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What's behind the Hate Barry Brigade

May 19, 2006 | Page 13

DAVE ZIRIN is the author of What's My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States (Haymarket Books). He is a regular writer for the Nation and a columnist for Slam Magazine. His columns can be read at www.edgeofsports.com.

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AS BARRY Bonds attempts to break baseball's all-time home run records, he has been subject to an unprecedented amount of vitriol both in the press and from fans.

Sportswriters have made tearing Bonds apart a spectator sport unto itself. So-called "fans" boo and curse the San Francisco Giants left fielder with a frightening intensity, and in San Diego, a large syringe was thrown in his direction.

The declared reason for all this fury is that Bonds' detractors think he is a "cheater" that has used steroids even though he has never tested positive. They also claim Bonds to be an unlovable jerk.

This article can't hope to counter the rank hypocrisy surrounding performance-enhancing drugs in baseball or the bizarre character assassinations Bonds has been subjected to. Yet there is another motor of the Hate Barry Brigade: racism.

Barry Bonds is a proud, surly, articulate African American athlete who loves to stick it to a media that seems to relish tearing him to pieces. His detractors are loathe to acknowledge the toxic factor of race, but, as the saying goes, you don't have to believe in gravity to fall out of an airplane.

First and foremost, there are the death threats. USA Today reported recently that Bonds is being deluged with letters that threaten his life, many with overtones about as subtle as a burning cross.

Then, there's the way the media is covering this. Bonds isn't the first athlete to sneer at a reporter. In fact, Mark McGwire was a notoriously surly personality. When it comes to Bonds, the press has called for everything but a big scarlet "S" on his chest, all of which has the appearance of a hellacious double standard.

When a prominent ESPN talk show host says, "If [Bonds] did it, hang him," the perception is that this is little more than a railroad job of a prominent and outspoken African American superstar.

Finally there is the Major League Baseball establishment itself. Last month they took the extraordinary step of forming a commission to "investigate and root out steroids in the game" led by former Sen. George Mitchell.

But the probe is already being derided as a sham. Mitchell is on the board of the Boston Red Sox. He's also chairman of the Walt Disney Co., the parent company of ESPN, the national broadcast partner of baseball. In other words, he has a material interest in keeping the spotlight off the owners, including what they knew and when they knew it, and keeping it on the players. Particularly Barry Bonds.

According to Richard Justice, a writer with a serious pipeline into the commissioner's office, the investigation is "Totally [aimed at Barry Bonds.] He is the number one player going for the most hallowed record...There may be other names that come out but this is all about Barry Bonds...I promise you he will not get the chance to break Hank Aaron's record."

In other words, this is all smoke in our eyes, blurring the fact that this really is about getting Bonds out of the game before he passes Aaron. Is this racially motivated? The question is too simplistic. The fact is that Bud Selig is deflecting criticism off the owners by putting the heat on the most polarizing player in the game who happens to be Black.

Whether this is conjured up in some backroom or not is beside the point. Major League Baseball owners seem willing to sacrifice Bonds if it keeps Congress and the public off their backs. This is why some prominent baseball people are loudly speaking a word rarely said in the world of sports: race.

All-star Minnesota Twin Torii Hunter, another of baseball's dwindling African American superstars, called the investigation "stupid." "They can say what they want, but there's no way they would launch an investigation if Barry Bonds was not about to break Babe Ruth's record," Hunter said. "It's so obvious what's going on. He has never failed a drug test and said he never took steroids, but everybody keeps trying to disgrace him.

"How come nobody even talks about Mark McGwire anymore? Or (Rafael) Palmeiro (who tested positive for steroids in 2005)? Whenever I go home I hear people say all of the time, 'Baseball just doesn't like Black people.' Here's the greatest hitter in the game, and they're scrutinizing him like crazy.' It's killing me because you know it's about race."

None of this means that any critique of Bonds is inherently racist. It means that the overheated rhetoric needs to cease. It means that if baseball decides it doesn't want steroids in its game and wants to "clean up its own house," it should realize that it is cheap, gutter politics to focus on one person as if that person is the root of all anabolic evil. They should realize that in the current climate, it emboldens a racist fringe. If they don't realize it, we sure as hell should.

A couple years ago, Bonds said, "This is something we, as African American athletes, live with every day. I don't need a headline that says, 'Bonds says there's racism in the game of baseball.' We all know it. It's just that some people don't want to admit it. They're going to play dumb like they don't know what the hell is going on."

That is absolutely right. It's not defenders of Bonds who are putting race on the table, but whether you are a Bonds supporter or not, all antiracists need to take it off.

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