How Should the Giants Handle Barry Bonds’ Number Retirement?

Domestic violence allegations against Barry Bonds shouldn’t be forgotten when the Giants retire his number later this year. (via Rudi Riet)

Content note: This story contains graphic descriptions of domestic abuse.

The San Francisco Giants announced earlier this month that they are retiring Barry Bonds’ number. It’s a deserved honor for the man who may remain absent from the Hall of Fame after a storied career that would most certainly be thought Cooperstown-worthy if not for the performance-enhancing drug use that hangs over his legacy like a cloud. Bonds is the all-time home run leader, a seven-time MVP, and the second-greatest hitter of all-time by fWAR. But for many people, his career will always be tainted by the fact that some of those accomplishments were aided by PEDs.

When the Hall of Fame voting came down last month, there were plenty of pieces published about why Bonds’ election remains elusive — and plenty more arguing that not electing Bonds does a disservice to his contributions to the game of baseball (with which I agree). But largely absent from these conversations is another scandal that should impact the way we remember Bonds and consider whether his legacy is deserving of the honors the numbers indicate it should be: his history of domestic violence.

We won’t have to relitigate Bonds’ candidacy in earnest again until next winter; Hall of Fame season is mercifully over. But the Giants’ announcement made me wonder what we say when we publicly celebrate ballplayers, and how we might strike a balance between acknowledging the accomplishments of men like Bonds and telling baseball’s story truthfully.

Bonds married Swedish-born Susann “Sun” Bonds in 1988, shortly after they met while she was working as a bartender in Montreal and he was an outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. In their book Dark Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroid Scandal That Rocked Professional Sports, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams describe the pairing as a “bad match,” saying that Bonds “wanted someone who would do what she was told.” Sun was not that person.

During their messy divorce proceedings in 1995, Sun testified to the abuse she suffered at Bonds’ hands. Among the allegations were that Bonds had locked her out of their home in the middle of the night while she was unclothed; that she was pushed into a bathtub while holding their infant son; and that he kicked her to the ground and knocked her unconscious while she was eight months pregnant.

“Barry was this big man who loved me one minute and the next minute was beating me up, and I didn’t know what to do,” she testified in San Mateo County Superior Court, according to SFGate. Her lawyer claimed she could not work due to the effects of the abuse, what he called “battered woman syndrome” and what is more commonly understood today to be the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Sun testified that Bonds beat her for the first time a few weeks after they married. She said that one time, he became physically abusive after she told him about a cosmetology job that she’d been offered and he didn’t want her to accept. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, not letting a partner work is a common tactic used by abusers that keeps the abused person financially dependent and more isolated, making it harder for victims to leave. In 1993, police were called to the home after an another altercation, though no charges were ever filed.

During the bitter divorce proceedings from Sun, Bonds met Kimberly Bell when she attended a Giants game with a friend in 1994. Fainaru-Wada and Williams outline the details of their relationship throughout Dark Shadows. Bell had a front row seat to Bonds’ descent into steroid abuse, which may have contributed to his anger.

His patterns of controlling and abusive behavior that he exhibited in his marriage to Sun continued in his relationship with Bell. Fainaru-Wada and Williams write that Bonds called Bell every morning at 8 to check in on her; he would let himself into her apartment with the key she had given him and leave her notes that said things like, “If you love me! Where are you. Who are you with. I have called you all night on your cell and home.” Bonds’ jealousy and possessiveness were apparent. Bonds told Bell they had “the perfect relationship” because she “did what she was told.”

According to Bell, as his steroid use escalated, so did his abusive behavior. “When his anger flared now, he would grab her, stand close to her face, and whisper intimidating, hurtful things. He insisted on knowing where she was at every hour of the day or night,” write Fainaru-Wada and Williams. “If he couldn’t find her, he would become enraged, and he told her he would kill her if he found out she was seeing someone else.” (At the time, Bonds was married to Liz Watson and having at least one other affair in addition to his relationship with Bell.)

He left abusive voicemails, sometimes threatening to kill her and, if she didn’t answer immediately, his calls became more frequent and his threats escalated. In 2003, in a hotel room in San Francisco, Bonds put his arm around Bell’s throat and told her, “If you ever f—–’ pull something like that again, I’ll kill you, do you understand me?” Bell’s flight from Arizona had been late getting in, and he was mad that his schedule had been thrown off for the day. Bell called the police and told them that a famous athlete had threatened to kill her but she hung up when asked for details.

Bonds steroid use often comes up in discussions of his past, but these violent incidents rarely do. In fact, many people do not even know about them despite the fact that they were testified to in court and have been documented in at least one book. It is part of a larger pattern in which athletes’ history of abuse is too often forgotten about or swept under the rug because it is seen as secondary to their athletic accomplishments.

This brings us to larger questions about whether and how we should celebrate abusers who have accomplished great feats of athleticism, and it forces us to confront what the Hall of Fame should be. In Bonds’ case, these incidents of violence are in the past, but then, so are the accomplishments. Number retirements and Hall of Fame inductions are in the business of reckoning with the past.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

There is no easy answer to any of this. There are already abusers in Cooperstown — Bobby Cox and Kirby Puckett are two easy examples. And there are PED users already in, too — we could say that the reason for both of these things is that their inductions are from a time before anyone thought much about these issues or cared as much about them.

Does that mean that, since there are already abusers and PED users in the Hall, their modern day counterparts deserve to be in, too? Or are we thinking differently about these things as a society and a baseball community, and should our votes reflect that new reality? If that’s the case, what does it say about us that we seem to care more about the tarnishing effect that PEDs might have on a career than we do about an athlete’s history of domestic abuse? It’s easy to understand the argument that PED use has direct effects on the game itself, while intimate partner violence happens away from the field. But even still, we should consider why we care more about performance enhancing drugs than we do about the brutalization of women?

A no-tolerance policy doesn’t seem to be the answer. Erasing the contributions someone like Bonds has made to the game of baseball doesn’t make sense; the history of the game cannot be told in full without acknowledging what Bonds did for it and brought to it. Instead, there needs to be a way to recognize players as the full, flawed humans that they are — as great baseball players, worthy of recognition but also as men who used drugs to get a leg up on their competition and also perhaps as men who treated the women in their lives horribly. All of these things can be true at once.

To do that might require changing the way we look at Cooperstown — not as an honor bestowed by baseball writers that is a combination of objective criteria and subjective assessments of worthiness and the person’s character, but simply as a museum that acknowledges those people who were the best at playing the game itself.

But what of honors and celebrations like a number retirement ceremony? That kind of recognition, by its very nature, is much more subjective, more local. Some teams require that a player be in the Hall of Fame before his number can be retired, but not all do. Most teams have their own team Halls of Fame, meant to honor those it can be argued were an important players in the history of a franchise without having a career that results in Hall of Fame membership. Bonds will be the first Giant to have his number retired by the club without a Cooperstown induction, an acknowledgment of the difficulty he may continue to face on the BBWAA’s ballot.

Looked at this way, it seems more fitting for Bonds to be elected to Cooperstown, but not receive the honor of a number retirement ceremony from the Giants. If we’re looking for consistency in how we honor athletes with a history of violence against women, the precedent set by the Phillies is a good one to follow.

Last season, the Phillies canceled a night planned to honor Pete Rose after allegations that he raped a teenage girl in the 1970s. They also decided not to include a plaque to honor him on their Wall of Fame in Ashburn Alley. Unlike Bonds, Rose is Cooperstown ineligible as a result of his betting on the sport. And while the percentage of the Hall of Fame vote he has received has grown in recent years, Bonds’ PED scandal means he’s not a shoo-in. If Rose’s sexual assault of a minor was enough for the Phillies to back out of offering him honors at their park, one must wonder why Bonds’ abuse of the women in his life doesn’t meet the same criteria.

When we erase their abusive behavior from the narrative of their lives, what we’re really doing is sending the message to their victims — and to all victims — that their pain doesn’t matter because their abuser is very good at hitting a ball with a bat. So perhaps, when we choose to recognize these men in their full, complicated humanity, it leaves room to celebrate their baseball accomplishments without valorizing them or erasing their past mistakes.

Resources and References

Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, whose work has been featured in The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, espnW, and VICE Sports, among others. She is a recovered alcoholic, and baseball enthusiast living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.
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Famous Mortimer
6 years ago

I’ve found myself defending him over and over against anti-PED people, because I think it’s a pointless moralising argument. Aaron used greenies; Ruth and Cobb had the benefit of only playing against other white Americans. I have zero problem with what Bonds did, especially as the commissioner who oversaw the PED era is now in Cooperstown and owners who stole from their cities and fans are also enshrined.

(Re: numbers being retired but not being in the HOF, Ken Boyer and the Cardinals is another example)

But the actual person is a lot less easy to defend, and I’m not sure I would any more. Re: the argument for just making the Hall about the best people to play the game, sure, but…even that is sweeping what they did under the rug, to an extent. The sort of person you are is important.

Las Vegas Wildcards
6 years ago

We really can’t compare steroids with greenies, because the latter did not physically enlarge the body, or help Bonds turn back time as he grew older. Greenies had zero impact on muscle recovery as well. The players who willing endangered their own health during the PED era are the ones to blame. These were grown men making adult decisions, and the recent death of Darren Daulton should be very concerning to the PED users.

6 years ago

Also, Bonds knew he was cheating. Trying to split hairs and balance tea cups to say that Bonds wasn’t technically cheating is just bullshit. All the guys using steroids in the 90s knew they were cheating. That is why they lied about it. If they truly believed it was okay (like McGwire obviously did with Andro), then why have all the secrecy. Comparing that to using greenies in the 60s and 70s is bullshit. Those guys did that openly.

Marc Schneider
6 years ago

At this point, greenies vs. PEDs is not the point. The issue is his abuse. I never liked Bonds. I think he is a bad guy. I know someone who worked at Walter Reed Army Hospital when Bonds came ostensibly to visit the troops and he apparently was a nasty SOB. But I had no problem with putting him in the Hall if the issue was just steroids. But to the extent he is an abuser as well (and, maybe steroids had something to do with it, although the abuse seems to have started before he apparently began using steroids). I agree you can’t simply erase what he did anymore than you can erase the fact that Louisville won the NCAA championship in 2013. But people should certainly stop celebrating him. (And, by the way, that goes for Kobe Bryant as well, who apparently paid off someone he raped to make that go away). I certainly don’t think the Hall of Fame is also the Hall of Good Character. Ruth and Cobb wouldn’t have met that standard either. But Bonds is still working in baseball; perhaps it’s time for the Giants to take his other behavior into account.

6 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

Ruth and Cobb aren’t nearly on this sort of level, with concerns to being “good people”.

Cobb’s been known as a generally ornery guy forever (and likely rightfully so, a huge number of fist hand accounts agree on it), but the racism and all that is not as well-documented. Check out ‘A Terrible Beauty’ by Charles Leerhsen.

And as far as Ruth I can’t say I agree with you even a little bit. Every baseball player of his era seemed to enjoy Ruth, the people and fans enjoyed Ruth, and, most importantly, even though he may have been a womanizer I haven’t read anything substantive about him being abusive.

Marc Schneider
6 years ago
Reply to  knipping12

I agree with you to some extent. Cobb’s reputation has improved in recent years. Everyone loved Babe Ruth, but if you read about how he treated his first wife, essentially abandoning her (in fairness, he calmed down later in life with his second wife) he’s not the best character. But clearly, as you say, not nearly on the level of domestic abuse. Still, I wouldn’t put either in the Hall of Good Character.

6 years ago

You can moralize all you want, and yes this moralizing is justified. I’m not using that term as a pejorative. But the answer to how teams will handle this is fairly simple: follow the money. If teams believe it will tarnish their brand and turn fans away, they will act accordingly. Expecting more out of profit-seeking companies will almost always leave you wanting.

To me, it is perfectly reasonable to separate professional from personal in voting for the hall of fame. To me, it is already painfully clear that induction into the hall of fame is a professional recognition, not a personal one.

6 years ago

Wow, I actually had no idea about these domestic violence incidents with Bonds. It is kind of crazy that the PED stuff seems to be the center of his hall of fame candidacy and his history of abuse is rarely, if ever, mentioned.

I think the author has it right that the hall of fame can/should acknowledge the contributions to the game or history of it without necessarily honoring or lionizing a person with such a past. I’ve felt that the “enshrinement” in Cooperstown can be a separate thing from the “museum” part of the Hall of Fame, and probably the same should be said for the Giants in this instance. They can (and do) acknowledge Barry Bonds’ baseball achievements in ATT Park, but to provide him with a retirement ceremony and give him a platform as an honorific does do a disservice to the game and further sweeps this important story under the rug.

6 years ago

I definitely agree that the Hall of Fame should be viewed as a museum of baseball history chronicling its most accomplished figures. I think the “character” clause should only be a determining factor in positive instances where a borderline player might receive additional credit for off-the-field positive contributions (at the individual voters’ discretion). It’s not a perfect or even necessarily fair system, but I think it’s worth acknowledging the game’s ambassadors. The opposite issue with dismissing otherwise worthy candidates because of off-the-field transgressions is that it suggests that those that do get inducted are implicitly free of said transgressions and that is simply not true. Of course, induction does not need to represent a binary of playing ability or character. There is plenty of room in the Hall to add whatever available information on steroids, greenies, cocaine, domestic violence, and anything else that fits. There’s nothing wrong with saying “Player X accumulated xyz stats over a 19-season career” and following that up with “In 2004, he was accused of …” and letting visitors make their own decision about the veracity of the claims and how to reconcile them with the professional accolades. There’s also no reason these things can’t be updated as new information becomes available or older claims are verified or disproved.

As for team recognition, well, that’s up to the team and the fan base. If the Giants (just as the obvious example) want to acknowledge Bonds’ contributions to the franchise while minimizing the negative aspects of his life, that’s their prerogative. Personally, I’d prefer they do it posthumously along with contributions to local women’s shelters or some other appropriate charity, but that’s not my call.

6 years ago

Such honors as a player being inducted into the Hall of Fame, or honors granted by ML teams are used by the player to enhance their reputation, their marketing value and even their monetary worth. So the entire MLB industry establishment should seriously consider the societal impact of conferring such honors upon players that have exhibited major character faults and flaws within and outside of their career. My favored solution is to acknowledge that they do deserve such honors but they shouldn’t be allow to profit by them. Therefore such honors should be withheld, and only accorded once they are deceased. Once their ‘whole’ story has concluded , then their whole story can be told, both the good and the bad.

This has been my position on Pete Rose from the beginning of his ban from MLB, and I believe it’s the best way to deal with the steroids issue too.

6 years ago

You know how all the MLB teams retired Robinson’s #42? All the MLB teams should retire the asterisk as well, because they all have had bad people on their teams who were nevertheless amazing ballplayers. Having an asterisk hanging up on the facing of the second deck in every stadium might be a good reminder to everybody that people are flawed, some will do anything no matter how selfish, morally questionable, or downright illegal to get ahead, and athletes shouldn’t automatically be considered role models.

Paul G.member
6 years ago

I had no idea about Bonds’s domestic abuse. Then again I was not a fan and had no interest in learning more about him.

My general opinion on Hall of Fame induction is it should only cover baseball related activities. Once you open it up to other categories, no matter how heinous, it quickly becomes a slippery slope of purity tests to whatever the ascendant morality is at the time. I’d rather have cads and dirtbags in the HOF than deal with the balancing of the outrages of dozens of different mobs. Of course, that does not mean the HOF has to ignore the heinous acts in their presentation.

6 years ago

Sun Bonds’ lawyer, Lawrence Stotter, could not be reached for comment Thursday. During the trial, he depicted Barry Bonds’ alleged abusive behavior as that of “a superstar, where the world essentially marches to his drumbeat.”
Barry Bonds testified that he had never assaulted his ex-wife, prevented her from working or going to school. He accused her of violent outbursts that included trashing his baseball trophies and brawling with her mother during a family visit to her native Sweden.
Nachshin argued that the abuse allegations amounted to lies motivated by Sun Bonds’ greed to obtain a lucrative divorce settlement from her ex-husband, whose contract makes him one of baseball’s highest-paid players.
“I think Sun put Barry through the wringer,” Nachshin said Thursday. “Obviously this was a case of credibility, and the court found that Barry was credible both at the first trial and the second. The court saw through Sun’s transparencies and last-minute desperate arguments, and this was the best result.”
Nachshin said several settlement offers had been made to Sun Bonds that were “far better than what she got.”

What a brutal hit piece. Why don’t you tell the readers what actually happened when they went to court. All of her claims were dismissed. Sun Bonds was incredibly abusive, backed up by several police reports. She had one of the best divorce attorneys money could buy and lost. Zero proof of any abuse. Friends and family testified on his behalf. But don’t let that stop a good story.

Barry Bonds gets dragged through the mud more than any athlete
Did he use. Of course.
Was he arrogant. Of course.
Did he treat the media with disdain. Yes.
Was he a gentleman. Likely not.
But there is zero proof he abused women. An a$$hole yes, but abuser?
Was he the greatest baseball player in the last 50 years. Absolutely he was.
The Hall of fame is filled guys who cheated on their wives, took PEDs, were surly to the media and to their teammates.
It’s the dirty little truth about pro sports. Most of the greats are narcissistic, controlling, selfish ego maniacs.
Why we have to love them as people is beyond me.
Bonds is similar to many great athletes, except he was the best.

Marc Schneider
6 years ago
Reply to  reddfoxx39

I pretty much agree. I certainly don’t expect them to be role models. As far as I’m concerned, my relationship with athletes is simply transactional. I pay (or, not if on TV, but someone is) to see them perform a service and help the team I follow win. That’s it. I prefer that they be decent people, but other than breaking the law, their life off the field is none of my concern. It always amazed me with the tabloids would run pictures of A-Rod supposedly cheating with this or that woman. Why is that anyone’s business? At the same time, I’m not going to act as if they mean something personally to me. Bob Costas carried (and perhaps still does) carry Mickey Mantle’s baseball card with him. I think that’s ridiculous for a grown man.