Sports Nut

Most Volatile Player

Why Barry Bonds wants you to think he’s a hothead.

Barry Bonds:Ty Cobb reincarnated or Mr. Congeniality?

It quickly became my favorite part of the World Series. Forget those rickety old-timers short-arming the ceremonial first pitch. Spare me the Cheez Whiz tribute to baseball’s Top 10 moments. And enough with the Rally Monkey, who will hopefully succumb to extinction this winter. Instead, the most intriguing ritual at this season’s Fall Classic took place after every game, in a remote corner of the San Francisco Giants’ clubhouse. It was the Barry Bonds Postgame Media Circus. And it was truly something to behold.

I covered the Barry Beat for during the series. The postgame drill went something like this: For two, sometimes even three minutes after every contest, baseball’s greatest home run hitter—and most notorious media curmudgeon—would snarl, swear, and generally harass the gaggle of reporters crowded around his locker. Meanwhile, cameramen and beat writers would jockey for position, elbows lodged in each other’s ample guts, straining to hear—because Barry does these interviews as softly as humanly possible, you know, just to mess with us. Get close … but not too close. “Dude, back up or I’ll snap,” Mr. Congeniality warned one reporter who stepped on the duffel bag of his son, Nikolai, after the Giants’ loss in the deciding Game 7. “I’m not playing around when it comes to my son.”

If you witnessed this scene, you’d think Barry loathed sportswriters. But that’s all wrong. Barry Bonds loves us. His Ty Cobb act is all part of a strategy to keep the spotlight trained on his frowning mug.

If Barry really wished, as he’d have you believe, that all members of the Fourth Estate would contract scurvy, he’d be acting differently. Barry’s an intelligent guy—been in the game for 17 years, which is ample time to get an understanding of how the whole give-and-take goes. It’s like this: If you really want the scribes out of your hair, shut down your pulse when you leave the field. Serve up vanilla clichés about taking it a game at a time, and avoid saying anything out of the ordinary. Eventually, reporters will lose interest. Sure, they’ll still ask a few obligatory questions, but they’ll move on to bit players, the guys who have to say something of note to get mentioned outside of the box score.

Heck, the strategy has worked for Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. They’re not dull guys, but their postgame briefings are open-and-shut affairs. They’re piloting their luxury cars home within an hour of the final pitch. And there certainly aren’t 50 people milling around their lockers after a 1-for-4 day.

But not Barry. Every question he answers, and even the ones he doesn’t, makes news. Consider this exchange after Game 3:

Well-intentioned reporter: “Barry, are you surprised how much people walk you?”

Barry: “Can we talk about something else besides me walking all the fucking time?”

Second well-intentioned reporter: “Barry, how do you prepare for the next game?”

Barry: “I don’t feel like talking all fucking night. I just want to play.”

Then, displaying the same preternatural timing that allows him to jump on 98-mile-per-hour fastballs, Bonds delivered the kicker, the line he knew would keep the reporters coming back to his locker like stray cats: “Why don’t you guys go do something else for a living?”

Well-played, Barry. Because aside from the few of us who may heed your career advice, the rest will tune in for the same drama next game—even on those rare occasions when you don’t hit a 500-foot home run. We’ve come to expect it from you by now. Like rubberneckers on I-10, nobody wants to miss a gory minute.

Despite the pained look he puts on in front of the cameras, Bonds covets this spotlight as much as any superstar. Look at his home run routine—before he stalks out of the batter’s box, he admires the ball for the better part of an evening. And unlike some other sports “villains,” Bonds does not exhibit a brazen disregard for his public image. He lives a quiet life off the field, stays away from police blotters, night-club fracases, drugs, and other things that other notorious athletes get drawn to like moths to the bug zapper. The only blemishes on Bonds’ record—his scrapes with teammates and the media—are self-inflicted and by design.

Sure, Barry could also assure himself plenty of media attention by being a sweetheart. He could offer his locker chair to an inquiring scribe, make plenty of eye contact, slap a few guys on the back, and earn brownie points from Pac Bell Park to Shea Stadium. But the nice guy act has been done before, by many more people, and Barry would just be one of the crowd. So instead, he creates this rep as a baseball-punishing robot, a creature with no feelings, and that makes us all the more interested. Barry is not the first legendary media-hater; guys like Albert Belle and John Rocker have carried that torch after it was lit by Cobb. The difference? Belle and Rocker didn’t have the prodigious talent to make the act bearable, even captivating. They were just pains.

If you watch closely, you can sometimes see Bonds slip out of character. Before he made his way out of the locker room after the Giants’ Game 7 loss, Bonds was asked if he was happy with his day at the plate. “1-for-3 with a walk,” Bonds spat. “Doesn’t sound like a bad day does it? Did you want me to go 3-for-3 with three home runs?”

But that time, the clumsy silence that usually follows a Bonds-administered undressing lasted a beat too long. And as Bonds continued to stare at the guy he had sniped at, the faintest hint of a smile slid across his face, supplanting the perpetual frown. He was definitely enjoying this. I know I’m being difficult, the smile said. Nothing personal. All part of the plan.

Instinctively, and a little taken aback, many reporters smiled back at Bonds. A few even chuckled. It was as Hallmark a moment as you can get with this guy. But as quickly as the smile appeared, it was gone. So was Bonds. In four months, he’ll report to the Giants’ spring training complex. There will be workouts to attend, fly balls to shag, monster batting-practice homers to club. There will also be media to talk to.

And you can bet Barry Bonds can’t wait.