Recently I read a story where Barry Bonds commented on his relationship with the press during his heyday. Bonds was a baseball prodigy, born into baseball royalty, the son of Bobby Bonds, the godson of Hall of Famer, Willie Mays, learning the game by watching San Francisco Giants’ game, consisting of a lineup featuring his father in right field, Al Gallagher at third base, Willie Mays in center field, the great Willie McCovey at first, Ken Henderson in left field, Dick Dietz catching, Tito Fuentes at second base, and Bob Lanier, shortstop. I, like others, watched the Game of the Week, San Francisco against Los Angeles, marveling at Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal, both too baseball Hall of Famers. For those of you who are not baseball fans let me summarize Bond’s accomplishments, leaving out most. Bonds is a seven-time Most Valuable Player (MVP), holds baseball’s record for the most home runs (762) (not Hank Aaron, not Babe Ruth), an eight time Glove Glover recipient (meaning he played defense also), and was one of baseball’s greatest players, bad attitude and all.
In March 2006, the book Game of Shadows was published. The authors, Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, alleged in their book Bonds used the drug stanozolol, and a host of other steroids. The books contained excerpts from grand jury testimony that was supposed to have been sealed and confidential under law. A subsequent federal investigation into the leaked testimony, led to the defense lawyer (for one of the targets of the investigation), Troy Ellerman. After Ellerman plead guilty to prison time, the charges against the Williams and Fainaru-Wada were dropped.
In May of 2006, Jeff Pearlman, a Sports Illustrated writer, penned an unauthorized biography of Bonds entitled Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Anti-Hero. Pearlman described Bonds as a polarizing insufferable braggart with a legendary ego and staggering ability, conclusions he based on conducting over five hundred interviews, except he never interviewed Bonds. The rest of the nations’ baseball press and writers were no different, making Barry Bonds the anti-Christ, the bad-boy of baseball (alleged drug use), while others of different skin hues who grew larger, faster, and stronger, were not accorded like treatment. Even after Bonds was indicted and ultimately cleared (jury trial and dismissal of remaining charges on appeal), the baseball writers to this day continue to hold him to an untenable standard (a “we were right, tell us the truth Barry” kind-of-standard), publicizing their intent never to elect him to the Hall-of-Fame. Others escaped Bond’s treatment when investigations revealed others of America’s heroes were complicit; these revelations caused those same writers to grow silent, quieting the pursuit to uncover every stone.
Bond’s interview was posted by SportsOnEarth.com. In it, Bonds attempted to make his peace with baseball, and the writers, taking blame. “Me. It’s on me. I’m to blame for the way I was [portrayed] because I was a dumbass. I was straight stupid, and I’ll be the first to admit it.” He then continued, “I mean, I was flat-out dumb. I’m not going to try to justify the way I acted toward people.” When I read the interview, I felt as if Bond’s was giving me permission to no longer remain angry. Permission to cease my protest of the game … watch a game … follow a team … become a fan again. Bonds said it is okay. He said he is okay.
Nelson Mandela in assessing the role sports plays in our society said, “Sport has the power to change the world.” When reading Mandela’s statement, I readily agreed, being born at a time fundamental changes were playing out. The Negro Baseball League was winding down (a league formed because major league baseball’s refusal to allow the Negro ball players to play on their teams, in their league). Reading Mandela’s words caused me to recall my mother telling me of the Negro baseball players she fitted, “repairing the uniforms for visiting clubs, and making uniforms for the Dallas team.” Mandela explanation went farther however, “It [sports] has the power to inspire … the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.” With his words, the separate water fountains of my youth appeared, segregated public facilities and schools flashed before my eyes, words used to control were heard, the violence used to slay remained imprinted. I saw the anger in my mother’s face when I went to drink from the assigned fountain located in downtown Fort Worth. “No, no, you drink from that one.” I dared not disobey, drinking fast, slurping, wiping, and walking quickly away.
Absolutely, I knew of Rosa Parks, but I knew more about Wilma Rudolph. I knew that Hank Aaron played in the Negro Baseball League before reading about Hank Aaron playing in the Negro Baseball League. My imagination allowed me to see him standing in the middle of a black woman’s home, like my mother’s home, being measured and later fitted. I saw Dr. King on the television and in Jet and Ebony, while being able to quote more about Jim Brown’s background than Dr. King’s. Elijah Muhammad spoke of self-determination, the white devils, and the Fruits of Islam – words never fully heard – and not ever fully remembering his full name, but knowing Cassius Clay’s given name, the new name, then serving as a sponge, absorbing his every word.
The birth of the civil rights struggle, and its continued vitality would not have reached the four corners of this country, without the black athlete’s participation, even sometimes leading the way. Along the way, I was no different than every other negro/colored/black child in America, collecting and recounting the quotes of coaches who vowed never to allow a black player on their teams; marveling when seeing white institutions with even just one black player on the field, court, diamond, or track; bursting with pride, when an all-black starting five (basketball) won the national championship (beating an all-white Kentucky Wildcat team); shouting, screaming, urging them to run faster, as Tommie Smith and John Carlos crossed the finish line in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics (and not at all being horrified when they raised their fists in a black power salute). Celebrating each time because it seemed important, bringing about a collective hope, progress.
Muhammad Ali’s death is a reminder why Barry Bond could be surly and why some of us could protest Bond’s treatment for over two decades; maybe because we remember; maybe because we could. In 1964, Ali knocked out Sonny Liston, afterward running to the edge of the ring shouting, “I shook up the world. I shook up the world.” At the time, Ali had not yet to change his name. During the post-fight interview, Ali was referred to by his given name, Cassius Clay. The interviewer appeared to mock him, at the conclusion of the interview, as if for good measure, he turned and said, “Let’s get our champion, Joe Louis get over here.” Joe Louis was the heavyweight champion from 1937-1949, and had been retired from the ring for fifteen years. His message was clear to a black child’s ears; Louis was more passive, acceptable, “our champion”.
Ali’s words have proven to be true, actually an understatement. His bragging, predicting, standing firm, changing faiths, lecturing, worked to implant his face to the pride, hope, and struggle in which we were all participants. In context, it made sense, his actions allowed us to scream for Tommie Smith and John Carlos as they crossed the finish line in the 200 meters; Smith breaking the world record in the progress; seeing them as one of us (black) and not as American athletes. They represented hope. Nights later, we screamed, booed and hated George Foreman’s action, when he placed an American flag in his hand after his victory in the ring, appearing to be a counter-protest to Smith and Carlos’ acts of defiance, even though he said his actions were not, even though he too was black – so it seemed, so we disbelieved.
Ali shocked the world indeed, speaking out about the game of boxing (benefiting other boxers of his day and even today), participating in the advent of pay-for-view, demanding more the monetary pie, staging events in other countries, perfecting the art of putting bottoms in the seats, becoming one of the most recognizable faces and personalities in the world. Preaching race pride at a time it was desperately needed, protesting the war against Vietnam, grappling with life issues, making mistakes, ultimately evolving on the issue of race (as most of us have) and in the process making us laugh, think, and cry.
In 1971, when Joe Frazier’s left hook connected with Ali’s face, we collectively wailed on our living room floors – all over the country – envisioning white America laughing and celebrating the loud mouth’s demise. Years later, Ali proved his humanity (as in being human, making a decision, even if a mistaken one), refusing to quit when age, time, and the diminishment of his skills came knocking – once, twice, three times – causing him to take beatings from ordinary fighters, lesser men, forcing us to our corners, missing his voice, wiping away our tears.
I will probably never understand the bravery needed to take a beating and remain constant in ones’ belief about the humanity of humankind (as in Dr. King). I will forever marvel at Mandela’s reaction to hatred, after his decades of confinement, while his country’s mimicked America’s system of apartheid. He, Mandela, too shocked the world, preaching that they (the Black South Africans (Bantustans)) could not act in the same manner as their oppressors (Whites (Afrikaners)), instead he reached out, calmed the waters, preached truth and reconciliation, demanding a peaceful transition. Mandela’s actions and words seemed inconsistent with the acts of others, unparalleled in civilizations which have forever cherished conquest, leaving a world forever grateful. And finally, I will never understand the modern day athlete hiding behind 140 characters, muted messages, gated lives, quieted, as if every day is a day at Disney.
In 1974, Ali fought George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. In anticipation of the difficulty of defeating a younger, talented champion, Ali incorporated the will of the people, using the phase “Ali, Bomaya!” (Meaning “Ali kill him” in the Lingala language) to his advantage. He, Ali, accomplished the seemingly impossible, defeating Foreman, knocking him out in the eighth round, contributing another life lesson, dream the impossible.
Barry Bonds making peace with baseball is because he can, not at all impossible act. My deciding to now attend a baseball game will be preceded by watching a couple of games, not imposing, in that permission has now been granted. And I predict, Bonds’ delayed induction into Baseball’s Hall-of-Fame too will pass, but not if the baseball writers fail to hear the collective voices of history.
“Insufferable braggart with a legendary ego” – that Willie May’s godson and Bobby Bond’s son, for God’s sake, what are you thinking? And by the way, if the man has been acquitted in a court of law, then your only fall back is his attitude, for which he is now apologizing. And you’re upset about a prominent athlete’s attitude? – have you had your heads in the sand the last fifty two years? “Ali, Bomaya!”