Bigotry Follows Slugger To Plate

By Mark Kiszla
Updated: September 23, 2005

DENVER — Go ahead. Name an American sports hero at the top of his game more despised than Barry Bonds.

When the boos rain down on the slugger as he steps to home plate, what do you hear?

I hear racism.

Bonds proves bigotry in this country is always as close as the back of a fan’s throat.

Resuming a brilliant career left for dead by his painful knee injury and a chronic steroid controversy, the 41-year-old Bonds is again bashing hanging curveballs and his detractors into the upper deck.

Bonds hits our town with 707 home runs to his name. Roll over, Babe Ruth. The king of baseball’s asterisk era has your hallowed statistic dead in his sights.

And White America hates it.

The same baseball poets who wrote odes to Mark McGwire cannot wait to tar and feather Bonds as a cheater.

Bigots who buy tickets heckle Bonds, until the boos are stifled with awe for the next moon shot launched from his bat.

Bonds is commissioner Bud Selig’s worst nightmare, because shudder to think the greatest player of a generation could go down in history as a jerk.

More than 50 years after Jackie Robinson crossed the racial divide in baseball, the USA is still not ready for a black man who speaks loudly and carries a big stick. The two most polarizing words in sports? Barry Bonds.

Worst of all for his haters, Bonds predicted this ugliness would boil over and scald the game.

Or have we already forgotten his first big blast of the year?

“If I was a long ways from Babe Ruth, this wouldn’t be the same. Because Babe Ruth is one of the greatest baseball players ever, and Babe Ruth ain’t black. I’m black,” said Bonds, speaking directly to the cameras way back in spring training. “Blacks, we go through a little more, and that’s the truth. Unfortunately, I said it. And I’m not a racist, but I live in the real world.”

Bonds never says anything to make the people who control money or power feel good about themselves. No wonder he is unduly castigated as an ungrateful renegade.

Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, whose public relations savvy match their unbelievable athletic talent, seldom offer any opinion not endorsed by commercial sponsors. No surprise they are heroes safe for suburbia to love.

In a country that pledges to fight for freedom of speech, Bonds is disliked for speaking the unpopular truth.

He is often 100 percent correct. A killer hurricane is a bigger national disaster than a national pastime that poisoned itself on juice.

Whether Bonds rubbed a cream on his body that transformed him into the San Francisco Hulk is not nearly as disturbing as the leaking of secret grand jury testimony, which is a crime against the U.S. justice system.

The best revenge is being right. But the crying shame is Bonds has let the hate beat him. Not on the field. In his heart.

Nobody regards the anger inside Bonds as racist. He is a confused ballplayer afraid to trust the applause and a lonely son wishing his deceased father could see him now.

But prejudice is a natural human condition, as deeply ingrained as the fight-or-flight instincts of survival. The prejudice Bonds lets slip is as undeniable as the indiscriminate contempt he regularly displays for admirers and enemies alike.

No athlete of the past 50 years has been more compelling to watch than Bonds at bat.

No celebrity in a nation where sports are religion has been harder to worship.

America cannot embrace a man who keeps pushing the whole country away.

Anyone who lives in the real world knows prejudice can spew both ways.

Cheater or not, Bonds is the only hitter I would pay to see. Yet I have felt the drop-dead glare Bonds offers the media horde when cornered in the Giants’ clubhouse, maybe because he has been bitten too often to give strangers the benefit of the doubt.

Bonds is easy to hate only because pity is so much more work.

Being the home run king should be a sweet blast. Too often, Bonds acts as if his job is shoveling manure.

It stinks when the boos leave such deep scars on a slugger’s heart that it is tough for Bonds to feel the love while circling the bases.

Where’s the joy in a home run if it doesn’t touch us all?