Barry Bonds remains just two homers away from Hank Aaron's record, and in the wake of this historic and confounding achievement, we felt we should talk to a guy who knows the life of Bonds better than anyone else in the media: Jeff Pearlman, Bonds' biographer in Love Me, Hate Me. We've interviewed Pearlman when the book came out, but with all that's going on, we felt a revisiting was worth our time.
So, henceforth, our interview with Jeff Pearlman about this weird moment in sports history, in which one of the game's most hallowed marks is about to be broken by a guy everybody hates. (Pearlman is currently working on a book about the 1990s Dallas Cowboys, the progress of which you can track here.
When we interviewed you when your book first came out, you said, "Bonds doesn't want Aaron's record. I'm convinced of this," pointing out that Bonds would lose a ton of African American support. At the time, we absolutely understood this. What changed, if anything? Or were you just wrong?
Hate to admit it, but I was apparently wrong. It's funny—I interviewed more than 500 people for my book, and the hardest thing was finding anyone with a positive thing to say about Bonds. I dug and dug and dug and dug, and the one pro-Bonds thought that was regularly repeated was that—if nothing else—the man has a profound respect for the history of the sport. You know, his dad being Bobby Bonds, his uncle being Willie Mays, his cousin being Reggie Jackson, two of his childhood heroes being Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron.
But in the time since I made that prediction to you about Barry, I've had a chance to re-read my book, go through old notes, do some promotional stuff, etc. And the truth of the matter is, Bonds is completely, undeniably 100 percent full of shit. He truly is. I no longer buy his love of baseball history any more than I buy the sanctity of his marriages or the purity of his blood stream. I was at Shea when the Giants came to New York a few weeks ago, and I had to laugh when hundreds of my media peers swarmed around him for comments. I understand why they were there, but it's a waste of time. Nothing he says holds any meaning. He'll say the sky is blue one second and red the next. He loves Dusty Baker, then he hates him. So on and so on. Bonds cares no more about baseball history than does my goldfish. He knows what Hank Aaron went through to hit 755 home runs, and he was more than happy to cheat, load up on steroids and HGH and surpass him.
Some have said that the feds are hounding Bonds unfairly, extending their investigation just to further embarrass him and shroud him in suspicion. Do you agree?
Anyone in the media who says they know the answer to this is either psychic or dishonest. It's impossible for me to say. My guess is that they have a legitimate reason to be going after Bonds, because it's pretty clear he didn't pay taxes on baseball-related earnings. Of course, there's a history of the government trying to make examples of celebs, from (recently) Martha Stewart to Paris Hilton to so on and so on. So if they're going after Bonds for his name, it wouldn't be the first time.
Is Bud Selig wimping out by not showing up to see Bonds break the record? Or is he making some sort of quiet, subtle protest? Do you think Hank Aaron drove this debate a little bit? That is to say, he was one of the first people to come out and say, "I don't want anyone who has done steroids to break this record." That shifted the conversation a little, we think.
First, huge praise goes to Hank Aaron, who has made an important statement throughout this whole ordeal. I was surprised by the number of journalists who have hammered Aaron for his stance, and I think it's disgraceful. Let's see—we have a man of undeniable integrity who went through unspeakable racial hatred while breaking Babe Ruth's cherished record. He turns a baseball mark into a baseball/civil rights mark. Seven hundred and fifty five is an American number, not a sports number. Aaron spends much of his career bemoaning cheaters and endorsing righteousness. Then Bonds comes along, cheats and erases Aaron from atop the greatest record in sports. Why in the world would Hank Aaron follow Bonds around? Bonds is as un-Hank Aaron as anyone this side of Ty Cobb.
As for Selig, he comes across as pathetic. The man presides over the steroids era, sits back and silently watches as McGwire and Sosa surpass Roger Maris, does nothing for years and years—and now he's so righteous? It's garbage. This is as much Bud Selig's record as it is Barry Bonds'. When the turnstiles were humming in '98 and '99 we heard nothing from Selig. Now that the media has exposed the fraud for everyone to see, he's Mr. Anti-Steroid. Insane.
You talked to hundreds of people for your book. Are you still in touch with any of them? What do they think of him breaking the record? Do even the people who loved him feel a little odd about it? On the other hand, do those who hate him respect the achievement?
I've maintained some contacts, and I know of no one who's actually happy that he's breaking the record. It's like I wrote in the book—Bonds has never treated people especially well, so there's very little loyalty for the man. Do you root for someone who refused to sign a ball for your kid? Who ignored you when you asked for advice? Who told you you couldn't carry his jock? I still often think of Dan Peltier, the former Giant backup who brought his young son to the team's Family Day. When Bonds asked the kid to name his favorite ballplayer, he said, "My dad!" To which Bonds replied, "Why? He never plays."
Any respect for Bonds is a respect for his ungodly ability as a baseball player, not for his personality or ethics.
That said, I'll tell you something that fascinates me. I contribute regular columns for ESPN's Page 2 now, and I've written a few anti-Bonds pieces. The reaction is almost entirely negative—you suck, you suck ass, you're only trying to promote your f-ing book (the irony being that bashing Bonds does not help my commercial cause). The media makes it sound like most people want Bonds to fail. I disagree—the media wants Bonds to fail. Most fans don't find him especially likable, but they're enamored by his achievements and size and longevity and the chance to see a record fall. Ethics? Ehhhh ... whatever.
Do you think there's any way, in 40 years, we'll look back on Bonds the way we look back at Maris, as a guy who got a bum rap from media while he was playing and was actually a true superstar? To put it with less hyperbole, when he retires, will his reputation improve?
Roger Maris lost his hair when he was setting the record. Barry Bonds' head was growing when he set the record. Roger Maris was a quiet, humble man who wanted the media to go away. Barry Bonds is a brash, arrogant man who wants the media to go away. Roger Maris' peer was Mickey Mantle, whom he genuinely embraced. Barry Bonds' peer was Jeff Kent, whom he genuinely detested. Roger Maris broke the record, tucked his head to his chin and rounded the bases. Barry Bonds will break the record and receive a new car or a golden bat or whatever the Giants lavish upon him. Maris was honest. Bonds is a cheater. In presidential history, time tends to shine an accurate light upon administrations. I believe the same goes for baseball. Forty years from now Bonds will be what he truly is—a once-in-a-lifetime talent who gave into greed and jealousy. An asterisk and a big, HGH-bloated head.
Few people have researched Bonds more than you have. Do YOU want him to break the record?
Here's the truth. I set out to write a fair, honest, balanced biography of a misunderstood legend. I did my absolute best, and the result is a book that I'm very proud of. I've received strong reviews, in part because I didn't take sides. Now that I'm well beyond the researching and writing; now that I'm beyond the promotional, 20-second soundbite push, I feel liberated to express my conclusion of the whole experience.
It is this: Barry Bonds is evil.
Alongside Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, he is responsible for the illegal, unethical tattering of the most important page of the baseball record book. I grew up knowing what 755 meant. Hell, my mom—who knows nothing about sports—understands 755. I hate—absolutely, positively hate—that Barry Bonds is doing this. I'm mad if my 6-year-old nephew cheats in first grade. So for Bonds to come along and cheat to surpass Aaron—it's criminal. I read writers like Bill Rhoden and Dave Zirin—guys I respect—and I just don't understand what the hell they're doing. They maintain there's no proof that Bonds used, so how can we condemn him? If we used that mode of thinking in day-to-day life, there'd be no need for juries. You either catch a person in the act of committing a crime or he's innocent. Factually—and I mean, 100% factually—Bonds used, and the evidence is overwhelming. Game of Shadows, my book, his ties to Greg Anderson and Victor Conte, the expansion (impossible, unless he used HGH or suffers from Acromegaly) of his skull, a former teammlate like Jay Canizaro telling me how Anderson said he can design a steroid cocktail for him that would be just like Barry's, so on and so on. Every time someone writes that there's no "proof," he/she is gifting the designers of masking agents. If we reward and praise the cheaters in sports, what are we saying to the kids who follow the games? What are we saying about decency and integrity?
I don't root against Bonds because he's a bad man. I root against him because he's a dishonest one. For me personally, this isn't an issue of race or class or status. It's an issue of someone taking the game I truly love and making a mockery of the whole thing.