When baseball's playoffs begin next week, Barry Bonds will probably show why he's the National League's most valuable player on the field. Off the field, though, he's a study in contradictions, as three scenes indicate.
Scene 1: Sunday morning in the visiting team's clubhouse before a game in Atlanta. As I was asking questions of his San Francisco Giant teammates, Bonds was watching a teen make-out film on a big screen TV. Typical scene: One high school boy has been trying to get a girl to sleep with him, and when she decides that she will, she whispers to him in class, "I want to have sex." The startled boy says, "Now?" Bonds, sprawled on a leather couch, chortles, "Yeah, on the desk." He makes obscene comments throughout the movie, as a teammate opened up Playboy centerfolds for Bonds to assess.
Scene 2: Later, Bonds gives a thoughtful reply when I say to him, "My 12-year-old son, Ben, knows about all the home runs you've hit, and he wanted me to ask you a question -- "what does it feel like to be a great player?" Courteously, Bonds says: "I don't know what ‘great' means. ... Tell Ben that greatness means being remembered in the minds of people. Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, maybe Michael Jordan."
I then ask: "Who should be remembered? Who do you admire?" Bonds replies "King, Lincoln. Those are the people I admire. They did good for others. They sacrificed themselves. Tell Ben to be brave and to think of others."
Scene 3: I enjoy standing behind the batting cage before games and watching the careful choreography of batting practice. Typically, players hit in groups of four, with each group given 15 minutes and each player during that period receiving the same number of pitches in countdown order: first, maybe, eight pitches, then six, then four, then two, with intensity growing as the pitches become fewer.
Batting practice is also an expression of baseball democracy. In the batting practices I watched before seven games this year, every player except one bunted the first pitch he was thrown, and at the end of his group's time every player except one helped pick up baseballs in front of the batting cage and drop them into a bucket.
You can guess the one: Barry Bonds. (He did kick three balls in the direction of the bucket at the end of his batting time.) I'm in awe of his homeruns and his incredible on-base percentage; I like his theoretical understanding of greatness and self-sacrifice; I appreciate both his love for his recently deceased father and his ability to come back from mourning and concentrate his mind on hitting. But he's not a role model in other ways, and we shouldn't be starry-eyed about stars.
That leads me to one other behind-the-scenes scene. Each time I've been in the Atlanta Braves clubhouse, neither the television screens nor the tables and couches have displayed raunch, so I recently asked top closer John Smoltz, an outspoken Christian, about that.
He replied: "This was never as bad as some other places, but a few years ago we did have the Playboys lying around. I didn't want to make a big deal of it -- not in the sense of ‘I'm better than you guys,' because I have the same desires -- but the clubhouse is where we all spend a lot of time. It's like our living room, and I didn't want that stuff in my living room."
Smoltz continued: "I talked with the clubhouse boys about it. Now we have a box in the bathroom with those magazines, but they're not all around here, in our common living room."
He grinned and concluded: "A few years ago, I put a Bible in each player's locker, just to see what happened. Most of them also ended up in a box in the bathroom."