There probably hasn’t been a more polarizing figure in the last quarter-century of Major League Baseball than Barry Bonds.
The game’s home run king was certainly one of the greatest players in history. But was also a cheater, the sport’s poster boy when it came to the abuse of performance enhancing drugs.
On top of that, he willingly gave the impression of not being a very nice guy. He kept to himself in his own corner of the clubhouse, wary of strangers, stingy with his time. He had a contentious relationship with the media.
Truth is, Bonds appears to be in another place right now. He understands the cost of his actions. Now 55 years old, the passage of time has brought him perspective he didn’t have in the midst of his career when he was so self-centered and unapproachable. He sounds almost contrite.
As you know, he’s been excluded from the Hall of Fame without any assurance voters will reconsider his candidacy before his eligibility dries up.
As a result, Bonds is trying to figure out a way to remain relevant within the game. And this spring he is in the training camp of his former team, the San Francisco Giants, helping the organization prepare for the 2020 season.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Athletic last weekend, Bonds admitted that no matter what he tries to do, he still feels like he’s on the outside of game looking in.
“I feel like a ghost,” Bonds said. “A ghost in a big empty house, just rattling around. …A death sentence. That’s what they’ve given me. … My heart, it’s broken. Really broken.
“I know what I did out there. I know what I accomplished between those lines. It’s outside those lines that I would have done some things different.”
Bonds told The Athletic there were many things about his past he regretted, particularly the way he treated people outside of his world.
Bonds said he doesn’t think a lot about not being voted into the Hall of Fame, a legacy he shares with Roger Clemens, who was also caught up in the PED scandal.
Bonds and Clemens have two years remaining to receive the 75 percent of the vote necessary for admission. Last year, Bonds received only 60.2 percent.
Still, he said he doesn’t need to be acknowledged to feel validated after slugging 762 home runs and winning seven MVP awards.
“If they don’t want me, just say you don’t want me and be done with it,” he said. “Just be done with it.”
Bonds hasn’t been formerly associated with the game since he was the batting coach of the Miami Marlins in 2016. Frankly, there is no way of knowing how he would be received by the fans if some other organization opened their doors to him.
What’s clear is, San Francisco has forgiven him. The Giants retired his No. 25 two years ago and he’s welcomed in their ballpark, where he is viewed the way he likely wishes he was around the game.
The Giants are so comfortable with Bonds they have asked him to intermingle with their sponsors and suite-holders. That would not happen if the team was worried about the response the interface might create.
In terms of baseball, Bonds is more of an observer.
“Well, I just sit there and watch,” Bonds said. “I’m not trying to get in anybody’s way there. We’re all here coaching for a reason. I wouldn’t sit there and say, ‘Wow, your philosophy is kind of crazy.’ It’s just not what I’m here for. I wouldn’t ever do that, period. That’s just not my character.”
The game is much different now, dominated by analytics that praise launch angle and exit velocity. Bonds is still trying to process it all.
“I’m just new to it right now,” Bonds said. “Information is information. I mean, you can’t get enough of it. If you can utilize it with your tools, then why not? But you don’t want to be a robot to it, either.
“When it comes to the baseball field, things have a tendency to change, right? All those computers are gone when you’re on that field. If you don’t have common sense to see what’s happening in front of you and use all your senses, then you become mechanical. To me, I think there are some advantages to (data-driven instruction) that could help some people. I do really think it could help all of us in a sense.”
Bonds went on to explain how strange it is to hear modern-day hitters say hitting ground balls was a sign of failure.
“Never in my lifetime would I ever think like that,” Bonds said. “Never. My dad and Willie (Mays) would kill me. Like they told me, ‘Hit the ball in the air and it takes one guy to get you out. Hit one on the ground and you got two chances.’ And mechanically, (the uppercut) is not the perfect swing. (The uppercut) is what your body normally does. Trying to keep it straight is harder because now you’ve got to engage your body, engage your arms, engage your core.
“But I don’t blame these guys. If you can hit .220 and strike out 200 times and hit 25 home runs and someone’s going to give you $200 million, man, I’m going to hit .220 and strike out 200 times and I’m getting $200 million. When I played, if you hit .220, you ain’t in the big leagues. But it’s a different generation and I don’t fault them at all.”
Bonds was even asked if he thought he’d be successful in a world where pitchers routinely throw 90-to-100 mph.
“Well, that would be easy for me then because I don’t have to adjust that much,” Bonds said.
Perhaps that’s true. But Bonds now understand he needs to make a lot of adjustments to get back in the game’s good graces. He burned too many important bridges, particularly the one that should have already taken him to Cooperstown.