The Pittsburgh Pirates’ home opener Monday afternoon ended with a bang – a home run off the bat of Pittsburgh’s own Neil Walker that gave the Bucs a 1-0, 10-inning victory over the Chicago Cubs – but we’re still puzzled by the thinking that went into the decision by team management to invite the largely reviled Barry Bonds to participate in pregame ceremonies.
Bonds, a two-time National League Most Valuable Player when he wore the black and gold, was on hand to present current Pirates star Andrew McCutchen with his 2013 MVP hardware. Bonds was greeted with a mixture of boos and applause, which is probably more than he deserved, based on what he did during his career to soil the very fabric of the game.
For those too young to remember, Bonds was a freakishly talented athlete when he came to the Pirates in the mid-1980s. He ran like a gazelle, stole bases with abandon, hit for average and had considerable power for his then-relatively slender frame. For all his physical gifts, Bonds had next to none when it came to acting like a decent human being. The stories of his surly demeanor toward fans, team employees and even teammates are legion. He actually seemed to work at being the most despised man in baseball.
To give credit where it is due, Bonds played a large part in the Pirates’ appearances in three straight National League Championship Series in the early 1990s, but he largely disappeared on that big stage as the Bucs failed to advance to the World Series on every occasion. The lowlight of lowlights came in Game 7 in the 1992 NLCS, against Atlanta. The Pirates had a one-run lead, two outs in the bottom of the ninth, with David Justice on third, former Pirate Sid Bream on second and the otherwise forgettable Francisco Cabrera at the plate. Bonds supposedly was advised by center fielder Andy Van Slyke, one of the great defensive players in team history, to move closer to the infield, the better to get off a throw home in the event of a base hit. Depending on what story you believe, Bonds may or may not have responded with a single-finger salute to Van Slyke. Whatever the case, the little-used Cabrera responded with a base hit to left field, Bonds made a weak, off-line throw, and the lumbering Bream scored the run that lifted the Braves into the World Series and began 20-plus years in the baseball wilderness for the Pirates.
Bonds moved on to San Francisco, and a few years later, after watching Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire basking in the “glory” of their race to break Roger Maris’ record of 61 homers in a season (both did so), which most now attribute to their ingestion of illegal foreign substances (steroids), Bonds reportedly was so resentful and jealous that he, too, bulked up with the assistance of performance-enhancing drugs, getting so large in the process his entire body, including his head – like the Grinch’s heart – seemed to grow three sizes almost overnight. Bonds not only obliterated the single-season home run mark, hitting 73 in 2001, but also claimed what had been Hank Aaron’s record for homers in a career. All the while, Bonds continued to alienate pretty much everyone with whom he came into contact.
After his retirement following the 2007 season, Bonds spent much of his time battling with federal authorities over charges stemming from his use of illegal substances during his career. He ultimately was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice, and was convicted of the latter charge last year.
Also last year, Bonds came before the voters of the National Baseball Hall of Fame for the first time. How would those voters respond to a player who holds both major home run records, was voted to 14 all-star games, won eight Gold Gloves and was deemed the most valuable player in the National League a record seven times? It was a resounding, “Get out of here!” Bonds was named on about 36 percent of voters’ ballots last year and dipped below 35 percent this year. It takes 75 percent to earn Hall of Fame induction.
But despite all of the negatives surrounding Bonds, as a player and a person, the Pirates thought it was a good idea to create a media circus centered on him on a day when the focus should have been squarely on McCutchen, manager Clint Hurdle and others honored for their roles in the Pirates’ stirring run to the playoffs last year.
We can only hope that Bonds’ first invitation to PNC Park also was his last.