Are `they' really out to get Barry Bonds?

April 05, 2006|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- In 1998, when Mark McGwire was hitting home runs on a pace to break Roger Maris' record of 61 in a season, Barry Bonds detected a racist plot. "They're just letting him do it because he's a white boy," he groused to his girlfriend, according to a new book, Game of Shadows.

Alas, we haven't heard his explanation of why "they" let a black man, Mr. Bonds, demolish Mr. McGwire's record just three years later. Or who "they" are. Was it a conspiracy of pale-faced pitchers?

Embroiled in a scandal over his alleged use of steroids, Mr. Bonds, of the San Francisco Giants, finds that few people are rooting for him to break Hank Aaron's career mark. That could be because baseball fans are disillusioned by the new evidence that Mr. Bonds' hitting feats were the result of his illegal use of performance-enhancing substances. Or it could be because Mr. Bonds is black and white Americans are universally racist.

The latter is the claim of some African-American players, such as Minnesota Twins center fielder Torii Hunter.

"How come nobody even talks about Mark McGwire anymore? Or [Rafael] Palmeiro?" he asked USA Today. "Whenever I go home, I hear people say all of the time, `Baseball just doesn't like black people.'" Matt Lawton of the Seattle Mariners, who got busted for steroid use last year, insisted that if Mr. Bonds "were white, he'd be a poster boy in baseball, not an outcast."

Sure. And if Matt Lawton were white, he'd be secretary of state.

Does he really think Mr. McGwire, who refused to deny steroid use at a congressional hearing last year, is still a poster boy? Or Mr. Palmeiro, who failed a drug test last season after adamantly denying ever using steroids? They're both disgraced. Mr. McGwire's feats are so tainted he's no longer a cinch for the Hall of Fame.

If baseball doesn't like black people, it has a funny way of showing it. Many of the game's biggest stars are black or part black: Derek Jeter, Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Derek Lee and more. Mr. Bonds has been given the National League's MVP award four times in the last five years.

But Mr. Lawton and Mr. Hunter are not alone in blaming bigotry for Mr. Bonds' unpopularity. Leonard Moore, director of African and African-American Studies at Louisiana State University, told USA Today, "White America doesn't want him to [pass] Babe Ruth and is doing everything they can to stop him."

In fact, "white America" doesn't have a uniform opinion of Mr. Bonds or anything else. About the only whites doing anything to impede Mr. Bonds, aside from opposing pitchers, are the nut cases who write him hate mail. But they are no more representative of their race than Louis Farrakhan is of his.

To think Caucasians will all go into mourning if Mr. Bonds eclipses Mr. Ruth is a strange fantasy. Mr. Ruth's career record got demolished by Mr. Aaron in 1974, and most whites, believe it or not, have gotten over it by now. In 1961, Roger Maris also got hate mail from people who didn't want him to break the Bambino's single-season record - even though Mr. Maris was whiter than Wonder Bread.

Why would Commissioner Bud Selig order an investigation focusing on someone who has never failed a drug test? Maybe it's because Mr. Bonds is black. Or maybe it's because a grand jury got testimony and evidence from several people that Mr. Bonds was juiced.

It's hard to find evidence that white fans have a stubborn aversion to black athletes. If so, how do you account for the popularity (and lucrative endorsements) of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Donovan McNabb and LeBron James? In 1994, when the San Diego Padres' Tony Gwynn made a run at being the first player since Ted Williams to hit .400, I don't remember white fans booing him.

But nobody suspected the roundish Mr. Gwynn of using anything stronger than ice cream to bulk up.

Mr. Bonds' other problem is his personality. He's always been regarded as surly and selfish, even by his teammates and managers.

If the slender, smiling Ken Griffey Jr. were the one making the run at Mr. Ruth and Mr. Aaron, he'd be the toast of the nation. The same would not be true of, say, Jose Canseco or Jason Giambi. In the realm of sports, race doesn't explain very much.

But if you have no good way to refute allegations of wrongdoing, the race card is the next best thing. It's just a shame Pete Rose couldn't use it.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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