I was one of a handful of white people at a Los Angeles bar recently when the television flashed baseball highlights, and there was San Francisco Giants star Barry Bonds, hitting home runs No. 52 and 53 against the Florida Marlins. Even here in Dodgerland, everyone turned to the television and cheered Bonds' achievement wildly, marveling at the earringed 37-year-old closing in on Mark McGwire's 1998 70-home-run record.
But then the mood turned grim. "They're not gonna let him do it," one guy said to his friends, who all nodded sadly in assent. After all, "they" -- the white men who run baseball, presumably -- didn't let Sammy Sosa pass McGwire, everyone agreed. Bonds won't see many pitches to hit in the weeks to come, they predicted -- he would break the all-time walks record before he hit 70 home runs.
I winced, but I didn't bother to argue. Certainly I remember the racist abuse Hank Aaron endured when he broke Babe Ruth's lifetime home run record in 1974, and there's no denying black players face slights that whites don't. But if baseball managers refuse to let Bonds "do it" -- by walking him more, rather than challenging him -- it will of course have nothing to do with race. The Giants are in the heat of a race for the post-season, just like Sosa's Cubs were in 1998, while McGwire's third-place St. Louis Cardinals were in a race to get home to their golf clubs.
It's always sad to me when race shows up where it's irrelevant, and I'm convinced it's irrelevant in this year's thrilling home run chase. I've never thought race had much to do with Bonds' reputation for churlishness, either. He is rude to reporters, and sometimes to fans as well. But I thought about those black baseball conspiracy theorists when I read Rick Reilly's Sports Illustrated column blasting the Giants superstar last week, and the media firestorm that followed. Reilly reamed Bonds for his surliness, his focus on his own stats and his trademark failure to run out ground balls. What gave the piece rare power was Reilly's liberal quoting of National League MVP Jeff Kent, who blasted his superstar teammate.
"On the field, we're fine, but off the field, I don't care about Barry and Barry doesn't care about me. Or anybody else," Kent told Reilly. "He doesn't answer questions. He palms everybody off on us, so we have to do his talking for him. But you get used to it. Barry does a lot of questionable things ... I was raised to be a team guy, and I am, but Barry's Barry. It took me two years to learn to live with it, but I learned."
Reilly's criticism of Bonds was bad enough, but Kent's made the S.I. piece a national sports scandal. Still, I was struck by the fact that few sportswriters blasted Kent for breaching his own supposed "team-first" ethics by attacking a teammate, in the heat of a pennant race no less. The San Francisco Chronicle's Scott Ostler took a few mild potshots, in two mostly humorous columns, and the paper's Bruce Jenkins buried a smart two-sentence critique of Kent's mouthing off midway through a Saturday sports-wrap column.
But nobody blasted Kent head-on. (In print, anyway: On sports-talk KNBR radio, he took some heat from hosts and callers.) A week later, the local media consensus seems to be that the controversy, in the end, was good for the Giants: Bonds' defenders say it strengthened the team around Barry; Bonds' detractors say it exposed a clubhouse cancer that needed to be detected as the first step toward treatment.
That's just silly. There's no way the late-August dustup helped the team: The Giants were on a best-of-season roll before the Reilly column, winning 20 of 26, and they're 2-6 in the week or so since. Kent himself has been struggling at the plate, hitting under .200 over the last week. The team's minislump may well be a fated, late-season dip (the Giants' trademark) more than a reaction to Reilly, but a pennant-chasing team can't help but be hurt by such distractions.
More important, the Reilly flap exposed a double standard in coverage of the Giants, Bonds and Kent that's sloppy and lazy and maybe even partly racial. Worst of all, it showed the amazing extent to which reporters' own experience of a sports star -- the petty slights or the charm and flattery -- can control the way they cover him, and how the star is in turn perceived by fans. Kent and Bonds are in many ways brothers under the skin: proud, hardworking, self-critical loners, family men with few friends on the team. Both have been known to stare through fans like they didn't exist and stonewall kids' requests for autographs.
In short, in some ways both guys are cocky assholes, but one is white and dutifully answers reporters' questions, while the other is black and does not. Guess which one's the media darling?
Reilly's piece was marred by his petty and palpable dislike for Bonds -- who once stood up an S.I. reporter, prompting S.I. to run a scathing portrait of the All-Star as a spoiled diva, and now Bonds refuses to talk to anyone from the magazine -- as well as at errors and omissions. For instance, Bonds' teammates did indeed pour out of the dugout to congratulate him when he hit his 500th home run in April, despite Reilly's claim to the contrary. I was there.
The fact that Bonds greeted team batgirl Alexis Busch first -- which Reilly used as a sign of his unpopularity with his teammates -- was actually a sweet gesture that showed what's best about him: his kindness to kids, on and off the field. (Reason 4,695 why Dusty Baker's Giants are the best team in baseball: We have the only full-time batgirl.) Shortstop Rich Aurilia, who scored on the home run, embraced Bonds after Busch congratulated him, and other teammates hugged and high-fived him in the celebratory chaos that followed.
And if Reilly is going to ding Bonds for skipping the team photo, he might have done his homework: Kent missed the 2000 photo shoot, too. Maybe both had notes from their doctors, but Kent's absence should have been noted if he was going to trash Bonds.
Reilly's valorizing of tough Texas rancher Jeff Kent, in opposition to the pampered, earringed Californian Bonds, also pointed up an old ugly split that still mars baseball fandom and reporting: the elevation of gritty, hardworking, so-called blue-collar stars, usually white, over spoiled, overpaid, allegedly malingering superstars, who all too often just happen to be black. It's Cal Ripken Jr., Will Clark, Brett Butler and Jeff Kent vs. Rickey Henderson, Albert Belle, Gary Sheffield and Barry Bonds -- a few black fan and media favorites like Kirby Puckett and Tony Gwynn notwithstanding.
I'm a diehard Giants fan, and I actually love Kent. But any honest writer has to admit: On some of the same grounds where Bonds faces criticism, Kent too is kind of a jerk. Granted, he does great work on behalf of women's sports and puts on baseball clinics for kids annually (Bonds does amazing work for inner-city kids and schools, and several health charities). But I've been to five years of spring training and almost 200 Giants games since Kent joined the team, and I've never once seen him sign an autograph, toss a ball to a fan or chat up a kid in the stands. (I'm not saying he never does any of that, but I've never seen him do it, and I have seen Bonds.)
Kent can play the diva, too. Batting behind Bonds, he's made it known that he hates the speedy left-fielder stealing bases while he's batting, because it distracts him, and subsequently Bonds has stolen much less frequently in recent years (admittedly being 37 has something to do with it, too).
And Kent is not exactly the life of the clubhouse. He's taciturn and moody, hard on himself and sometimes on his teammates, and much like Bonds, has few close friends among the Giants. During an early-season slump he was quoted saying the Giants "suck," which got him props with reporters but might not have been just what the doctor ordered for clubhouse morale.
But the media sure loved it, and that brings up the two crucial differences between Bonds and Kent: One is that while Kent may not chat up fans and kids or make nice with his teammates, he always talks to the media, at least during his five years in San Francisco, and reporters repay him with glowing coverage. The Chronicle's Bruce Jenkins, in a column about the Reilly mess, acknowledged that one of Kent's key strengths is "his willingness to address the media during the toughest times." Ironically, it's a skill Kent learned after a painful stint in New York, where his surliness with reporters earned him the reputation of -- guess what? -- clubhouse cancer.
The other key difference is that Kent is white and Bonds is black. I bring race into it reluctantly. But after I wrote a Salon piece about my late-blooming love of Bonds after his 500th home run, a black reader wrote to thank me for coming to Bonds' defense, and posed the riddle: Imagine a black Jeff Kent.
And I've found myself thinking about that this week: Imagine a black Jeff Kent, who doesn't sign autographs or socialize with his teammates, skips the team photo shoot, blasts the Giants to the media, complains when somebody tries to steal a base while he's batting -- and now, in the heat of a pennant race, runs his mouth to Sports Illustrated about his most accomplished and under-pressure teammate. What a diva! What a clubhouse cancer! What an asshole!
Now, even with all those strikes against him, a surly black Jeff Kent, if he chatted up reporters, would have a better reputation than Barry Bonds does. But a black Jeff Kent might not have the ease or entree with reporters Kent currently does, either. This isn't to say that the writers critiquing Bonds and defending Kent are racist. But their comfort with the stars they cover plays a huge role in the way those stars are in turn perceived by fans. Nobody's terribly comfortable with Bonds, and race has to be examined as one of many possible reasons for his bad rap.
The main reason, of course, is that Bonds isn't very nice to reporters, and Kent, comparatively, is nicer. And that matters far more than it should. Baseball writers control perceptions of the stars they cover to a great extent, but they do it with a strange combination of absolute power and utter impotence. Their caste is a weird and fairly lowly one. Standing around the batting cage before a game will bring back your worst memories of high school alienation and awkwardness. The reporters are mostly nice but comparatively nerdy, not terribly athletic guys, who stand on the sidelines waiting for privileged superstars, guys who have everything -- wealth, talent, women, amazing bodies, did we mention wealth and women? -- to agree to answer their questions.
Sure, they have camaraderie among themselves, with the home-team staff and media folks and broadcasters, and some of them have it with some of the players. But on balance, occasionally going out to cover games, I've been struck by how all but the national media stars -- Peter Gammons, George Will, probably Rick Reilly -- often stand around the field like awkward boys at a middle school mixer, trying to get up the courage to ask someone to dance.
Bonds is mostly icy and oblivious; the well-liked Dusty Baker sometimes convenes his pre-game briefings begrudgingly, ridiculing dumb questions and barely tolerating good ones. Even Kent mostly ignores reporters before games. But Kent will step up after the game and answer both tough and easy questions, and for that he has many reporters' fealty.
Rick Reilly is of course bigger than that. But his nasty Bonds story had legs because of other writers' nasty Bonds stories -- stories that are disproportionately based on the way Bonds treats the media, not his treatment of fans or teammates or the game of baseball, which he honors daily despite his failure to run out ground balls, or his big leather lounger and personal television in the Giants' clubhouse.
Likewise, Kent's trashing Bonds became a big story, and not an excuse to lambaste Kent for selfish, anti-team behavior because A) he actually said something that wasn't a cliché to a sports reporter, which is news and B) reporters mostly respect and rely on Kent. So few of them said the obvious: His remarks to Reilly were a breach of the team ethic Kent claims to revere, and hurt the Giants far more than Bonds' surliness with reporters.
There's evidence Kent knows that; he's been photographed smiling and conferring with Bonds and he's mostly kept his mouth shut since the Reilly story appeared. But when I look at the reaction to Kent's breach by the fraternity of sports writers, I think about my friends in the Los Angeles bar, and I can see why they still perceive undercurrents of racism in baseball, even if they're wrong about Bonds' obstacles as he tries to break McGwire's record.