Erasing Barry Bonds from baseball history

‘The Commissar Vanishes” is not your usual coffee-table book. Using photographs, it shows how Josef Stalin systematically erased memories of his chief political opponents from the history of the Russian revolution. In one photo, the dictator appears next to Leon Trotsky. In others, the images of Trotsky have been either airbrushed or crudely blacked out.

Barry Bonds has become the Leon Trotsky of Major League Baseball.

Last year, the San Francisco Giant broke the most hallowed record in baseball, passing Henry Aaron’s career home-run record. When he wasn’t injured, Bonds filled AT&T Park despite a team that languished in the cellar. At season’s end, the Giants refused to sign him for another year, with owner Peter Magowan saying: “We’re going in a new direction; that would not be going in a new direction [to sign Bonds]. The time has come to turn the page.”

Of course, Magowan can do what he wants, but the page on Bonds hasn’t just been turned in San Francisco -- it has been erased. All traces of Bonds, arguably the greatest player in baseball history, have vanished at AT&T Park. The left-field wall no longer bears an image of Bonds chasing Aaron for the home-run crown. There is no marker indicating where Bonds’ record-breaking homer crossed over the outfield wall. There is no marker signifying that Bonds even wore a Giants uniform.

But it’s not just the Giants’ owner who seems to be trying to erase the memory of Bonds. The other team owners seem to have the same mission -- to pretend Bonds doesn’t exist by not signing him to a free-agent contract.

They may have felt some vindication for their position last week. The home-run king was charged in a revised indictment with lying to a grand jury in 2003 about using performance-enhancing drugs and obstructing a government investigation of doping among athletes.

But, as investigative reporter and author Mark Fainaru-Wada recently wrote on, “No new lies were alleged in the new indictment, and Bonds won’t serve additional prison time if convicted.” The next hearing is June 5, one that Bonds does not have to attend.

So why wouldn’t Bonds be offered a contract?

Yes, the 43-year-old’s fielding has become painful to watch in recent years, as the seven-time Gold Glover limped around the outfield on knees without cartilage. But in 2007, Bonds still hit 28 home runs in 340 at-bats, led the National League in walks and had an on-base percentage of .480. Since 1950, only Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Norm Cash and Bonds in years past recorded higher on-base percentages. Maybe Bonds can’t field, but there are at least a dozen American League teams that could use a designated hitter capable of a .480 on-base percentage, not to mention a player who could sell out a ballpark.

One would think that the sports media would be asking questions about Bonds’ inability to land a new contract. Instead, some commentators act like willing accomplices to the airbrushing of Bonds from baseball history. For instance, Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy columnist for, wrote last month: “Opening Day came and went without Bonds for the first time in 22 years, and nobody seemed to notice. I didn’t think about him for more than two seconds all spring. Did anyone? Can you remember being a part of a single ‘I wonder where Bonds is going to end up?’ conversation? ... The best hitter since Ted Williams is gone and forgotten. We wanted him to go away, and he did.”

There is one problem: Bonds isn’t going gently into the good night. On May 6,he askedthe Major League Baseball Players Assn. to investigate the possibility that team owners were colluding to deny him a contract, and the union has contacted the baseball commissioner’s office about the matter.

There is a certain irony here. Bonds is hardly a “Big Bill” Haywood of the players union. In 2003, Bonds became the first player in 30 years not to sign the union’s group licensing agreement. As a result, Bonds’ business agents negotiate the sale of his likeness on products, and none of the revenue is put in a collective pot to fund union activities.

The Major League Baseball Players Assn.'s willingness to investigate Bonds’ complaint is not without its critics. For instance, Newsweek’s Mark Starr recently wrote: “The union approaches new heights of absurdity when it bothers to investigate whether collusion has ended the career of baseball’s all-time home-run king, Barry Bonds, who can’t attract an offer to play anywhere this 2008 season. What the union sees as possible collusion, once an honored practice among ownership, I see as a rare display of common sense.”

In large part, Starr believes this because Bonds is “widely regarded as a cancer in the clubhouse.”

This is certainly the conclusion of many sportswriters who have run afoul of Bonds, whose distaste for media types is legendary, but former teammates offer a mixed picture of Bonds in the clubhouse. Some have described him as standoffish and self-centered, while others tell stories of a teammate who, when the cameras are off, is as solid as they come. In other words, Bonds is a complex figure -- and the sports media have never done complexity well.

The idea that owners would reduce their teams’ chances of winning games and entertaining fans because they collectively agree to “turn the page” on Bonds is not only a violation of Bonds’ right to play but an act of business stupidity.

And when one considers the scarcity of saints in Major League Baseball, especially after the Mitchell Report’s allegations of widespread steroid use by players, the moral condemnation of Bonds seems drenched in hypocrisy.

Bonds deserves far better than to sit out the season unsigned.The overriding ethos of the sports world is that of a meritocracy. If you are good enough, you get to play. Yet a man who got on base 48% of the time last year can’t find a new home.

The possible blackballing of Bonds by baseball owners is about more than a baseball player. It’s about people in power deciding on grounds unrelated to talent and performance who gets to take the field, who gets to be heard and even who gets to be remembered in history. And it smacks of Stalin.

Dave Zirin is the author of “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports.”