The Miami Marlins made the controversial move of hiring Barry Bonds this offseason to serve as hitting coach. Part of the reason why it was a controversial move is because of Bonds's perception in baseball. This not only stems from the performance-enhancing drugs cloud that constantly surrounds the record-breaking slugger's name, but also his general approach and demeanor in his 22 seasons in the big leagues. Bonds was well known for being surly and a difficult teammate, and that did not lend itself to making a good coach who could help young Marlins hitters.
It turns out there is a new Barry Bonds in town, and he is nothing like that guy. Bonds has taken on a new demeanor in his life beyond playing professional baseball, as SportsOnEarth's Terrence Moore points out.
Yes, Bonds was surly, angry, dismissive, grumpy, rude, obnoxious, nasty, selfish, ungrateful and combative toward many people during his 22 seasons through 2007 with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Francisco Giants. But given my interactions with him, that wasn't the real guy, and guess who was responsible for such a misconception?
"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," said Bonds, nodding in the visitors' dugout at Turner Field last week, when he was in Atlanta during his first year as the hitting coach for the Miami Marlins. "I mean, I was just flat-out dumb. What can I say? I'm not going to try to justify the way I acted toward people. I was stupid. It wasn't an image that I invented on purpose. It actually escalated into that, and then I maintained it. You know what I mean? It was never something that I really ever wanted. No one wants to be treated like that, because I was considered to be a terrible person. You'd have to be insane to want to be treated like that. That makes no sense.
Bonds reports that his behavior was a facade that he felt he had to put up because of the way things got started in his young career. After all, Bonds was only 25 years old when he won the first of what would be seven National League MVP awards in 1990. He was a star at such a young age, with such high expectations on his shoulders, that he did not initially handle the media and pressures well.
"The expectations on me at a young age is what got me," Bonds said without hesitation. "During the Pittsburgh days, when we were starting to win a little bit, it was like it was all my fault that we didn't win."
"I was a 20-something-year-old ballplayer in the middle of veterans, with Van Slyke and Bobby and all the rest of them, and it just came to this big, huge pressure on me," Bonds said. "I was almost shocked by that. I knew I had good talent, but I was a fruit of a tree, and I wasn't ripe yet. Not at that point of my career. The expectations were just thrown on me to carry that whole team, and I was too young to handle all of that. I took it personally, and I was offended by it. I also was really disappointed, and I allowed my emotions to get involved. That sort of escalated everything."
What strikes me as most interesting in that quote is the parallel to other young stars like Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper who were not perfect at the start of their careers. Sure, Harper has since blossomed into an elite player, and Stanton is right on the cusp of that development, but negative press for those two players has always been around because they carry the weight of expectations on them. Stanton is the owner of the largest contract in American sports history, while Harper was a unanimous first-pick selection in a draft and touted as a generational talent. It is difficult to manage those things with everyone in the media and fan base putting the target on your back and the blame on your shoulders if things go wrong. Baseball may be an individual sport, but individual players still have a low limit on how much they can bring to the table for their team wins-wise. One need only look at Mike Trout, who has been the best player in baseball since he arrived and never went through the struggles that Stanton and Harper (relatively) slogged through and has still not made playoff success regular in Anaheim.
Bonds knows what the youngest stars of this new generation bear in terms of burden. He handled things poorly and became an outcast, and the relationship between him and his team was irrevocably damaged. By the time he wanted to fix it, the players just wanted surly, dominant Bonds around instead.
"The guys came up to me, and they said, 'Barry try,' you know what I mean?" Bonds said, referring to how those Giants teammates pleaded with him to change his public image. "And I did change. I was nice, and I was saying, 'Hello' to folks and I was very calm. But I was like 0-for-21. And the first thing those teammates said to me was, 'We want the old Barry back.' I said, 'Yeah, but y'all don't like the old Barry.' And they said, 'We don't care. We want the old Barry back.' But the media never knew that was happening, and I was still being cooperative with [reporters] during that stretch, and they were still writing crazy stuff about me, but in that new role, I didn't care.
"We weren't doing well, and I wasn't doing well, but I still clapped my hands and saying, 'That's OK, man. We'll be fine.' But my teammates didn't like that person. They wanted the ogre back."
Clubhouse chemistry almost certainly plays a role in affecting performance, though the size of that role is still unknown. Bonds felt like turning to a nicer version of himself took away what did well (or he had a cold streak that coincided with this nice turn, whatever it ended up being) and the players went back to ignoring him. However, it sounds like they just wanted him to play well first and foremost, once again showing that production trumps cohesion.
Still, it mattered that the players on Bonds's team resented him for his status. One could easily see something like that happening to a less jovial guy like Stanton. You don't earn that large contract and not receive some sideways glances from teammates if things are going wrong. This is why it is helpful to have a team that seemingly likes Stanton surrounding him, to know that the team has a support structure for even its biggest and brightest stars. That may have been something that was missing when Hanley Ramirez was supposedly acting out in town.
It also presumably is helpful to have a veteran player's manager like Don Mattingly to assist with the clubhouse if stuff like this goes on. One of those big managerial jobs is to be a calming influence when there is tension, and Mattingly looks like he handles that role well.
What does Bonds do now to entertain himself outside of teaching Marlins hitters? Biking, it seems.
Then came retirement, and he replaced hitting, throwing, fielding and running with cycling. Nothing has changed during his new role with the Marlins. On a typical day, he's spinning by 6 a.m. along the way to a two-hour ride. He takes his bike everywhere, even on road trips.
Good for him to find a healthy way to live outside of being a weightlifting machine of his old playing days. Also, it is good to see that Bonds is more like the guy who was always smiling when the San Francisco crowd showered him with adulation rather than the curmudgeon that everyone knew from his public persona. In life after baseball, it sounds as though Bonds has found peace with his lifestyle and his behavior, and to come back welcomed by the Marlins I am sure was an honor. Hopefully Bonds can spread his great knowledge about the game without having those media demons come back to him.