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'It's Bonds. Barry Bonds': The Return of Baseball's Invisible Man | The Nation

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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

'It's Bonds. Barry Bonds': The Return of Baseball's Invisible Man

“I am an invisible man. No I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe: Nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me.”   —Ralph Ellison

In game one of the 2012 World Series, over 40,000 fans in San Francisco chanted the name “Barry” with punch-drunk abandon. It was unbridled joy cut with a catharsis operating on more levels than three-dimensional chess. There was of course the explicit cry of relief at finally being able to cheer for their pitcher, reincarnated ace Barry Zito. Zito had been a historic disappointment since 2006, when he signed the largest free-agent pitching contract in history. The former Cy Young winner had been so middling he was left off the post-season roster when the Giants made their improbable run to the World Series back in 2010. He was an untradable piece of expensive dead capital: the $1,200 Betamax sitting in your basement. Then in 2012, Zito, pitching almost ten miles per hour slower than in those distant glory days, accepted his physical limitations, and reinvented his game going 15-8. And there he was: over-the-hill-at-34 Barry Zito out-dueling Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander. Finally the fans could chant his name.

But chanting “Barry” in San Francisco is not an act independent of deeper meaning. To hear “Barry” ring across the Bay is also to recall another former Giant who was in attendance last night: Barry Bonds.

When the seven-time most valuable player finished out his contract with the team in 2007 after leading the league in on-base percentage and home runs per at-bat, he wasn’t re-signed by the Giants or any other major league club. Bonds was treated like he had plague by baseball management because of the swirling charges that he was a steroid user. In a league trying to move past an era where every locker room contained bouquets of syringes, the weight of the “steroid era” was put on Bonds’s shoulders. This resulted in the complete removal of any mention of Bonds in the Giants organization. All the plaques, posters and stadium landmarks bearing his name disappeared faster than you could say “whitewash.” There was more evidence of George W. Bush at the Republican National Convention than there is of Bonds at Giants headquarters.

But the fans in San Francisco never forgot. They stood with him during his last tortured years as a player, and they stand with him now. Last night, they did even more.

By chanting “Barry,” the fans actually forced the radio and television announcers to acknowledge “the last time a different Barry” heard his name echoed through the park. On the radio broadcast, they acknowledged that this “different Barry” once existed without saying his last name. There was an awkward silence after their observation as if they had spoken out of turn and were about to be chided by a spectral disciplinarian in their midst.

On television, they handled “Barry” a touch differently. Lead Fox Sports announcer Joe Buck commented that fans used to chant “Barry” “for someone else around here.” Tim McCarver responded, “When Barry Manilow was here at concerts.” People assumed afterward that McCarver had experienced a senior moment of some kind or was just a bit out to lunch.

I don’t buy it. I believe McCarver’s chuckle, which you can hear immediately after his Manilow line, tells a different story. He was actually making a poorly executed joke about the invisibility of Barry Bonds and at the expense of Barry Bonds. There is a delight that the baseball cognoscenti takes in making Barry Bonds their “invisible man.” It’s a way to marginalize him without confronting what he represents. He’s a home-run king in exile. He’s the end product of an era where owners made billions selling a steroid-enhanced product. He’s the person who can no longer tell the press to go to hell, because they won’t acknowledge his voice. The press corps once asked Bonds if he thought steroids was cheating. Bonds responded, “Is steroids cheating? You want to define cheating in America? When they make a shirt in Korea for a $1.50 and sell it here for 500 bucks. And you ask me what cheating means?” Now they don’t have to care what he thinks. Now they can humiliate him forever by denying his existence.

It’s so fitting that it was the fans of San Francisco who forced his name onto the airwaves. It’s the city where generations of people traveled to escape the sting of invisibility. It’s the city where shame is treated as the greatest sin of all. It’s the city where Barry Bonds can thumb his nose at the exile of Major League Baseball, and truly be home.

For more on shame in sports, watch Dave Zirin talk Lance Armstrong on Current TV.

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