Analysis: The “Hating Game” With Barry Bonds

By Gerry Fraley
Updated: April 18, 2007

DALLAS — Tyler Snyder, a teenage baseball fan from Pleasanton, Calif., formed his opinion of San Francisco slugger Barry Bonds from a distance. Snyder never had met Bonds, never been anywhere close to him and wanted nothing to do with him.

Snyder had a brush with Bonds and fame last May. It was a cold moment. Sitting in the right-field bleachers at Oakland’s McAfee Coliseum, Snyder caught the baseball when Bonds hit homer No. 714 to tie Babe Ruth for second place on the career list.

Stadium personnel rushed to Snyder, only to have him say that he did not want to meet with Bonds and work out a deal for the baseball. For emphasis, Snyder added, “I hate that guy.” Bonds understood the booing that matched the cheers during his trot after tying the Babe. Bonds always hears boos away from San Francisco’s AT&T Park. But to be hated? That is a whole different level.

At a postgame news conference, Bonds seemed genuinely disturbed by the spectator’s reaction. First, Bonds tried a joke. “If he doesn’t like me, give me the ball,” Bonds said.

Then he turned serious. “I don’t have any idea why anyone would express hatred to any other person that you don’t know,” Bonds said. Bonds is not the only one to be perplexed. Elite performers, once the focus of universal affection, have become polarizing figures.

There is no middle ground with Dallas receiver Terrell Owens, who annually ranks among the NFL’s leading receivers. The same holds for Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant, an NBA All-Star since age 19.

Jeff Gordon has won four NASCAR drivers’ championships, but loud cheers greet his mishaps. Oscar De La Hoya was an Olympic gold medalist and is the only boxer to have won a title in six weight classes, but he is not a subject of universal affection.

The list goes on: Eric Lindros in hockey; Lleyton Hewitt in tennis; Vijay Singh in golf. Bonds has it better than one of his peers in baseball. The home crowd seems to delight in booing New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez.

Forming perceptions Each performer has ardent supporters. Each performer is also viewed as a pariah by a large segment of the audience.

“People tend to have difficulty balancing their own perceptions,” said Dr. Richard Lustberg, a New York-based psychologist who directs the website

“It’s easy to take an extreme position. It’s like ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ with good witches and bad witches. It makes it easy on ourselves.” Davie-Brown Talent, a Dallas-based firm that matches companies with endorsers, has researched the appeal of 1,500 current celebrities. In the most recent rankings, Bonds placed No. 1,486 for likability and No. 1,488 for trustworthiness.

That puts him on the level of troubled celebrities such as actor Mel Gibson. Actor Tom Hanks was top-ranked for trustworthiness.

Bouncing back is tough The firm’s research has shown that once a celebrity dips near the bottom, there is little chance of image rehabilitation. “There definitely is a wide number of athletes who have this love-hate mentality,” said Scott Sanford, senior talent director at Davie-Brown Talent.

“There are people that others aspire to be like or at least look up to. … And then you have guys like Bonds and (Baltimore linebacker) Ray Lewis. There are questions about their character or their personality, and lots of individuals nationally seem to have a dislike or a disdain toward those athletes.” How has this happened? Lustberg said to start with the outspoken nature of athletes. The brasher or less conforming the athlete, the higher the polarization.

“Anyone who is outspoken in this country tends to be polarizing,” Lustberg said. “Look at Hillary Clinton. She’s running for president, and she’s very polarizing, too.” There can be other factors. Behavior, accessibility, authenticity and credibility are all factors, said Don Hinchey, vice president of communications for The Bonham Group, a sports and entertainment marketing firm.

Fall short in one area, and a reputation takes a big hit.

For example, Gordon suffers in the area of accessibility. In NASCAR, it is not unusual to find drivers interacting with fans in impromptu settings. That is not for Gordon. He is seen as distant, doing only what his handlers want.

Rodriguez does not score well on the scale of authenticity. He too often acts like a political spin-master. “The public is savvy about picking up things like that,” Hinchey said.

“They will call an athlete on that, and it usually leads to booing, failure to purchase merchandise.” Bonds is the perfect storm of polarization.

He qualifies in every aspect, possibly making him the most divisive athlete since heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. In the 1960s, Ali created a long-running firestorm with his conversion to the Nation of Islam, refusal to be inducted into the military and declaration of “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” Bonds is brash. He proved that forevermore by saying of Babe Ruth at the 2003 All-Star Game, “I wiped him out. … Don’t talk about that no more.” He is isolated, the result of a career-long disdain of the media. He is guilty of botched spin-control. The short-lived cable series “Bonds on Bonds” was truly bad television.

Factors affecting Bonds Bonds is tainted by accusations of steroid use and an on-going grand-jury investigation into perjury and tax evasion. Bonds is also the victim of bad timing.

The 1998 race between the Cardinals’ Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs to establish the single-season home run record became a warm and fuzzy story.

Now that questions have been raised about whether each slugger used performance-enhancing substances, the public is in a won’t-be-fooled-again mode.

“A lot of players look bad now in light of the new information that we have,” said Dr. Christian End, a professor of psychology at Xavier University who specializes in fan behavior.

There is an element of bandwagon-hopping at work. While on the faculty at the University of Missouri-Rolla, End would hear people say, “I hate Barry Bonds.”

When he asked why they had developed that sentiment, there was no answer. “It’s a conformity to popular opinion,” End said. “When people say they hate Barry Bonds or Jeff Gordon, you say you agree with that because everybody else does. But you don’t have any tangible reason for that. It’s as if it gets handed down.” The hate does not slow the targets. Ali regained his lost heavyweight title and won over many of the haters, transforming himself into a national treasure.

As San Francisco’s manager from 1993 to 2002, Dusty Baker watched Bonds feed off negative reactions. The more venom spewed by the public, Baker said, the stronger Bonds became and the better he performed.

The vicious cycle remains unbroken.