Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero

Jeff Pearlman writes in this 2007 book:

* IN THE INSULAR WORLD of Major League Baseball, there is no greater sin than disrespect. Most players can tolerate inflated egos. They can tolerate boredom (a job requirement). They can tolerate pain, indifference, softness, absentmindedness, excessive brutality, disregard for the rules, large men dressed as sausages, 12-minute renditions of the national anthem. Disrespect, however, is the ultimate no-no. You don’t show up the opposing pitcher. You don’t spit on an umpire. You never act the coward.

* On March 22, the Arizona Republic reported that Dr. James Gough, a psychiatric consultant for the university’s sports program, had prescribed Nardil, an antidepressant, to two unnamed baseball players and had recommended it to six others. Manufactured by Parke-Davis Co., the drug Nardil was for those suffering from severe neurotic depression, and could result in potentially fatal blood pressure elevation. Dr. Robert Voy, chief medical offi cer of the
U.S. Olympic Committee, said Nardil should be used only as a last resort in cases of severe depression. But Gough believed that Nardil would combat the kind of tension resulting in batting slumps. “Coach Brock had the whole team seeing [Gough],” says Wakamatsu. “He’d talk about mental imagery and positive thinking. Most of us thought it was kind of silly, but harmless. But when you start talking medication, that’s a whole diff erent level.”
Brock himself was a regular Nardil user. He was so enamored of its power to induce tranquillity that he strongly urged his players to take the drug—even though a member of the coaching staff had suff ered a seizure while using it. One player Brock encouraged was George Lopez, a third baseman who had fathered his first child during his sophomore season.
“Coach wanted me to play without all the pressure on top of me,” says Lopez, who refused the drug. Two others, Rector and infielder Drew Siler, also said no to Nardil and found their on-field time drastically reduced. Siler wound up transferring to UNLV. “When Brock took it, he became a a lot more mechanical and mellow in the way he talked,” says Lopez. “When the story about Nardil broke, it made a lot of sense to us because Brock was damn near falling asleep on the bench.”
Nardil wasn’t merely intended for average players. Among those urged to utilize the drug were a handful of standouts, including Barry Bonds. In many ways, Brock considered Barry an ideal Nardil recipient. If he was this good without Nardil, imagine how potent he would become with the enormous chip removed from his shoulder. There was just one problem: When Bobby Bonds learned that his son had taken an antidepressant he immediately telephoned Brock. “If you give my son anything medical again without checking with me first,” he said, “I will come down there and snap your neck.” That put a stop to Barry’s use of Nardil.
“That whole situation was just too weird,” says Royal Clayton, an ASU pitcher. “Brock was taking it. Barry was taking it. I was like, ‘What’s everyone taking pills for?’ I was in college, running around, feeling great. What was there to be depressed about?”

* Few players respected Bobby as a hitting guru, and Corrales wanted him fired (Cleveland management refused, insisting they needed a minority on the staff ).

* Roone Arledge once said of Howard Cosell—‘He wanted the adulation, but he hated the people who gave it to him.’

* Barry had learned from his father that mystique was vital to success. Never get too close to teammates, never fall for a groupie, and never, ever let a member of the press get into your head.

* THEY MET IN A strip club. That’s the first thing one should know about the relationship between Barry Bonds and Sun Branco. Some couples meet at church. Others over cocktails. Bonds and his first wife met at a strip club—where she worked.

* When Bonds later mentioned the woman’s name to teammates, they erupted in laughter. Sun Branco? The infamous Montreal Sun? “She was known as the chick to call when you were in Montreal,” says one former Bonds teammate, echoing a familiar refrain. “She was a fun girl.”

* “I’ve always felt that Barry had to distance himself from Bobby in order to become the player he is,” says Scott Ostler, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. “At some point Barry said, ‘I’m not gonna fuck up like my dad did. I’ve got the same tools that he did and I’m not going to piss them away. I’m not gonna smoke, I’m not gonna drink, I’m not gonna take it for granted.’ When he made that decision, it turned him into a truly unique ballplayer.”

* As he entered Three Rivers Stadium before a game against the Mets in June 1988, Barry told a group of young autograph seekers to “Fuck off ! Fuck off ! Fuck off ! Fuck off !” The scene was repeated often, once resulting in Reynolds lambasting his teammate in front of a group of onlookers. “Be a fuckin’ man, Barry!” he said. “Treat people with dignity!” Barry’s intolerance puzzled many Pirates. They couldn’t understand why he openly complained of having to sign for “these pathetic losers,” but then placed himself in accessible positions. On the road most players would wait for the bus to the stadium inside the hotel lobby. Yet Barry stood on the sidewalk, all but begging people to approach so he could ream them out. “He wanted the attention without anyone knowing it,” says Reynolds. “That was the warped side of Barry.”
Years later, when Barry was playing for the Giants, he once stormed into manager Dusty Baker’s office dressed head to toe in a black leather outfi t and motorcycle helmet. “When are people gonna leave me the fuck alone?” he griped. “Look at this. I’m dressed so nobody could recognize me with my visor down, but people still approach me and ask for shit. Why can’t a person live a private life?”
“Barry,” Baker said, “walk with me for a minute.” The two strolled to the players’ parking lot, where Bonds’s motorcycle rested. On the side of the vehicle bonds 25: three-time mvp was painted in large letters.
“Sorry dude,” said Baker, “but you can’t have it both ways.”

* Barry Bonds was a happy man in the winter months of 1988–89. At his home in the Pittsburgh suburbs, Barry found Sun to be exactly what he desired in a spouse—attractive and seemingly understanding of the idea that, on the road, men will be men. Even when Sun accidentally drove their Porsche into the living room, Barry kept his cool. He knew what he had in his wife. “Sun has more patience than toilet paper,” Barry once said. “Toilet paper just sits there and waits. . . . She knew exactly what she was getting when she married me. It’s a package deal; she married public property.” To Barry, Sun was the quintessential baseball bride—well dressed, big breasted, and contented to be seen and not heard.

* Sun had told police that following a dispute about birth control pills and the quality of the family housekeeper’s work, Barry grabbed her around the neck, kicked her, and threw her partially down the stairs.

* The apparent breaking point in an already tenuous marriage came in early 1994, when Bonds was introduced to Jennifer Peace, a 23-year-old pornographic film star from Pinelawn, Kentucky. Brown-haired, brown-eyed, and large-breasted, Peace had starred in more than 100 films under the moniker
“Devon Shire,” including such classics as Buttsizer: King of Rears and Switch Hitters 6. According to a lawsuit filed by Peace in Los Angeles Superior Court, Bonds not only slept with her, he impregnated her. “She’s carrying a child, a baby boy, and she believes the father is Barry Bonds,” said Peace’s attorney, Elliot Abelson. “When offered the opportunity to terminate the pregnancy, she refused because she wants to have the baby since she knows who the father is.” In a statement Bonds’s attorney admitted, “Barry had sex with her,” and—fearing embarrassing headlines—Bonds settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
Although Peace’s paternity claim was ultimately proved false, the damage was already done. On May 27, 1994, after more than six years of marriage, Barry filed for divorce.

* In a late-1995 hearing to determine permanent spousal support, Sun testified that Barry had abused her on a regular basis. According to Sun, Barry kicked her when she was eight months pregnant, choked her, dragged her around the house by her hair, and locked her outside naked.

* And yet, there were a couple of things about Elizabeth Watson most
guests were unaware of. Raised in Montreal, the 28-year-old former track star at Marymount Academy was a one-time exotic dancer. This was her brief career choice in the early- to mid-1990s, when she moved to Toronto to make more money. “In Canada, being an exotic dancer isn’t the stigmatized profession it is in the United States,” says Kristian Gravenor, a columnist for the Montreal Mirror and coauthor of Montreal: The Unknown City. “There’s very little money in Montreal, especially if you’re English, black, or an immigrant. Many of the jobs are kept for the French. So in parts of Canada you’ll find strip clubs filled with pretty black girls. Bonds’s wife was
no exception.”
Through it all, Watson remained steadfast in the belief that she was destined to marry famous. Some could find contentment being the wife of a doctor or lawyer. But Watson, according to a longtime friend, needed more. She wanted to be taken care of in grandiose fashion. Her fi rst famous boyfriend was Tommy Kane, the former Seattle Seahawks and Toronto Argonauts wide receiver who, in 2004 (long aft er his relationship with Watson had ended), pleaded guilty in Montreal to manslaughter in the death of his wife. In the 1990s she also had a tryst with Michael Jordan, the married Chicago Bulls superstar. Watson took great pleasure in playing for friends a message Jordan had left on her answering machine. “One time she was on TV in the background when he was competing in a celebrity golf tournament,” says Watson’s friend. “I thought she was definitely getting caught.” Though Jordan sent Watson bouquets of flowers, as well as plane tickets to meet him on the road, she was never busted. “She was one of those girls who would go to a basketball game and wait afterward to meet the guys,” says the friend. “She was addicted to the idea of fame.”
For a sports celebrity junkie, there were few intoxicants more enticing than Barry Bonds. Watson met the star athlete when the Pirates were visiting Montreal in 1987—the same year he met Sun. Th e two first hooked up at an after-work hot spot called the Sir Winston Churchill Pub. Among a crowd of mostly 20-something Montrealers dancing to pulsating music, Bonds homed in on Watson, a breathtaking woman of West Indian, French, Spanish, and Chinese ancestry.

* There was speculation that Bonds wed Watson not so much out of love but so that his first wife, Sun, would not get sole custody of their children, and because he would face less negative public scrutiny with a nonwhite spouse. Says one former Bonds teammate: “A lot of us assumed Barry and Liz was a business deal, not a marriage.” From Bonds’s vantage point, the arrangement was perfect. At home, he had a beautiful wife to raise his children and provide domestic bliss. On the road, he would rarely spend a lonely night in a hotel room.
No wonder Bonds was bragging to the media that he had recently found God.

* By the time Bonds arrived at Scottsdale Stadium on February 26, 1999, he had a new daughter—Aisha Lynn, born February 5—and a new body. Everything seemed to have blown up—his arms, his chest, his shoulders, his legs, his neck. When asked by Rick Hurd of the Contra Costa Times to explain his physique, Bonds blew the question off. “It’s the same thing I’ve always done,” he said. “It’s just that I started so early.”
Within the San Francisco clubhouse, Bonds’s transformation was met
with skepticism. His face was bloated. His forehead and jaw were substantially larger. “And the zits,” says Jay Canizaro, a Giants second baseman. “Hell, he took off his shirt the first day and his back just looked like a mountain of acne. Anybody who had any kind of intelligence or street smarts
about them knew Barry was using some serious stuff .”

* What was the motivation not to? Sure, the possession of steroids for nonmedical reasons is a crime under United States law. But who was busting athletes? Plus, Major League Baseball had no steroid policy or testing program in place for big leaguers. (Baseball did test minor leaguers, but violators were neither penalized nor required to undergo counseling.) It might be against the law, but it sure wasn’t against the baseball law.

* Among baseball’s advance scouts, an unofficial system emerged to spot athletes who likely abused HGHs. Nearly all players fit comfortably into batting helmets, which are designed to smoothly slide over a capped skull with room to spare. Every so often, however, someone would stand in the dugout frustratingly trying to hammer on his helmet before advancing toward the on-deck circle. Among others, Bonds partook in this ritual.

* In baseball, as a general (and unfortunate) rule, blacks stick with blacks, whites stick with whites, and Latinos stick with Latinos.

* For much of his life, Bonds struggled to cope with his blackness. As a rich suburban kid with all white friends, he was often intimidated by other blacks. He didn’t talk the talk, didn’t walk the walk, certainly didn’t live the lifestyle. In Pittsburgh, outfielder R. J. Reynolds used to plead with his white teammates not to tell Bonds where he and the other African-American Pirates were going that night. “We didn’t want him with us,” says Reynolds. “Dude didn’t fit in.” Bonds speaks in an effeminate, high-pitched manner, reminiscent of the voice Eddie Murphy would use to imitate an uncool white guy on Saturday Night Live. Whereas black players fi lled the San Francisco clubhouse with the beats of Tupac, Nas, Missy Elliott, and Jay-Z, Bonds’s four favorite performers are Barbra Streisand, Kenny G., Michael Bolton, and Celine Dion. He also backed Republican candidates, going so far as to actively campaign for conservative Pete Wilson, an outspoken opponent of affirmative action, in his 1994 race for California governor.

* Bill Jenkinson, the noted baseball historian, was growing suspicious. At his home in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, Jenkinson compiles what he calls “power performance curves” for anyone with more than 300 major league home runs. The curve measures power versus age, taking into account both the frequency and distances of home runs. “Henry Aaron is my favorite example,” says Jenkinson of the all-time home run leader. “He was so extraordinary because as he aged he got smarter, and that helped him hit more home runs. But he never hit the ball farther as an older man than he did as a young one. Every single slugger I’ve ever evaluated peaked for distance in their mid-to-late 20s.” Jenkinson considers this a point worth emphasizing. “Every . . . single . . . one,” he says.

Except Barry Bonds. “In 2000, Bonds turned 36 in the middle of the season, and his power performance curve just completely whacked out,” says Jenkinson. “It’s ridiculous. From age 36 on he starts hitting the ball farther and farther.” According to Jenkinson, over the first 14 years of his career, Bonds hit three baseballs beyond 450 feet. “I’ve got the Department of Weather records for those three balls,” he says, “and all three had powerful tailwinds.” Beginning in 2000, however, 450-plus foot home runs became commonplace. “His optimum power used to be in the 435–440-feet range,” Jenkinson says. “At age 36 it went up to 480. That is not humanly possible. It cannot be done by even the most amazing athletic specimen of all time.”
Jenkinson pauses. “Unless,” he says, “that specimen is cheating.”

* On July 3, 2001, Kyle Tucker, a summer intern at the Macon Telegraph, became one of the first newspaper writers to directly question Bonds’s assault on the record book. In a piece entitled, “Someone Needs to Take Baseball Off All the Juice,” he wrote: “Everything in baseball is on ’roids. Take a look at the physical makeup of the one major sport that doesn’t regulate the use of steroids. These guys aren’t Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. Th ey’re Lou Ferrigno and Arnold Schwarzenegger . . . Baseball players once could be confused with golfers. Now it’s hard to tell if you’re looking at a right-fielder or a middle linebacker. So when some people say it’s not the ball, just better athletes, I can’t totally disagree. How they got to be better athletes, that’s the problem. Guys don’t blow up overnight just by hitting the weights a little harder.”

* Civil rights never seemed to interested him.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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