consider an author’s personality relevant to the quality of her work. But obsessed by controversy and personalities, baseball’s talking heads long ago decided Barry was a bad guy. When the open secret of performance-enhancing drugs became less secret and more open, it was clear Barry would be made into the bad guy. Most likely, no other player will face jail time for the use of performance-enhancing drugs or lying about it. Barry, pending certain appeal, stands convicted of a felony and faces up to 10 years in prison.
For the eternally childlike baseball fan in me, Barry’s conviction is disillusioning, but this time it’s not to the player I find myself pleading, “Say it ain’t so.” It’s not in a suit facing a jury that I will remember Barry; it’s in the Giants’ orange and black, stepping to the plate head down while the stadium speakers blare the opening bars of Snoop Dogg’s “Next Episode” — a song to which I have a near Pavlovian attachment. If I live to be an old man, I fully intend to bore children with longwinded stories about how every time Barry swung, it felt like prophecy. Barry may not have been America’s idea of a sports hero, but he was mine.