Books | Sports

April 20, 2006

My Two Years With Barry Bonds

Jeff Pearlman talks to Gelf about his new biography of Barry Bonds, why book promotion can be fun, why he's drawn to baseball's fringe characters, and why the author shares in the blame for baseball's steroids scandal.

Carl Bialik

For a .214 hitter with no home runs yet in 2006, Barry Bonds is getting a lot of attention. His every move on the baseball field and in the dugout for the San Francisco Giants is tracked by cameras as he chases the career home-run totals of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. His every thought about the media, the fans, and the steroids scandal that has ensnared him—he's reportedly the subject of a federal inquiry for his grand-jury testimony in which he said he didn't knowingly juice—is chronicled by his new ESPN infomercial, Bonds on Bonds. His every alleged doping is meticulously recorded in the new book, Game of Shadows, an investigative tour de force by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams.

And now, Bonds's Cub Scout days and high-school plays are examined with equal care by Jeff Pearlman, author of a book about the 1986 Mets and former reporter for Sports Illustrated and Newsday. For Love Me, Hate Me, excerpted last month in ESPN the Magazine, Pearlman interviewed over 500 associates of Bonds, 60% of whom, Pearlman guesses, never had spoken before about Bonds. "I loved the challenge of getting inside," Pearlman, age 34, tells Gelf. "To me, the whole fun of journalism is the digging process."

What emerged from the digging is the story of an arrogant baseball star who is the product of jock-coddling from an early age and bad life lessons from his late father, one-time Giant Bobby Bonds. Barry Bonds betrays his few friends, makes his teammates hate him, curses at kids seeking autographs, and rails against the media. He is, in short, an unpleasant guy to spend 300-plus pages with—let alone Pearlman's two years of work near, if not with, Bonds himself—yet the book is a compelling read, if only as a study of how many former Bonds associates don't hesitate to rag on Barry. For those who can bear all the Bonds bile, it's our most complete look at one of pro sports' most important and least understood figures.

Gelf called Pearlman last week in a Los Angeles Hyatt, just before Pearlman was to appear on Fox Sports' Best Damn Sports Show Period. He talked about his relentless appetite for book-promotion, why Bonds's refusal to grant an interview for the book was a good thing, why he thinks Love Me, Hate Me isn't competing with Game of Shadows, and how becoming a book author allowed him to deliver payback to a childhood bully.

Gelf Magazine: Unlike your book's subject, you use your real name when traveling; I just called the hotel's front desk and asked for "Jeff Pearlman," and I got you.

Jeff Pearlman: I don't think there are too many people stalking me.

GM: I was thinking of parallels between you and Bonds because of your parody of his Web journal on your book's Web site.

Jeff Pearlman
Catherine Pearlman
Jeff Pearlman
JP: Oh, you saw it? What'd you think?

GM: I liked it.

JP: Did you get it was a parody?

GM: Yes.

JP: My wife didn't realize it was a parody. She had never been to Bonds's site. My wife, Earlie, is sort of my conscience.

GM: Is she a baseball fan?

JP: No, not especially so. We have bonded over one player, though. When I was covering baseball for Sports Illustrated, she was into Delino DeShields. I liked him, and that was the one guy we shared. He hasn't played for three years, though. He's from Delaware, and I went to the University of Delaware.

GM: How do you enjoy marketing the book? Is it the most publicity you've ever done for a book?

JP: I just started this week. It's totally different. No. 1, because there's another Bonds book out, and even though it's a totally and completely different book, it's spurring me on to go harder than last time. [Ed.'s note: See a Wall Street Journal article on the rivalry between the two books.]
You have to be incredibly aggressive not just when writing, but when promoting, even during that 800th radio interview. I think I'm the only author who goes to the stadium and hands out flyers. Yesterday, I was in San Francisco, and I stood outside AT&T park handing out flyers. Three times, I went to Shea and left postcards about the book. This experience really has taught me always to take the flyer from the guy handing them out. You realize how horrible the job is, and how people treat flyer distributors with disrespect. When I walk past someone who's handing out flyers, I always take the flyer. It's the easiest way to make a guy's life more pleasurable.

GM: You used to write for Sports Illustrated, where you could focus on the writing, and the magazine would take care of the promoting. Yet you've adapted well to self-promoting, it seems.

JP: I come from a good stock of self-promoters. My Dad [Stanley Pearlman] owns his own executive search firm [Stanley Herz and Company], and he's the best sales promoter I've seen in my whole life. I really learned from him the art. We always used to talk about it. Inc Magazine did a profile of him about it. One time, he wrote a letter to the New York Times using his real name, and then they ran a letter under his business name, criticizing the original letter.
It's a challenge. I love the challenge of it. I love trying to think, "How do you get people to think ahead of time, 'I want to go to the bookstore to buy that book'?" I wouldn't want to do it every day, but when you're writing a book every two years, it's kind of cool.

GM: Do you have new appreciation for publicists, who might not always have been so useful to you as a sportswriter?

JP: There are very few journalists who like getting those calls from publicists saying, "We're selling these new Brett Favre cheesheads and would love to send you one." But I always appreciated the good ones. The key to being a good publicist is to admit when you have a crappy product, and so you know when they have a good one. It's saying, "Between you and me, this cheesehead is really lame, but in a couple of weeks, I'm going to have a really cool Bo Jackson item."

GM: When did you start working on the book, and why did you choose the topic?

JP: I started about two years ago. I really liked writing the first book [The Bad Guys Won! about the 1986 New York Mets]. I really wanted to write a biography of an individual for my second book. I looked around and asked, who are the sports icons who haven't been written about? It's a very small list. Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Reggie Jackson: They've all been covered.

GM: You're mentioning only baseball players.

JP: To me, baseball is the best for books. They seem to sell better and draw more interest. Or maybe it's just my area of expertise. But I also looked at Jesse Owens, Joe Namath ...

GM: So you weren't just looking at contemporary figures.

JP: Oh, no, no, no. And I wasn't just looking at baseball.
With Barry Bonds, the amazing thing about this guy is, he plays in an area of unparalleled coverage for athletes. You cannot sneeze without being photographed. And we know so little about this guy besides the basics: Son of Bobby Bonds, kind of grumpy, great hitter, steroids. I loved the challenge of getting inside. To me, the whole fun of journalism is the digging process.
And the Delino DeShields biography wouldn't do so well. Delino: My Life. I'd sell the 12 copies in Delaware, and that's it.

GM: I read the book, and it struck me that, while Bonds didn't really talk to you, he's a singularly unpleasant character to be talking and thinking and writing about for two years.

JP: I know what you're saying: You spent two years with Barry Bonds. What I really got into was the digging. I love finding tidbits about people. If you write one thing about writing a biography, this is the key: The key isn't interviewing the obvious. You want to get Gooden or Strawberry for a book about the '86 Mets. I didn't get either, and to me it didn't make any difference. The key is to get the smaller people who were never interviewed. Gooden and Strawberry would give the same quotes they did 10 years ago.
With Bonds, there are so many people he played with over the years. I loved the fact I knew nothing about the guy going into it. It wasn't like, here's this jerk, but, here's this fascinating figure I have to dig into.

GM: So he's not just a run-of-the-mill jerk?

JP: Sometimes he's a run-of-the-mill jerk. The jerky stuff aside, the main thing I was curious about was, What makes this guy tick? What really makes him tick? So many people give the easy answer on him: He doesn't like the spotlight; he hates the press; if you were this talented, you'd hate them, too. It's those stupid clichés you hear all the time. People think if you're raised with a silver spoon, as he was, he had an easy childhood.
But he was one of three black kids in his high school, one of only three running around in elementary school, and he was targeted from Day One as the jock. He was basically branded. This was his identity. If you want to talk about why this guy is scarred and why in so many ways he is warped, that's what happens to you. This guy spent his early days watching his father not have to lift a thumb in the clubhouse. He gets to Arizona State and he's treated like the second coming. So everywhere he's gone, it's kind of added on like bricks. I was fascinated about how he got to this point. How this guy became this really unique, warped, fascinating figure we have in front of us.

GM: What I found especially interesting about the interactions with his father is that Bobby didn't just set a bad example for him, but he consciously told him that this was the way to be.

JP: Writing this book, I thought a lot about how I was raised. It was a reminder—as a father myself and being raised by two very good parents—a reminder of how the difference between being raised well and raised badly can have a profound effect on you. So when I use a cattle prod on my daughter, I never turn it to high.

GM: You mentioned all the clichés in the coverage of Bonds over the years. Was there ever any good coverage?

JP: One guy whom I interviewed for the book, Howard Bryant [author of Juicing the Game], wrote a profile of Bonds in 2001 for the Boston Herald; he just nailed him 100%. Howard has a very similar background to Barry. He was the only black kid in his high school in Cape Cod. He has insight other writers don't. He really nailed it well.
There was also a piece in Sports Illustrated in 1993 by Richard Hoffer, the piece where he was blown off by Bonds for seven days. Bonds gave him so little time. The thing about Bonds is, he's thinking, how is a superstar supposed to act? Not, how should I act, but what are people's expectations? Hoffer sort of nailed that. Bonds is not an easy guy to cover.

GM: How many of the 500 people you interviewed had never been interviewed before, in-depth, about Bonds?

JP: About 90% had never been interviewed in the last 10 years. About 60% were never interviewed about him at all. Certainly, when in high school, his shortstop teammate may have been asked, "What did you think of that home run?" But not in-depth. I interviewed 100-something Giants. Most of them probably had been asked about Bonds. But with Jay Canizaro, I don't think he was ever really asked to kind of look at Bonds. It's a lot easier to interview baseball players when they're retired. Jay wouldn't have said anything in 1997 that he'd say to me in 2006.

GM: You worked for Sports Illustrated for six years. Were you hoping the book would be excerpted in SI?

JP: I never thought about it when I was writing the book. Game of Shadows came out first. I can't fault SI for running it. I was thrilled at ESPN for excerpting my book.
I just wanted to be a sportswriter. So the fact that I'm on the 14th floor of a hotel in California, talking about the book, still blows my mind.
I spent six years at Sports Illustrated. I loved that place. Game of Shadows was great. I have no beef. I had no expectations.

GM: That line about being in the hotel sounds like the ballplayer who says he just loved playing game, and couldn't have imagined it would be his career.

JP: As soon as I said it, I thought to myself, "There's a quote I wouldn't use." It's like, "I just want to be a part of the team."

GM: Was there a single moment in your digging process when you knew you had struck gold—unearthed a new insight into Bonds?

JP: There were two.
One was Canizaro. He was the first Giant I contacted. I got a list of every player who played with the Giants, and he was the first I talked to. You're thinking, "Maybe every interview will be like this!" [Canizaro told Pearlman, "Anybody who had any kind of intelligence or street smarts about them knew Barry was using some serious stuff." [See Pearlman's recent Slate article on the aftermath.]
Another one was Shawon Dunston. He's a great interview and a great guy. He really delved a lot into Bonds and race. Bonds used to say to guys, "I'm from L.A.," to sound tough and more "black." Bonds would say, "I'm from the hood." Dunston went into a great analysis of Barry. Dunston is from Brooklyn, and his whole analysis of Barry and his insecurities when it comes to race and culture was really good.
You start tracking down people—when I found the Cub Scout leader ... The first-grade teacher led me to the fourth-grade teacher who led me to the second-grade teacher. Then you found out his wife worked at a strip club. I love investigating, I do. You feel like a detective.

GM: Dunston several times in your book calls Bonds a "faggot."

JP: I don't personally approve of the language. You know at SI I wrote the John Rocker story?

GM: I'm aware.

JP: Sometimes you just listen and write, but you certainly don't agree. Ballplayers are ballplayers. Eighty percent of major league baseball is very arch-conservative, which I'm not. I don't think Shawon Dunston literally thinks he's calling Bonds a homosexual male. I think unfortunately "faggot" is one of those words meant to be derogatory. But I'm not filtering for anybody. I'm trying to write a real book on these guys.

GM: You asked if I knew you wrote the Rocker story, in which he rags on foreigners, queers, and the driving skills of Asian women. How does it feel to know that's what you'll be remember for most, for your six years at SI? And, considering you've subsequently written books critical of the '86 Mets and of Bonds, are you drawn to writing about nasty characters?

JP: It is tattooed to my head. Literally, I have a tattoo of Rocker on my head. No, I'm just kidding. It would be tough to meet women that way. Of course, I'm married so it doesn't matter.
I don't think I was too critical of the Mets. And I don't think I slammed Rocker. People say I slammed Rocker. I did no such thing. What's the fun of writing about Carl Pavano, or Derek Jeter? When I was a kid, I had two favorite ballplayers. Well, three, including Ken Griffey, Sr., but he wasn't that interesting. My two favorites were Mark Fidrych and Garry Templeton. Mark because he was talking to the ball, and Garry because he was crotching off to fans [Slate]. I don't seek 'em, but I don't shy away from guys who are controversial.

GM: Are there guys who are just as interesting, but not jerks?

JP: Sure. There's a new biography coming out about Roberto Clemente. Personally I don't think Mickey Mantle was a jerk. There's Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson. So you don't have to be a jerk to be interesting. And a lot of jerks aren't that interesting—believe me, the kid who beat me up in elementary school isn't that interesting.

GM: What's his name?

JP: John Degl. I mention him in the Mets book. ["... most weeks a school bully named John Degl would make sure to kick my books across the hallway floor, eliciting laughter from the general populace."] His friends got mad and emailed me. It's a classic example of what comes around goes around. The kid punched me in the head coming out of gym class in the eighth or ninth grade, and I write a book. Not that I wrote a book about it.

GM: Do you think nonfiction books should be fact-checked?

JP: I hired two fact-checkers. There will be errors in there, though. I don't think there's ever been a book written that's perfect. The reality is, when writing a book or article, you have to rely on people's memories. You can't double-check every fact. You can't double-check that his den mother remembers him having trouble tying knots. You can check that he was in Cub Scouts, which we did. You have to trust people's memories, and your instinct that these people are reliable. If there were things that were outlandish, or didn't seem right, I didn't use them.

GM: In the book, it struck me how awkward and cruel Bonds was to women.

JP: He has horrible, horrible relations with women, and he always has. I don't think he gets it, I think he's confused. Like his teammates said, he's all about strippers.

GM: But he also doesn't understand men.

JP: He doesn't understand people. There's this assumption in the sports world that these sports people are cool people. You want to be like Mia Hamm, and Kobe ... well, Kobe is not a good example. There are probably a lot of people who think Bonds is the coolest guy ever. But he is awkward and uncomfortable—he's not even remotely comfortable in his own skin. Cool is a relative term. He is not a guy who is comfortable in his own skin, and there is no doubt about that. He does not get social cues whatsoever. That's what happens when you're raised in a bubble, a lot of times. There's a reason a lot of athletes struggle when their careers are over. When you don't have to make a plane reservation your whole life, or buy tickets to a play, that damages you. I don't think he's all bad, I just think he struggles. And I have sympathy for him.

GM: Bonds probably hasn't read the book...

JP: I'm sure he hasn't read any of the book.

GM: But he did respond to the excerpt that ran in ESPN the Magazine [where Bonds goes to Ken Griffey, Jr.'s house in the winter following the 1998 season and says he plans to start taking steroids, based on the accounts of other, unnamed, people who were present at the meeting], saying that he's never been to Griffey's house. What did you think of that reaction?

JP: First of all, Griffey's reaction to it was, I don't remember that conversation [Cincinnati Post], which we all know is one of the lamest...
For the record, Ken Griffey, Jr., is one of my favorites. I understand him standing up for one of his friends, so I'm not blaming him. This is not a pile-on book, but what Bonds said is not credible. It is a fact that he has used. If this was a court of law, he'd be a goner. He's an interesting guy. Credibility is not his strength. I interviewed 520 people. I had a Nexis account, and I went every day, day-by-day from the time he was 14 years old. I searched for "Barry Bonds," and went through every day, every clip: Thousands upon thousands of clips. The contradictions throughout his life are remarkable. To a certain degree, it's very human.

GM: What are some examples of the contradictions?

JP: He always says, "I don't care what the press thinks." Yet time and time again, he shows how personally he takes these things. He's more sensitive about this stuff than most people think. He says, "I love kids," and he'll be great with kids in the clubhouse. And the a bunch of kids ask him for his autograph, and he tells them to fuck off. When he was with the Pirates, he used to talk to the media all the time. Then he says his manager at the time, Jim Leyland, says he's spending too much time talking to the press. It never happened. Then there's his relationship with his Dad. Sometimes he'll say it's great, and other times, horrible.

GM: You mention how he treats young autograph seekers. To me, of all the despicable behavior you mention in the book, the worst—worst than his steroids use—is how he treats kids. Twice in the book he tells kids of associates hurtful things about their fathers.

JP: I know what you're saying. But I don't know if I agree. The steroids thing rubs me the wrong way. What bothers me the most about him—it's easy to judge somebody on how he treats you. I wrote a story about Gary Sheffield for SI that I regret [for being too positive]. It was a very glowing portrait of him, because I had a good conversation with him and liked talking to him.
If you judge Barry Bonds on how he treats clubhouse kid, the team photographers ... he doesn't treat the waiter well—that's how I'd sum it up. That's a horrible thing. It's easy to treat the people you need to treat well, nicely. But how do you treat the little people? He fails on that.

GM: How much do you think the media is responsible for not exposing steroid use earlier? Are you personally responsible at all?

JP: It's a good question, and I knew someone would ask, because I don't target myself at all in the book. I do think the media is very responsible, including myself. When the whole McGwire-Sosa thing was going on in 1998, we were all cheering [they were named SI's Sportsmen of the Year]. When we look back now, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out. Sammy Sosa used to have the body of Tito Jackson. We all just kind of went along for the joy ride.
In '98, I was still kind of a new guy at SI. But definitely later on, when I did a profile of Bonds in 2000, steroids didn't come up once. I never asked him about it. No one asked him about it. I'm not the main culprit, but I'm right there with other people.

GM: Towards the end of the book, you quote heavily from Game of Shadows. How did you handle the question of how to deal with that book, when covering the same ground? It was published just before your book, yet you quote from it.

JP: I had to think about it. There was some debate about it. I don't view Game of Shadows as a direct competitor. One is a biography and one is a steroids book. When that book came out, it made a major, major impact. So if a book comes out that accuses him directly of steroids, I can't put my head in sand and pretend it didn't happen.
I probably added [quotes from Game maybe a month and a half ago. [My editors] said, add a couple of pages. All of the stuff I added was from the SI excerpt. I like those guys [who wrote Game] a lot, and I interviewed them. I have so much respect for those guys. They are great investigative journalists.

GM: Did you think about pushing your own book's publication back, so it could stand alone in the market?

JP: We actually moved up the publication date.

GM: Was that a no-brainer?

JP: It wasn't my decision. My concern was not Game of Shadows. My concern was a 42-year-old player getting hurt early in the season. It wasn't because of Game of Shadows, swear to God. The worst thing is writing about a ballplayer who's no longer playing. Like Delino, My Life. I kept saying to them, we've got to put this thing out. That was the reason.

GM: Were you shadowing the Giants while writing the book?

JP: When they came to New York, I went to see them. And I went to San Francisco, for a couple of weeks, overall. It would have done me no good to get 800 quotes from Randy Winn.

GM: You mention early in the book when Bonds blew off an interview request in person. Did you make other direct contacts with him?

JP: I was told very early on he wouldn't talk. I knew early on. It was never a mystery in my head that maybe Barry Bonds might want to sit down and talk to me. So I went through all possible avenues. I called his agent, I called his manager. It wasn't like I could just show up at the park and find Barry Bonds. I could never find the guy. I tried to talk to him, not because I ever really thought he would talk, but because journalistically, it was the right thing to do. I think it's a better book from not talking to him, I really do.

GM: Why?

JP: Because I don't believe what he says half the time. If you talk to 500 people who dealt with the guy, you get a better picture. My wife could write a more accurate biography of me. We just see ourselves kind of warped, you know.

GM: Speaking of how we see ourselves, what do you think of ESPN's Bonds on Bonds?

JP: I saw the first, and missed the second. I'm very down on ESPN for this one. I feel bad for Pedro Gomez [ESPN's Bonds reporter]. It's not fair. You have a guy covering Bonds, and then you have a show that renders him a second-tier citizen. He's a great reporter. That's crap. The bottom line is, it's always about money. But I'm just surprised ESPN is doing that.

GM: You come from SI, where I interned [for in summer 2000], and I sense there's a great deal of disdain at SI for ESPN. Do you share that?

JP: I write for ESPN the magazine. They've treated me well at the magazine. But I really consider SI ... that's where I have the most warm-fuzzies for. I still love SI, and the people there.

GM: You still love the magazine, in its current incarnation?

JP: I do. I honestly do

GM: Does ESPN the Magazine fact-check like SI does?

JP: They did. They fact-check the book excerpts, as well.

GM: What next for you?

JP: I'm not going to say. It's sports-related.

GM: You wrote last April that you were rooting for Rocker to make a comeback, when we was trying to catch on with the Long Island Ducks. [He's since become a reality-TV star, as chronicled by Deadspin.] What's the status of your relationship with Rocker?

JP: I don't think there's a status. I haven't talked to him for years. He's not coming over for Passover.

GM: How's spending Passover in a hotel?

JP: My parents gave me their blessing.

GM: Bonds sued the Game of Shadows authors [FindLaw]. Do you have any fears of getting sued about the Bonds book?

JP: I am a paranoid person by nature. Every article I've ever written, it's been, "Oh boy, who's going to yell at me?" I've Written about all these controversial people, and I don't love the confrontation. I love the writing, not the confrontation. I don't want to be sued. I always assume the worst. The thing has been fact-checked. I bled that thing. So hopefully not. But who knows? Maybe it'd be good publicity.

Related in Gelf

Our other sports-author interviewees include Sam Walker, Jack McCallum and Jon Wertheim, and Warren St. John.

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Article by Carl Bialik

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