Authors With Pure Hearts: Jeff Pearlman

If he goes on one of his hot streaks, Barry Bonds could end up tying or breaking Babe Ruth's home run total by the end of this weekend in Philadelphia. We have extra interest in this now after reading Love Me, Hate Me, an excellent biography of Bonds written by Jeff Pearlman, author of The Bad Guys Won! and the infamous John Rocker story in Sports Illustrated.

The book follows Bonds' life from childhood to the present day, and the portrait that emerges of Bonds is not one of a monstrous, steroid-addled freak but, in fact, of a deeply insecure overgrown child who had a terrible father and an upbringing that completely lacked any teaching on how to interact with other humans. As Bonds is chased by the feds, tracks down Ruth and limps around the basepaths, we spoke with Pearlman about how Bonds is probably handling all of this.

Full interview is after the jump:

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In the beginning of the book, you actually talk with Bonds and tell him you're writing a book about him, even though you'd already talked to hundreds of people. Was this really the first time you'd been in a locker room with him since you started working on it? How many experiences with him had you had before you started writing it? What inspired you to do it in the first place?

It actually was my first face-to-face encounter with Barry since I started working on "Love Me, Hate Me." I had seen him once before in the Giants clubhouse earlier in the 2005 season, but at that point I didn't feel comfortable approaching him. I wanted to have as much research under my belt as possible, so I could present myself as informed and hard-working when it came to all subjects Bonds. In other words, I didn't want to just go up to him and say, "Uh, I'm starting a book on you. Can we talk?" I felt like I had to have some substance behind the words.

Even though I assumed he wouldn't remember me, I'd actually interviewed Barry four or five times during my years at Sports Illustrated. During the 2000 season I even did a lengthy profile on him—the first time he talked to the magazine in seven years. We sat down for about an hour, and he was spectacular. Funny, charming, charismatic. In fact, when I handed in the piece my editor was very angry. His exact words, and I quote, were, "If you wanted to give Barry Bonds a blowjob, we could have flown him to New York." So I adjusted the story, which still was very positive.

That said, my inspiration for "Love Me, Hate Me" had nothing to do with past interactions. I was coming off of promoting my first book, "The Bad Guys Won!" and I really wanted to follow up with a definitive sports biography. I made a mental list of sports icons, and every one — from Namath to Owens to Mantle to Gretzky — had been written about at least once in a very good, life-spanning biography. Then I thought about Bonds — an icon, a record holder, a legend, controversial, loved, hated. And most important, he's incredibly mysterious. My book isn't "Game of Shadows." It's a detailed, in-depth,ultra-researched look into the life of Bonds, from his dad's boyhood to Barry's youth to Serra High School to ASU to the minors and Pittsburgh and San Fran. I wanted to know what makes this guy tick; why he is who he is. I think I've discovered many of the answers.

Have you heard anything from Bonds or his people since the book came out?

I've heard from some of Barry's loyal childhood friends, and they're not happy. There are people out there who only want one side of Barry presented — the smiling, charming man who loves little kids and ice cream and long walks on the beach. And, factually, there is that side to him. But it's often obscured by the other side of the man.

How much did you want to beat Jay Canizaro's ass after he pulled the switcharoo on you on live TV? We'd have really wanted to beat his ass.

Severely. I interviewed 524 people for this book, and he's the only one who did that. It infuriated me to no end, because you're talking about a writer's reputation. After I calmed down I called Jay and said, "Here's a way to settle this. You and I appear on the next day's Cold Pizza (the show where he denied all). I'll bring the audiotape of our interview and a printed transcript, and you show me exactly where and how you were misquoted." He apologized, and I actually felt sort of bad for him. Because it wasn't done out of malice, but fear. Jay was afraid that Bonds or someone could sue him, or he'd be blackballed from baseball, or ... whatever. But when you go 12 years without being accused of misquoting someone, and then someone accuses you of that, you become very, very defensive. Especially in a case like this.

Do you think there will be any recourse from other players to Cory Lidle's comments about Bonds? Will he be considered as breaking some sort of code?

I would say we've actually reached a point where Bonds bashing is a little more acceptable than, say, Pudge Rodriguez bashing or Roger Clemens bashing. The one thing Bonds doesn't have going for him is tons of friends. So it's not like hundreds of ballplayers are furious at Lidle for ratting at a buddy.

At what point did you first hear about Game of Shadows? The book is quoted in yours, though it's obviously a dramatically different book. What do you think of the book? Do you feel it benefits yours to have that out, hurts it, whatever? Was there more stuff about steroids in yours because of that?

I first learned of "Game of Shadows" about halfway through my own research. I wasn't especially worried, mainly because I was so entrenched in my own stuff. I will say this — I have never been bothered by the book's existence or success. It's an excellent read, an excellent piece of research, and Mark and Lance deserve everything they're getting. I truly mean that.

Authors With Pure Hearts: Jeff Pearlman

The only thing that bothers me is how my book has been labeled by many as "the other Bonds book," or when radio boobs say, "Another steroid book is out ..." I worked my ass off on this project. I interviewed 524 people, dug through thousands upon thousands of clips. I bled a kidney here. So to be dismissed by some as "the other" book or as "a steroids book" stings. This is not a steroids book, but a biography of a fascinating, conflicted, gifted man. Barry Bonds is not just a ballplayer who used steroids. He's the son and grandson of alcoholics; a kid who was raised in the bubble of the baseball clubhouse and is unable to relate with most human beings; a person who, from a young age, has struggled with race and class; a man who desperately wants approval but doesn't know how to go about it. There are stories upon stories upon stories in my book, 95% of which have nothing to do with steroids and everything to do with the development and maturation of Barry Bonds. So do I get prickly about comparisons? Yup. I do.

ESPN totally acted like your Griffey scoop was theirs in an attempt to make it look like they didn't get their asses handed to them by Sports Illustrated. Agree with that statement? Do you mind?

Actually, I'm thankful ESPN the Magazine ran the excerpt from my book. And it's hard to blame them for trying to come back at SI. The one thing I'll say is the timing really backfired for me, because the excerpt was strictly steroids-related, so it gave the imprssion that my book was another Shadows. But I don't blame ESPN at all.

Do you think Bonds is lying when he says he doesn't care about Hank Aaron's record? Do you think he really wants to destroy it and piss everyone off?

Bonds doesn't want Aaron's record. I'm convinced of this. He certainly wants to pass Ruth, the ultimate icon in the game of baseball. But I think Barry's take on Aaron is different. Somewhere inside of him — maybe deep, deep, deep inside — he wants to be loved and respected. But passing Aaron would just be a terrible thing for Bonds, for baseball, for Bud Selig, for the record book. The cries for an asterick would be very loud. And more notably, I think Bonds would lose a ton of African-American support. You wanna use performance-enhancing drugs to pass Babe Ruth? Fine. But Hank Aaron is not just a baseball figure, but a civil rights leader, too. The No. 755 is about staring down racism as much as it is sending a ball over a fence. Bonds might be self-absorbed, but he's not a dumb man. Passing Aaron crosses the line.

The Bonds you describe in the book make us think of what we've always thought about Kobe Bryant: A case of complete arrested development, someone who has absolute no idea how to deal with other humans and therefore consistently does weird things. Are there any ways where he's normal? Does he just lack perspective of everything?

You nailed it on the head with the phrase "arrested development." Bonds is normal in that he's very kind to children around the clubhouse, he likes TV and, uhm, yeah. But there's an important point to be made here, and I can't underestimate it: A lot of this is not his fault.

What else should we expect from a kid whose father raised his son to win at all costs; who was never taught the value of money or hard work and never learned about treating people with dignity? From a very early age, Barry that that athletic brilliance is a ticket to the easy life, and that if you are blessed with great physical skills, you will be worshipped and admired without fail. He saw that with his dad, with Willie Mays, with the other guys in the Giants clubhouse in the late 1960s and early 70s. In short, he was groomed to be the man he is.

Have you watched "Bonds on Bonds?" We could do without the extreme close-ups of his head while he cries. What do you think of the show?

I hate the show. Hate it. Stopped watching it. I understand why ESPN is doing it, though I find it journalistically troubling. What bothers me most is how the producers of the show appear to be giving Bonds free reign to craft his own image. The man is neither all bad nor all good. But if you watch "Bonds on Bonds," you'd think he's another Sean Casey or Torii Hunter. And he's not.

Do you think Barry's a better dad than his dad?

Authors With Pure Hearts: Jeff Pearlman

Unquestionably. Barry tries with his kids—he genuinely tries. He showers them with a lot of love and attention. On the other hand, he can also be very condescending to his kids, and his judgment is often, uhm, questionable. For example, last spring when he begged cameramen to include his son Nikolai in the frame during a tirade against the media. The poor kid looked like he wanted to be anywhere but there. But we all have lapses, I suppose.

Do you think, deep down, Barry regrets taking steroids?

No doubt about it. Had Barry vanished after the 1998 season, he goes down as one of the 20 greatest ballplayers of all time. Now, his legacy is more about substance abuse than on-field performance. Bonds knows the history of baseball. He gets it. He understands what legacy means, and what it's like to be remembered beyond death for greatness. He wanted that badly, and it no longer can happen. It's sad. Because people now forget how beautiful of an all-around ballplayer he once was.

If you were alone with John Rocker for three hours, what would happen? You guys ever talk anymore? Do you agree with our assessment that Rocker isn't as evil and racist as he's made out to be; we just all feel better hating Rocker and demonizing him because it subtly forgives our quieter, lesser prejudices?

Ha! True story: When Rocker was with Cleveland I went into the Indians clubhouse to interview Ellis Burks. Rocker sees me, runs to his locker, digs out a disposable camera and starts taking pictures of me — just to be an ass. So I can't imagine our three hours together now being all that fun.

That said, I have no bad wishes/thoughts toward him. When he was with the Long Island Ducks last year I wrote a column for Newsday expressing hope that he makes it. What happened to Rocker was terribly unfair. I wrote a piece, he expressed his thoughts, I wrote about them. Were his thoughts hurtful and angry and whatever? Sure. But does anyone really think he's the only professional athlete with those sort of thoughts? I wrote the story because he was interesting and weird, and it's very rare for athletes to open up like that. But he was demonized as the world's only racist, and that was unfair. He's certainly not evil. In fact, it looks like he's trying to turn things around.

Do you like being a sportswriter? You're more of a biography/historian/anecdote gatherer now, rather than a beat reporter or a profile writer. Do you like press boxes? What's the culture of sportswriting like? Are they more or less miserable than bloggers?

I covered baseball for about six years at Sports Illustrated, and I loved 90% of it. By the end, however, I was beat up. I couldn't stand another clichéd quote or 13-inning Tigers-Royals game or being nailed in the head by a TV camera during postgame interviews. In the past I'd listen to some second baseman talk about "this game means everything" or "we've just gotta take this week one game at a time" and nod. But that last year, there was a voice in my head screaming, "Who cares!? Who cares!?" My passion for baseball wasn't gone, just my passion for covering it.

In hindsight, I needed a change. I love writing books — the digging and investigating and tracking down people like Jerry Don Gleaton and Curtis Wilkerson. It's a rush. It's the hardest job I've ever had, yet the most rewarding.

As for press boxes, I never liked them. I love the banter with other writers, but I always preferred finding a seat in the stands and having the whole 3D experience. It was an advantage of being a magazine writer—there was no daily deadline to meet.

The culture of sportswriting — interesting question. My guess is that sportswriters are happier than bloggers, because many bloggers are confined to their living rooms and a TV. Baseball writers are living their dreams. A guy like Tom Verducci, for example, loves baseball. Cherishes it. I never saw him unhappy at the baseball stadium. It was a dream job for him as a young writer, and it still is. A lot of the writers I know feel the same way. There are legitimate drawbacks — travel, jerk athletes, etc — but at the end of the day you're watching a baseball game, and your eyes serve as the eyes for thousands of readers. That's a beautiful thing.

Love Me, Hate Me