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.
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.