Baseball’s greatest villainby John Brattain
July 16, 2008
“If you can hit the curveball, you can get away with murder.”—Baseball axiom
It is time to look at the other side of the coin—for the sake of argument, let’s state that MLB is not colluding against Barry Lamar Bonds. With that out of the way, what have we learned from the fact that every club of its own accord (the official car of the non-collusion of Barry Lamar Bonds) simply said no to signing him?
We know it wasn't a question of his talent or potential production; it was about what went along with it (read: his personality).
There have been a lot of nasty people employed by major league baseball teams. In recent years, there have been players that have been busted for tax evasion, dealing cocaine, abusing women, being polygamists, making death threats against their family (including children), having sexual relations with underage girls, using steroid, getting ticketed for DUI, being drug addicts and felons, being accused of sexual assault and rape, being vocal racists etc.
There have been players reviled by other players; in May 2006, Sports Illustrated featured an anonymous survey taken among 470 baseball players about what player they would most like to see get hit in the head by a pitch. White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski received 18 percent of the vote, the highest total of any player. Forty-two percent of those surveyed in the AL Central Division voted for him.
Shea Hillenbrand often clashed with others; Carl Everett, Jeff Kent and Milton Bradley have their share of detractors. We have heard of any number of players who had the “clubhouse cancer” tagged on them at various points. Back in the 1970s Dick Allen was so divisive a personality that when the Phillies won the NL East the team had two post-game celebrations—one for friends of Dick Allen and one for the rest of the club. Of more recent vintage, when the Mets were losing the final game of the 1999 NLCS, the team came back into the clubhouse to the sight of Rickey Henderson and Bobby Bonilla unconcernedly playing cards.
In 2003, the despised John Rocker posted an appropriate ERA of 6.66 in 24.1 IP—although he struck out 34, he had a BB/9 4.8, a H/9 of 10.73, and a HR/9 of 1.85. (Bert Blyleven had a HR/9 of 1.69 in the season he gave up 50 jacks.) Despite the baggage, he was a lefty coming off a season where he posted a K/9 of 11.1 so the Devil Rays gave him a shot at a bullpen job.
To go back further in history, Ty Cobb was a man who bragged about killing someone; he once assaulted a physically challenged heckler in the stands and was generally thought to be a psychopath. Rogers Hornsby was reviled as both a player and a manager—it was people like this who gave to the saying “If you can hit the curveball, you can get away with murder.”
I could go on.
The fact of the matter is, the game has a long list of anti-social deviants and obnoxious personalities, yet as long as some of their skills were intact (or at least perceived to be) some team was willing to take a flyer on them, clubhouse issues and fan reaction be damned.
However, there now exists a player so obnoxious that he trumps all that, a player so toxic that teams feel fans will stay away from the park and turn off their TVs and radios in disgust should he be brought on board even though no player has ever before triggered such a reaction in the marketplace. This player is so evil that even though in a 22-year career played on 13 winning teams—eight of which reached the postseason—he would so completely destroy the atmosphere of a club that it would sink from potential contender to also-ran.
The men who feel this way have denied communities tens of billions of dollars in tax money that could be used for schools, libraries, children’s shelters and services and the like in order to enrich themselves even further, have had no qualms about presenting deliberate misinformation to the federal government (read: lying) about the effectiveness of their drug testing program and their economic condition, lied to local governments about the financial benefits that would be theirs for investing in a new ballpark, defied democracy, looked the other way as players felled records through the use of performance-enhancing drugs, colluded repeatedly and deliberately not put their best efforts into assembling winning rosters, yet finally found an act that they felt would qualify as “selling their souls.”
Employing Barry Bonds.
Even throwing the World Series in 1919 wasn’t a serious enough offense to keep Charles Comiskey from re-signing some of the Black Sox for the following season. Make no mistake—Comiskey knew about the fix long before he re-signed the players.
MLB has over the last 15-20 years all but ignored the common fan. They built ballparks with corporations and economic royalty in mind, giving the upper class the best views of the action while placing the average fans far distances from the playing field. They have forced the common fan to build them their fancy, revenue-generating ballparks with money that should be used to benefit the public and then charged those same people a lot more money for the privilege of watching.
However, they feel that they must protect the fans’ sensibilities and keep Bonds away. They’re concerned that this, and not the aforementioned dirty deeds, will trigger a backlash. They were more worried about how fans would react to seeing Bonds again play in the big leagues than they were about the reaction to canceling a World Series in an effort to get a salary cap in place.
MLB enabled the steroid era and indeed still employs many who once used (and still do) and they lied to the government about it and attendance has never been better, yet they feel that a specific player that used and lied to the government about it will cause people to turn their backs on the game.
To use my own team as an example, the Toronto Blue Jays are convinced that Jays fans despise Barry Bonds more than the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox preferring to look up at them at the standings for still another year than having Bonds on the team—after all, that’s what their polls say. Of course, they ignore the fact that the only people voting are those with a strong opinion and they’re in the minority (those with a strong opinion on the subject); the rest are too indifferent to bother voting. The difference in fans’ reaction to the 600-home run milestone reached by a player perceived to have used and thought to be free of performance-enhancing drugs was negligible at best—a solid demonstration that Joe Fan makes little distinction between how the feats were accomplished.
So, how did all 30 teams come to an independent conclusion that Barry Bonds is the first player in baseball history so toxic that fans would shun teams they spent their whole lives cheering for and would cause teams to sink to the bottom of the standings due to the sheer anchor-like weight of having Bonds in the clubhouse?
It’s what they read in the media. It’s the press telling us that the fans wouldn’t stand for it even though they have put up with far more reprehensible behavior from players on their team. It’s the media informing us that a team’s bottom line will sink into the red and for the first time in the sport’s history solely due to the presence of a single player on the roster and stadiums will empty the moment Barry Bonds name appears on the uniform player’s contract. It’s the press that is saying that for the first time in the history of the game baseball ownership will be selling its soul with a given act.
At any rate, all things considered, if Barry Lamar Bonds is not being colluded against, we now have found the undisputed “greatest villain in baseball history.” He is the first player with significant talent that was rejected by all major league teams for being too evil to employ, even at the major league minimum. He is the first player in baseball history who would cause anyone being involved with him said to be selling their soul.
You can say what you will about Cap Anson, Ty Cobb, Albert Belle or anyone you like—all could find takers until they were physically unable to play or their skills left them completely finished. Only one player (in a non-collusive environment) has ever been too purulent to employ at any price.
It's the trump card in any argument as to the greatest villain in the game.
We’ll have to amend the old axiom “If you can hit the curveball, you can get away with murder” to “If you can hit the curveball, you can get away with murder if you’re not Barry Lamar Bonds.”
Our good friend, and THT stalwart, John Brattain passed away on March 24, 2009. John was a prolific writer, whose work can also be read at Sympatico/MSN Sports and Baseball Digest Daily. John's work was also featured at USA Today, MLBtalk, ESPN Insider, Baseball Prospectus, The Baseball Analysts and The Baseball Journals. Never afraid to express himself in any medium, he was also a frequent radio speaker.