I was 15 when I started having identity issues, but like some, I kind of thought the world would work them out for me.
Now, this isn’t what you think; this is about baseball fandom. Growing up in the Bay Area, there were two choices, and my parents were both transplants, so I inherited nothing. I went to both Giants and A’s games, and I rooted for both, and was predictably confused by 1989 until more important things to focus on came around.
But I was 15, and it was starting to become clear that who you rooted for was part of your identity. I’d found it out accidentally thanks to football. I was raised as a Raiders fan (my parents had season tickets), and when they moved when I was 6, geography held little sway on my choices. I chose a new team based on my favorite animal. So now as a high schooler, I was *known* as a Dolphins fan whenever I wore that aqua Dan Marino jersey.
However, the Giants were moving, and now being able to attend games factored into the decision and it seemed clear what my future would be. My friends I’d sit and talk sports with in the library all were upset, and a couple claimed to never even consider going green and gold, but for me it was just resignation.
And then, the Giants weren’t moving. And then, as I was riding in the car one afternoon, something else happened.
The Giants signed Barry Bonds.
There was a notion of underdogging going on, that the team that had been so undersupported needed support to stay. But the story of a local kid, who literally went to high school just down the street from my own, was coming back into town to help ‘save’ our team, that pretty much sealed up my choice. I was a Giants fan.
So that’s how I remember how I started rooting for Barry. Facts may have little to do with memories, but that’s how I felt things as a 15-year old.
And I regret nothing. Rooting for Barry Bonds has done two things for me. First of all, watching him play baseball was a level of ridiculousness few will ever know, and I genuinely believe the steroids had less to do with it than most people will believe. And secondly, it taught me that sh*t’s complex in the real world.
The baseball part of this doesn’t require much explanation. You can see the highlights. They get posted on the /r/baseball subreddit every so often to remind people that it was insane. Walking him with the bases loaded. Meetings on the mound to discuss how to pitch to him, undone in one ridiculous swing. The numbers that have nothing to do with home runs are absurd.
My favorite stat is still the 500-500 number. 500 home runs, 500 stolen bases. He’s the only one to reach that plateau, and there isn’t even anyone at 400-400. (And most of the near-dozen at 300-300 are former Giants, including Bobby Bonds and Willie Mays.)
But there’s the complexity. In the ‘90’s, Bonds was known as an asshole, and I would stand up to defend him, because I rooted for him and the Giants. This was not an uncommon sentiment around sports, though. Hell, a speculative movie was practically made about it, with Wesley Snipes doing his best Barry Bonds impression and Robert De Niro doing his best 1980’s Robert De Niro impression.
That, however, was just the start of being a Giants fan of Bonds. As has been written, Bonds also has a history with domestic abuse, which is not nearly as well documented as the steroids. And I’ll be honest, that was something that just did not register with me at the time. And that reflects badly on me then and now, and I only recognize that now. Especially during the 2000’s, I genuinely did not even remember about the testimony of his ex-wife.
And that continues to reflect the complexity and complicity of fandom. I took a ton of joy in watching the things he did as a baseball player. I still do. Just as it’s hard to tear away from how much I love the movie Seven.
Compared to that, talking about the steroid use is easy. Listen, if you rooted for any baseball team or player from the 1980’s through the mid-2000’s, you rooted for someone who did steroids. You may or may not know it, but it happened. And yet, that’s what you hear more vitriol about.
It’s easy to dismiss steroids as a sign of the times. It’s what was a part of baseball, and it’s regrettable, and it’s something that should be different going forward. Those words don’t seem to do the other sides of being a fan of Bonds any justice.
I can not deny how much I treasure the memories of being at the ballpark and watching Barry come to the plate. It’s almost a trope now how we talk about that when he came to the plate, you stop any discussions or close your laptop (as a reporter) or make sure you get a view of the field, but it’s a trope because that’s what 2000’s Barry was. If I were to deny that, I’d be a liar. And maybe admitting the truth makes me complicit.
What I can do now is try to be a bit more discerning of who I root for going forward. Maybe recognize the players I want to hate for personality quirks, but be able to separate what is a personality quirk from being an awful person, like with Yasiel Puig... who probably isn’t an outright asshole, but I definitely don’t like. Or with Madison Bumgarner, who’s got the same thing going from the other side.
Does who we root for define us? The last 5 years has brought that identity issue back, and has made me wonder about myself. Can you root for a team, but not a player on the team? In some ways, maybe rooting for the laundry is easier... unless you’re an Indians fan, obviously.
Most fans may not go through this thinking. They may not have to. They may avoid it because they don’t want to. On top of everything else going on in the world, people don’t want to have to hate something they enjoy, or hate themselves for enjoying it.
I don’t have any answers on this, but of all the things I take away from being a fan of Barry Bonds, this is it. I still have the joy of watching him make baseball absurd. I have conflicting feelings that won’t go away.
But I think it’s right that #25 will be on the wall instead of on the field. There are no players who will ever encapsulate such a range of emotions, and that in of itself makes him, and the number he wore, so singular. I don’t know if that is good, or is bad...but it was. It definitely was. That can’t be denied or forgotten.