August is Barry Bonds in Media Month
AÂ TALE OF TWO HOMERS â€“Â A Case Study in Sports Journalism (Part 3 in a multi-part series on Sports Illustratedâ€™s Curious COVERage of Barry Bonds)Â
It was a classic shot of Barry Bonds. No, this wasnâ€™t another carefully- selected close-upÂ of Bonds sitting down in the dugout with a pained expression on his face. This one actually had Bonds smack in the middle of a violent, yet beautiful swing… Â This camera shot came from behind the batterâ€™s box so that â€œBONDSâ€ and â€œ25â€ can be clearly viewed. Â In the background you could see opposing players, the outfield fence, retired numbers of Padres (no, Phil Neikro never pitched for the Pods, #35 is Randy Jones!), the San DiegoÂ skyline, and finallyâ€”if you looked REAL close–Â the ball in the sky that would soon become a piece of baseball history. Â So, despite that perfect photograph that was the cover picture of this past weekâ€™s Sports Illustrated (SI), I was waiting to roll my eyes yet again at another SI hit-job on Barry Bonds. â€¦Then I read the coverâ€™s title (â€œHistory”) and was a bit surprised at the mere acknowledgement. Then I read the innuendo-freeÂ caption (Barry Bonds Hits Home Run No. 755â€) andÂ started to question myself. Then I flipped to the page that revealed the authorâ€™s name (Chris Ballard) and became cautiously hopeful. Upon reading the article, all of my presumptions would be completely turned on its head. Â Despite its long history of maltreatment, for at least one SI cover story on Bondsâ€¦ Sports illustrated would get it right!Â Â Here is how they did it:
Exit Tom Verducci: Â Verducci Â is SIâ€™s senior baseball writer and can be found authoring most baseball cover stories. On the whole, he seems like a pretty solid writerâ€¦ except when the subject is Barry Bonds. Â Verducciâ€™s is not your typical Bonds-basher. While he is stricken with a serious case of “Bondsitis”, a blowhard,Â hack, or full-time “Cosellout”Â he is not.Â Journalistic sleight of hand is his preferred modus operandi (again, at least as it pertains to Bonds). Â Whether, once upon a time, Bonds said some really mean things to Verducci, refused to give his kid an autograph, or told him to get out of the batterâ€™s box and back in the press box, Â is anybodyâ€™s guess. In any event, the vast majority of SIâ€™s Bonds-relatedÂ stories from the last seven years have run through Verducci, and readers have paid the price.
Enter Chris Ballard: Ballard, an excellent writerâ€”minus the Bonds-bias, was assigned this story (his 2nd on Bonds). Besides his literary prowess, Ballard has a quality to his writing that is rather refreshing: he often perceives stories, writes those stories, and views athletes as, (gasp!), â€¦ three-dimensional! While this is very encouraging in a journalistic world built on the standardÂ â€œgood guysâ€ vs.â€œgreatest sports villiansâ€, he might soon find himself on SIâ€™s unemployment line if he doesnâ€™t shape up! Â In any case, so that readers can truly understand Sports Illustratedâ€™s growth in this article on Bonds 755th home run, itÂ must compared with last yearâ€™s coverage leading up to his 715th homer by Tom Verducci (May 15, 2006).Â When placed side-by-side they form an introductory college course on the distinctions between responsible and irresponsible journalism.
TOM VERDUCCI on 715 vs. CHRIS BALLARD on 755
A. SETTING THE STAGE – The Opening Paragraph: Â
A1 -Â Tom Verducci Â on 715:Â “Out here on the other end of the rabbit hole on Sunday night a reporter asked Bonds-fresh off his 713th home run, the last he would ever hit with any other slugger between him and Hank Aaron‘s record 755-if his inevitable passing of Babe Ruth would mean he was better than the Bambino, â€œI don’t know yet,’ Bonds said. Then he added more assuredly, ‘The numbers speak for themselves.’ Not anymore they don’t, not on this end, where the second eclipsing of Ruth’s 714 home runs is bringing about not the usual celebration of the sport’s numerical underpinnings but the final deconstruction of them. Steroids did to baseball what Watergate did to the presidency. They ended what had been an organic trust in the institution, and there is no going back. Bonds is H.R. Haldeman, the guy who bragged, “Every president needs an s.o.b., and I’m Nixon‘s.”
A2 -Â Chris Ballard on 755: Â â€œIt was a simple act by a beleaguered man, one that brought together a country while dividing it, one that ended a vigil just as it began another. The 755th home run of Barry Bondsâ€™s career was not especially different from hundreds that came before. He kept his right shoulder in, waited on a fastball as it sliced high over the plate and, in one tight, powerful motion, redirected the baseball some 380 feet into the twilight sky, where it crashed off a concrete facing in the leftfield bleachers at Petco Park in San Diego and caromed into a forest of upraised arms below. The details have been recorded: the pitcher who gave it up (Clay Hensley), the date (Aug. 4, 2007, 21 years after Hank Aaron hit his 755th) and the reaction from the 42,000-plus fans (a standing ovation by most, boos by some). What it means, and how it makes us feel — that is more complicated.â€
A3 -Â Analysis:Â One might want to ask Verducci how steroids “ended what had been anÂ organic trust”Â thatÂ was somehowÂ unscathed through 57 years of segregation; Ty Cobb; â€œBlack Soxâ€, cut balls; corked bats; amphetamines; Gaylord Perry; Pete Rose, etc.? Rather than invoke over-the-top comparisons like Nixon, Watergate, and Â Bonds as an â€œs.o.b.â€,Â Ballard tells us that â€œit is more complicatedâ€ and then proceeds with the uneasy challenge of guiding us through that very complexity. In doing so, Ballard not only shows respect for his craft, but the intelligence of his readers.
B. Â GENERAL FAN REACTIONS:
B1 -Â Verducci: â€œMany fans, who spent the weekend mocking Bonds, instinctively allowed a cheer out of admiration for the blow[#713]. Everything about the home run was majesticâ€”well, except that it smacked not far from a GOT JUICE? Poster, that it landed among several fans holding asterisk signs and that behind the Giantsâ€™ dugout, not five seats away from Bondsâ€™s cheering mother, Pat, a man held up a sign that simply said, CHEATER. Can an athlete be called a more pejorative name than that? â€¦Bondsâ€™s pursuit of Ruth has not only had its historical impact diminished by the steroid issue, but â€“ outside his blindly loyal safe haven of san Franciscoâ€”the chase has also generated some astonishingly negative vibes. Included among the signs in the left-field seats in Philadelphia were ones that read, HEY BARRY, MOVE YOUR HEAD. WE CANâ€™T SEE, and one about 60 feet in length that read, RUTH DID IT ON HOT DOGS & BEER. AARON DID IT WITH CLASS. HOW DID YOU DO IT?” (CAPS added by Verducci)
B2 -Â Ballard: “With Bondsâ€™s every appearance [at Dodgers while on #754], the boos came loud and lusty, toppling down and echoing down on Chavez Ravine. They were even louder when, as happened five times during the series, Bonds was walked. Los Angeles did not pay up to four times face value for their tickets, did not dress up in their Entourage finest of mirrored sunglasses and designer jeans, to watch the Dodgers bow down to this old man and send him to first base. So, Booooo they roared at their own manager, Booooo they roared at their own team, even as it was fighting to win its division race. Rarely have so many cared so much about someone they professed to loathe. Itâ€™s a stance that former Dodger Milton Bradley sums up as â€œimpossibly hypocriticalâ€.
B3 -Â Analysis: Through various journalistic manipulation techniques, Verducci Â is able to paint the simplistic black and white tale of fans uniformly despising Bonds all around the country except for those blind-as-bats immoral morons in San Francisco. Any evidence to the contrary like the crowdâ€™s cheer is dismissed as an â€œinstinctiveâ€ reflex for â€œthe blowâ€, not the man. In direct contrast, Ballardâ€™s commentary digs much deeper for the more complex, nuanced, and schizophrenic truth of the matter. This might explain: why Bonds was voted by fans into the all-star game, the respect he received from arch-rival Dodger fans, and cheering and applause from majority of Padre fans after belting #755. Ultimately, fans take steroid allegations, and most of all, themselves, much less seriously than sportswriters.Â The fundamental difference between the mainstream media and the fans is that behind the boos, the jeers, and the signs is an underlying respect for what Barry Bonds has accomplished. Â And respect should go to Chris Ballard who properly captured this truth instead of imposing his own personal opinion.
C. INDIVIDUAL QUOTES onÂ Milestone Home Runs:
C1 -Â Verducci:
- Cory Lidle: â€œI donâ€™t think itâ€™s legitimateâ€ (Lidle proceeds to tell why he believes this)
- Curt Schilling: â€œItâ€™s not worth it [to rail against Bonds]. Nobody wants Barryâ€™s baggage. The minute you say something youâ€™ve got national media running to you, so itâ€™s easier to say nothing.â€
- Giants manager Felipe Alou after â€œgrowing weary of answering questionsâ€ says: â€œIâ€™ve been talking awhile for Barry. I wish he could talk to you guysâ€
- Giant teammate Matt Morris: â€œThe only time people ever booed Mark McGwire in 1998â€”anywhereâ€”was when he bunted the first pitch of batting practiceâ€¦ People loved him. This is the exact opposite. With Bonds, people are upset and are not happy for him.â€
C2 – Ballard:
- A young security guard crowed to a nearby couple, “I’m going to be able to tell my son one day, ‘Your daddy was there the day Barry tied the record!’?”
- For one Giants fan, Tim Healy, â€¦ the moment was especially sweetâ€¦ Tim grew up idolizing Barry’s father, Bobby, and went to the same high school as Barry. â€¦”This is what we came here for,” said Tim, putting his arm around Tyler. “Sharing a piece of history with your 10-year-old son. What’s better than that?”
- As Healy said this, a man in a Tony Gwynn jersey stood up in the next section. A half inning had passed, after all, and the statute of limitations on good vibes had expired, even in San Diego. “Hey, Barry,” he yelled at the leftfielder, “how come your hat is so big?” And with that, the moment was over.
C3 -Â Analysis: Verducciâ€™s brilliantly and deftly uses â€œbias by selective quotingâ€ to complete his ironclad narrative. In this sleight of hand, the fans have spoken for more hundreds of thousands fans with their signs, Lidle and Schilling have spoken for the 750 players in the league, and Alou and Morris have spoken for his coaches and teamates. And then comes Â Verducciâ€™s greatest Â journalistic sin: BIAS BY OMISSION.Â Astonishingly, there is not one sign or one single counter-quote in the ENTIRE article by one fan, player, or teammate. In contrast, Ballard quotes three individuals who each add something to the mix. While the first fan is pro-Barry and the last fan is anti-Barry, it is Ballardâ€™s full disclosure of Tim Healy biased pro-BondsÂ past that really revealsÂ Ballardâ€™s honesty andÂ respect for his profession.
D. THE CLOSING:
D1 -Â Verducci: “In any case, baseball canâ€™t be the same anymore, not when Bonds can hit his 715th homerun and its superiority to 714 lacks absolute clarity. No wonder why so many people are booing.”
D2Â – Ballard: “The new home run king had already accepted his crown. Whether others would recognize his claim to the throne, whether we would validate itâ€”that remained to be seen.”
D3Â -Â Analysis: Verducci, in displaying typical sportswriter amnesia of baseballâ€™s segregated era, fails to question the â€œabsolute clarityâ€ of Ruthâ€™s #714.. But beyond that point, the separate endings are as different as the quality of closers that Ruth, Aaron, and Bonds had to face in their careers. Verducci tells his audience WHAT to think, while Ballard, closing with Mariano Rivera-like fashion, allows his readers to make up their minds for themselves.Â This distinction is the crux of good journalism (exception: editorial column).
E. The PHOTOGRAPHS:
E1 -Â In 715 Article: The cover has Bonds in batterâ€™s box with the title â€œThe Long, Strange Trip to 715*â€. Inside you will find 10 separate pictures of fans (yes, SI also combed the parking lots) holding up signs including: â€œGOT ROIDS?â€, FRAUD, CHEATER, 715*, and others. Approximately 40,000-50,000 fans attend each game.
E2 -Â In 755 Article: This time no asterisk is found on the cover next to 755. Inside the article, there are only two pictures of fan reactions. In one shot there is a patch of fans holding up asterisk signs, and in another shot three supportive fans are painted in orange with the letters 7-5-5 painted across their respective chests.
E3: Analysis: While 10 separate pictures of fans may be worth 10,000 words, those schooled in elementary mathematics know that even 100 similar pictures would represent a tiny fraction of 1% of overall fans in attendance. Â However, two pictures of opposing reactions in the Ballard article are far closer to the divided truth of the matter.
Conclusion: Firstly, bravo to Sports Illustrated and Chris Ballard for hitting one out of ther park. But the bigger question is:Â what should we make of SIâ€™s newfound dive into fair-minded Bonds COVERage? Is it simply a lucky by-product of Ballard and not Verducci being assigned this story? Or was the assignment a responsible and deliberate move on the part of SI? Is the article aÂ token effort? Or is it the beginning of a greater institutional change in COVERage of Bonds and perhaps, other athletes? A TALE OF TWO HOMERS proves that fans arenâ€™t the only ones who are conflicted Â in how Barry Bonds should be addressed. Whether we should recognize SI’s claim to renewed spirit of responsible coverage, whether we should validate them — Â that remains to be seen.
Sports Illustratedâ€™s Curious COVERage of Barry Bonds Series
- PART 1 â€“ The Pre-BALCO Covers
- PART 1A – Giving Sports Illustrated* and Rick Reilly Their DueÂ
- PART 2Â -Â The Asterisk Covers (coming soon)
- PART 3Â -Â The Home Run Covers (715 & 755)
- OTHER -Â Barry Bonds 101: The Starting Five Rolls 12 Deepâ€¦ TWICE!
- OTHER -Â Rick Reilly is a Dork and Why it Matters