Only the Fans Want To See Bonds Back in a Uniform
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The public may think that Barry Bonds is a villain, but you wouldn’t know it from what happened this weekend. As part of a Saturday celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Giants’ move to San Francisco, Bonds stepped on a baseball field for the first time since last September 26, and was greeted like a conquering king returned home. Worse scoundrels such as Pete Rose have been treated just as well, but this was a bit more proof that the government, baseball industry, and press have more against Bonds than paying fans do.
“I’m not retired,” he declared, and they loved it. Whether or not he’s retired, though, he’s not playing baseball, despite being willing not just to play for any team for the minimum salary, but to donate that to charity. It’s one of the strangest stories the game has ever seen.
Most of the easy justifications for Bonds’s unemployment make no sense. He’s under federal indictment on perjury charges, but ballplayers accused of worse crimes, such as wife beating and drunken driving, have stayed in work. He probably used steroids, but teams have hired plenty of players who actually failed steroid tests. He’s 44 years old, but so is Randy Johnson, who’s making $15 million this year, and so was Roger Clemens last year when he signed a contract worth a prorated $28 million. By now, it’s too late in the year for him to make much of a difference for any contender that could use him, but that wasn’t true in March or June, and he still couldn’t get a job.
All of this looked rotten several months ago and looks worse right now. Bonds’s announcement came a day after the opening of the Olympic Games, among other things a quadrennial celebration of brazen drug use. It came two weeks after Senator McCain made a campaign appearance with cyclist Lance Armstrong, whose alleged use has been documented just as thoroughly as Bonds’s. It came a week after the Boston Red Sox traded Manny Ramirez while all but openly accusing him of tanking during a pennant race, which, if actually true, would class him somewhere near “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and Rose. Less than a year since he last played, Bonds’s offenses seem almost quaint.
In these circumstances, conspiratorial thinking makes sense. Last month Bonds’s agent, Jeff Borris, hinted that he thought his client was being colluded against. Commissioner Bud Selig and Rob Manfred, central baseball’s man for labor relations, delivered variations on a point about clubs making “individual decisions” in response, but by then the question was out in the open. With Bonds refusing to fade quietly away, it’s still there.
There likely isn’t any provable conspiracy against Bonds, but you could forgive him for thinking otherwise, given the history. Just two years ago, while admitting no guilt, ownership paid players $12 million to settle claims of collusion against free agents in the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Eighteen years ago, ownership paid players $280 million — nearly a half-billion in 2008 dollars — to settle the collusion cases of 1985-87. Segregation was a conspiracy, since there was never any official rule against fielding black players. Teams today conspire (legally) against amateurs by agreeing to pay draft picks by slot.
But it’s just this history that makes the idea of an actual directive against signing Bonds so implausible. Owners recently suffered from openly, illegally colluding; the memory of that $280 million is doubtless never far from the commissioner’s mind. They have every incentive not only not to be caught colluding, but not even to be perceived as doing so. The game’s current success is built upon the first really stable labor-management relationship it’s enjoyed since the advent of free agency, and little would do more to put that at risk than a collusion scandal.
Moreover, there are ways in which baseball is less like an industry of 30 competing teams than it is a single company with 30 divisions. Corporate executives don’t have to tell accountants to devise ways to keep losses off the books, and Mafia dons don’t reach down to tell their lieutenants which men need to be taken out. Little seems less likely than the idea of Selig or anyone in his office even having to put word out to keep teams away form Bonds. In any establishment, there are things that simply go unsaid.
Whatever the truth, and whatever announcements Bonds makes, the game is up. Bonds will be 45 next year, and his trial is slated for March. If teams weren’t willing to sign him this year, there’s no reason to think they will be next year. The best he can hope for is probably a token last game in uniform in San Francisco this September. Whatever anyone else might think, you know the people who pay to see the games would love it.