Tuesday, November 20, 2007

You Still Mystify And I Want To Know Why

By Kevin Guilfoile

Like a lot of baseball fans I don't care much for Barry Bonds. The thing is, he doesn't like me either. Or at least he didn't, but that was a long time ago.

I spent the summer of 1989 as a media relations intern for the Pittsburgh Pirates. I was a 20-year-old American studies major making $500 a month. Barry was a 24-year-old leadoff hitter, a player with tremendous potential, but he wasn't yet the superstar he would be a few years later, or the superhuman he would become a few years after that. The season I spent with Barry he had a respectable 19 home runs and an impressive 32 stolen bases, but he batted just .248. Four barely remembered members of the Pirates starting lineup--Bobby Bonilla, Gary Redus, Jay Bell, and R.J. Reynolds--hit for a better average on a fifth-place team. No one was calling Barry Bonds a future Hall of Famer just yet.

On a typical day at Three Rivers Stadium I did research and helped with media inquiries and wrote articles for various in-house publications. During games I worked in the press box, basically as a gofer. When the team was home I had one other chore which I should have been able to do in about 15 minutes. Because of Barry Bonds it often took me more than two hours.

Every morning I would get a list of names--sick kids in hospitals or the children of people who knew one of the owners, mostly--and I would walk down to the locker room to get autographs. I tried to limit the number of requests per player--I don't think there was ever a day when I had more than four or five requests for any one individual. I didn't want to burden them.

Now that I'm a writer who is occasionally asked to sign his name in books, it seems absurd that I was worried about burdening anyone with the task of signing autographs. I think I can speak for every writer in The Outfit--and probably every writer I know--when I say that it's a great privilege to sign books for readers. It's amazing to me that anyone would ever ask for my signature, much less go out of her way to come to a bookstore to get it. The idea that I'd ever feel put out by someone asking for my autograph seems ridiculous.

Nevertheless if celebrity is currency in America, writer fame surely has the lowest street value. As I've said before, no matter how many books a novelist sells, no one is going to ask him to appear on Dancing With The Stars. Outside of book events and his own neighborhood hardly any writer (except maybe the memorably featured Stephen King) ever gets recognized out of context, out in the world. Robert B. Parker, who has written something like 50 novels and who is one of the most popular authors on the planet, recently got recognized while dining at a restaurant in his own hometown of Boston and he was so pleasantly surprised he wrote an essay about it for The New York Times Magazine.

That's how rarely it happens.

I can't imagine what it must be like to be movie actor famous. Or athlete famous. To never be able to finish a meal at a restaurant, or shop for pants, or go to a movie without being interrupted by a stranger. And while every reader I've ever met has been nothing but gracious, for the truly famous the signature-seeking strangers in malls and movie theaters aren't always so deferential. I have seen a lot of bad behavior from fans who think an out-of-uniform athlete owes them his attention, without regard for the hundreds or even thousands of others who make the same demand of him every day. For athletes, locker rooms are something like sanctuaries. They might have to deal with reporters on occasion, but the rest of the time the locker room is a place where they can relax and eat and watch television and read fan mail and decompress and joke around and cuss (oh man, do they cuss) and not have to worry about crowds of signature-seeking strangers monopolizing their time. So I was sensitive to all that and most of the ballplayers treated me with kindness or at least respect. A few probably even hoped their name would be on my list, the fact that some kid had asked for their autograph being a good sign for their careers. Others thought of me as a minor nuisance that could be disposed of with a few seconds of Sharpie wielding.

And then there was Barry Bonds.

Barry wasn't the kind of jerk who was nice to people only when he needed something from them. As far as I could tell, Barry was pretty much an ass to everybody all the time. I remember one game when Barry hit a home run that set some minor record and the twelve-year-old boy who caught the ball returned it to the clubhouse so Barry could have it. The next day I asked him to sign a different ball to send to the kid as as a thank you. Barry signed it (after about twenty minutes of pretending he couldn't hear me), but when I asked him to write "To Christopher" on it, or maybe "Thanks Christopher" Barry refused. "He'll take whatever I give him," he said.

Most of the players had as little to do with him as possible. Bobby Bonilla had a locker next to his, though. At the time Bonilla was a bigger star than Bonds and he was one of the few players in that clubhouse who was on friendly terms with Barry. Instead of berating me directly or just ignoring me, Barry would sometimes talk about me like I wasn't there. Sometimes he would tell Bobby that I was lying to them and these autographs weren't for fans and that I was just selling these pictures to professional dealers, that I was just another no-talent white man exploiting black men who possessed real ability. Sometimes he would tell Bobby that the two of them were like slaves and I was--actually I never understood who I was supposed to be in Barry's slavery scenario. Anyway, when Barry was around, Bobby would wave a hand in my face and tell me to go away and then when Barry would leave the room, Bobby would wave me back and apologize and sign everything I had.
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The thing that most people can't figure out about Barry Bonds (and as a writer interested in character it fascinates me, too) is how he turned out to be such a colossal knob. Barry's father had an outstanding professional baseball career. Barry grew up in a good home, as far as anyone can tell. He went to good schools. He's smart. He was blessed with amazing athletic ability. It seems like it should be pretty easy for him to not be entirely consumed by his own hate. And yet Barry not only has chosen to make his own life impossible, he's thrown away tens of millions--maybe hundreds of millions--on lost endorsements simply because he never passes on an opportunity to demonstrate to anyone, big or small, that he doesn't give a damn about them.

Last week, Barry Bonds was indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in an investigation of the distribution and use of illegal steroids. He faces a possible thirty years in prison, basically for being the same arrogant ass to a grand jury that he always was to me, and it seems like I should feel a certain amount of schadenfreude over the news. But I don't. On the days when I wasted two hours standing behind his chair with a glossy photo and a Post-It trying to get Barry Bonds to acknowledge me, I'm sure I had revenge fantasies. I don't remember them now, but I suspect they were more about me having something Barry desperately wanted--like maybe an albino panda for his private zoo--and refusing to give it to him. He is probably the meanest person I've ever met and he's defiled a game that I love, but I can't imagine what satisfaction it would give me to know he's in prison. He has kids. I have kids. You put their dad in jail and now they really do have a reason to be angry at the world.

As a passionate baseball fan this steroids story has brought me nothing but sadness. In the next few months we can expect to hear many more names linked to the investigation. There are going to be huge fines. Long suspensions. Baseball is going to be something less than it once was as a result. And some of these players who disrespected themselves and the game won't be as easy to hate as Barry Bonds. Some are going to be players I really like.

The worst is yet to come, I'm afraid.

Every part of your life ends up in your writing and I think there are at least two qualities in my books that come directly from my summer in Barry's clubhouse. The first is a fondness for existential villains, people who do bad things not because someone did bad things to them, but simply because they choose to.

The second is cussing. My characters swear way more than they should. Especially in the first draft. But every f-bomb in my stories is a little tribute to the '89 Pirates.

They were really nice guys, most of them.

10 comments:

Keith Raffel said...

Kevin,

I once saw a different Barry Bonds. He was walking his dying father up and down the corridor at a local hospital. I posted about it a couple of months ago at http://keithraffel.typepad.com/dot_dead_diary/2007/08/barry-bonds-and.html

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Thanks for posting that, Keith.

I have no doubt that Barry loved his father and I'm sure he loves his son. I said he's probably the meanest person I've ever met. He might be one of the most complex, as well.

Not a good guy. Seriously. But complex.

JD Rhoades said...

Complex is right. I feel like I need to print out this post and the comments and hang them up over the computer to refer to while I write.

Anonymous said...

Nice essay. I'd like to know more about how awkward those moments were -- did other players (aside from what you said about Bobby Bo) interact with you? Did you sit or stand? Must've been awful.

Watch your door a few years from now when Barry and O.J. come through to take back all the memorabilia you kept.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

I'd like to know more about how awkward those moments were -- did other players (aside from what you said about Bobby Bo) interact with you? Did you sit or stand?

Team chemistry is pretty complicated. Almost all the players were really nice to me. Most probably saw what was going on between Barry and me every day, but no one was going to intercede and take my side against one of his teammates, even one they didn't like. And we're talking about autographed pictures here. They were important to me because it was my job and my boss expected me to get them, but they weren't that important to anyone else. And remember, Barry wasn't just making my job difficult, he was making everyone's job difficult--the batboys and the clubhouse attendants and the beat writers and the traveling secretary and the rest of the front office folk. A clubhouse Dudley Do-Right could spend all day fighting those battles. It just wasn't worth it. I got a lot of sympathetic looks and eye rolls. I remember after one particularly rude exchange, pitcher Jim Gott came over and apologized to me.

I did have one ally, but I don't think he even knew what was going on. At some point I figured out that Barry would never argue with me when the manager, Jim Leyland was around. So eventually my strategy was to get all the other players and then sit on the couch until Leyland came out of his office and then I would jump up and intercept Barry. Of course that meant sitting around for who knows how long.

For Barry's part, I don't think it was so much about not wanting to sign autographs (although he was very aware how much people were selling his signature for). I think it was about access. I think he thought if he made himself accessible to people they would never leave him alone. If I asked him for two signatures today and he happily gave them, he figured I would ask for twenty tomorrow. And if I got those the next day it would be fifty. It wasn't that he didn't want to give me a piece of paper with his signature, he just wanted to make it as difficult as possible for me to get it.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

There's an interesting, parallel discussion of this post over at this baseball site. One of the folks there expresses skepticism that I actually would stand behind Barry "for two hours." That's a fair point, I guess. I probably didn't literally stand there and breathe on his neck for two straight hours. I don't think Barry ever sat at his locker for that long. Every day was different, but on the really bad days I had a signature someone needed to have that afternoon for some reason and Barry would ignore me for a long time and then after some pestering I could usually get him to say "not now" and so I would sit on the couch and wait and then approach him again when he wasn't looking busy and he'd say "later" and then he would leave and I would go somewhere else or back to my desk (which was really far away) and someone would ask me if I had that signature yet and then I would go back and it would go on and on, usually, as I said, until Jim Leyland made an appearance. Sometimes that whole dance would take a couple hours. Considering that on game days we usually worked 15 or 16 hours, and that the rest of the work I did was basically clerical, my bosses could spare me for that long to get an autograph when they really needed it.

I suppose I did condense that into "standing behind his chair for two hours" for the sake of being succinct, but there's the explanation for the literal-minded.

JD Rhoades said...

One of the folks there expresses skepticism that I actually would stand behind Barry "for two hours."

This is the kind of idiotic nitpicking that makes me crazy in Internet debates.

bigtruck260 said...

Kevin -

One of the best articles written about Barry. I wonder if things will change for him after he is basically humiliated during this legal episode.
His talent is undeniable. It is a shame that his ability and his brain could not have been for a positive purpose.
The usual "in 100 years nobody will care" argument will probably not apply to Barry. He is a villain on the ball field, and seems to like it that way.

DanaKing said...

I knew there was a reason I liked your stuff so much: you spent time in The Burgh. My first definite memory is of hearing Bill Mazeroski hit the home run that won the 1960 World Series.

I moved away in 1980, but have always remained a Pittsburgh boy at heart. I thought Barry Bonds was a tool when he played for the Pirates, and he's done nothing to disappoint me since then.

You may know if the Children's Hospital story is true. The version I heard is that the entire team was asked to autograph a ball to be auctioned off for the charity, after they won one of their division titles. Barry wanted to know what was in it for him. The way I hear it, someone bought a Barry Bonds autographed ball in the memorabilia store, the rest of the team signed it, and that was the one that was auctioned.

It amazes me that people think he should get a break. Forget what a jerk he's been; looking the other way on perjury will make it impossible to investigate anything, once the word gets out that's what they're doing.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Dana,

Actually, I moved away from Pittsburgh (for the first time) just a year before you did. I lived in Bethel Park until I was about 11 and I still love that city. After the Bears, I still always root for the Steelers.

I never heard that story (that would have been after I was there). I suppose I could see the desperation getting to that level, although every major leaguer, even Barry I'm sure, signs scores of team balls every season. It seems unlikely they couldn't find one for an auction like that. On the other hand, if he had a particular beef with the person doing the asking, or if the person asking didn't have the time or patience to wait Barry out, I guess it's possible. It would have had to have been someone higher on the front office food chain. Someone with no time to put up with Barry's crap, and either an expense account or enough money to go buy one of his balls.

There would be great irony in it as Barry hated the idea of people selling his autograph. Oddly enough, after he refused to personalize the ball for that kid who caught his home run (which set the record for most home runs by a father and son) someone with a real title tried to come down on Barry for it and, as I recall, his excuse was that the ball would be worth more if he didn't personalize it. I was there when he refused to do it and I can tell you that at the time he didn't think he was doing the kid a favor by contributing to his college fund. Yet when confronted about it, his rationalization was all about money. He was kind of obsessed about it, even then.

In the olden days (the days before memorabilia was big business) there would be somebody on staff who was expert in forging signatures for just such an occasion. That was seriously frowned upon by the time I came along, although there was one time when I was getting a lot of pressure to get a signature from Barry on a ball and he wasn't cooperating and so I grabbed a couple of old balls from somewhere and practiced his autograph until it was passable. I never passed those sigs off as his, but I remember feeling that frustrated about it.