Ever since Barry Bonds joined the Major Leagues in 1986, we've had riveting conversations, and they've lasted awhile. Around me, he's straightforward without the hint of spin. He's cerebral, engaging and respectful. He's always seconds away from one of the greatest smiles you'll ever see.
That's why this was just more of the same the other day when Bonds and I huddled about something that has bothered me regarding baseball's career home run leader as the years have become decades.
His image is all wrong.
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.
"Hell, I kick myself now, because I'm getting great press [since being more cooperative], and I could have had a trillion more endorsements, but that wasn't my driving force. The problem was, when I tried to give in a little bit, it never got better. I knew I was in the midst of that image, and I determined at that point that I was never going to get out of it.
"So I just said, 'I've created this fire around me, and I'm stuck in it, so I might as well live with the flames.'"
What caused the spark?
"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."
Sad, but true, and consider this: Those Pirates of the early 1990s ranked among baseball's all-time underachievers. They kept missing the World Series despite the extraordinary ways of Bonds, Cy Young Award winner Doug Drabek, perennial All-Star outfielders Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke and future Hall of Fame manager Jim Leyland. Their shortcomings always went back to Bonds, though, who was with the Pirates when he grabbed the first two of his record seven National League Most Valuable Player Awards.
To hear Bonds' critics tell it, he was batting in every spot of the Pirates' lineup between starting and relieving on the mound after making roster moves when he wasn't playing each position in the field.
"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."
Big time. Then came Bonds' chance for a fresh start with a move to the Giants as a free agent after the 1992 season. He returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he grew up as a youth when his father, Bobby, starred for the Giants with his godfather, Willie Mays. I worked at the San Francisco Examiner during the early to mid-1980s, so I know the vibes of the area. To me, Bonds, the Giants and all things Northern California were a heavenly fit, and I couldn't imagine the Bad Barry continuing, not with Good Barry's smile making the Golden Gate Bridge sparkle even on foggy days.
Instead, the Bad Barry became more prevalent in San Francisco, especially when Bonds crept near Hank Aaron's career home run total of 755. Bonds was mentioned as a user of performance-enhancing drugs, and Bad Barry proceeded to add more sand bags to his bunker. He was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice in 2007 for allegedly lying to a grand jury during the BALCO investigations, but here's a huge thing to remember: The perjury charges were dropped, and the obstruction of justice conviction was overturned last year.
"The one thing that I would never, ever reflect on and talk about changing from the past is my ability with what I did out there on the field," Bonds said. "When it came to [preparing for and playing the game], I did that right. But as far as my attitude and the way I handled things, I just didn't do it the right way. There were times during my career when I really did try, but I wasn't given the benefit of the doubt, because I had already created the monster."
Take, for instance, one of those times during Bonds' middle years with the Giants, when a group of teammates pulled him to the side. He wasn't popular back then in parts of the clubhouse since he had his own section that was complete with a big-screen television and lounge chair.
Not only that, but he snarled more than he smiled.
"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."
Bonds obliged ("I came in with an attitude and started hitting, and my teammates didn't go down that road anymore."), and the monster grew fangs, biting everything in its path through the record 762nd and final home run of his Major League career. 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.
You can tell as much. Thanks to all of Bonds' cardiovascular activity, along with his lifetime habit of not drinking or smoking, he has dropped 25 pounds from his final playing weight of around 240 pounds.
At 51, he looks decades younger.
"I sat in a gym when I was playing, ate 3,000 calories of food every day like a football player and lifted heavy weights all the time, and I really didn't run as much," Bonds said. "But now I haven't lifted weights in six years. I got into this fitness world of getting lean and thin, and I'm not going back. It took me four years to consistently keep my weight down by working hard at it, and I fell in love with cycling after my career. I had like six or seven knee surgeries. I had back surgery, and I had three hip surgeries. It's just that I love sports, but I couldn't run as much anymore. My character is to wake up in the morning, go to the gym, go home, recover, do it again the next day. That's my love and my passion, and I've found all of that in cycling, because I don't have to beat my body against the ground, and I can compete against myself."
Then, after a slight pause, Bonds searched the deepest part of his soul to describe the essence of himself: He's a harmless loner.
"It's something I've tried to tell people, but they haven't been able to understand that, because of my (past) actions," Bonds said. "People never really see me out that much. When they do, I only like to deal with a small group of people. Even now, I take a shower, dress quick and just go home. I'd rather play sports and be active than to really hang out with people. I don't know how else to explain what I just said, but that's who I really am."