There is one big reason why the San Francisco Giants will finish second behind the Los Angeles Dodgers this baseball season. His name is Barry Bonds, and he just can’t help himself, or anyone else.
Bonds embodies much of what’s wrong with professional sports. He found an owner willing to pay lots of money, and that’s great. But Bonds sees no reason to go out and actually earn the dough.
Blessed with athletic talent, handsome and intelligent, he’s empty at the core, unable to summon the courage and leadership that separate the great from the rest of us. For years, baseball fans, coaches, executives and teammates have been waiting for Bonds to take a deep breath, throw back his shoulders and declare that enough is enough, that the time has come to stand and deliver.
Instead, Bonds shrinks. He turns sideways and disappears - a cardboard cutout mistaken for the real thing.
With the pennant race heading to the wire between the Giants and Dodgers, Bonds has already begun to fold his tent and evaporate.
The Houdini act is slick and sophisticated, practiced to perfection. In September, excuses become putty in Bonds’ hands. Game-winning hits become rare.
It works like this. First he reminds folks that baseball is a team sport - “Don’t expect me to do it alone,” he said last week - and that no player can carry a club without help.
Then he turns defensive, pointing out the heavy psychological toll that comes with being a star. He notes the team would be better off if everyone would stop worrying about Barry Bonds, if everyone would just go out and do their jobs.
The words ring true among baseball people, who still cherish the game despite everything the game has done wrong. No matter how comically self-destructive baseball gets, true believers always regard it as unique, a contest of interwoven dependencies, from pitcher to catcher, from Tinker to Evers to Chance.
True believers are right about one thing. Baseball is a game where players must back up their mates. And that’s where Bonds starts to break down. He isn’t real big on backing people up.
Baseball fans find beauty in the notions of cooperation and teamwork. They think baseball’s special attraction, aside from its slow summer pace, is its dependence on teamwork.
So why do baseball fans continue to buy the nonsense that comes out of Bonds’ mouth? They treat him as if he were a team guy.
Watch what happens this year. After Bonds falls flat, his flameout will become a topic of intense interest among baseball fans. People will wonder whether the Giants have had enough of their big, hollow star.
Speculation about his future will be followed by a big display of hugs and kisses between Bonds and the Giants, with our hero apologizing for his awful performance, for his inability to get the job done. He will promise to come back strong in the spring.
And when the Giants report to camp, Bonds will be among the first players to appear on TV. He will talk about his new attitude, which will involve being a team leader or a strong, silent type or an old-fashioned good guy.
Then the cycle will begin anew, and the Giants will finish out of first.
Given baseball’s love of statistics and dependency on numbers, it’s surprising that more baseball people haven’t figured out what the stats have known since Bonds broke into the major leagues. The guy is useless when it counts.
His legacy is a .191 playoff batting average. Opposing pitchers still work around him, but their concern is overrated. When the Giants need Bonds to come through, he starts complaining about feeling too much pressure.
It’s not that he can’t produce in September. His talents aren’t bound by the calendar. It’s just that for some bizarre reason, he chooses not to produce. He turns off the light, reminds everyone about his great July and goes into early hibernation.
What a sad sight, watching a player with all that talent pull his head into his shell and bury himself in the sand.
So please hold it down, Giants fans. It’s gut-check time, which means Barry’s trying to sleep.