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Is Barry Bonds a Victim of Racism?

By Steve Chapman

In 1998, when Mark McGwire was hitting home runs on a pace to break Roger Maris' record of 61 in a season, Barry Bonds detected a racist plot. "They're just letting him do it because he's a white boy," he groused to his girlfriend, according to a new book, "Game of Shadows."

Alas, we haven't heard his explanation of why "they" let a black man, Bonds, demolish McGwire's record just three years later. Or who "they" are. Was it a conspiracy of palefaced pitchers?

Embroiled in a scandal over his alleged use of steroids, Bonds finds that few people are rooting for him to break Hank Aaron's career mark. That could be because baseball fans are disillusioned by the new evidence that Bonds' hitting feats were the result of his illegal use of performance-enhancing substances. Or it could be because Bonds is black and white Americans are universally racist.

The latter is the claim of some African-American players, like Minnesota Twins center fielder Torii Hunter. "How come nobody even talks about Mark McGwire anymore? Or [Rafael] Palmeiro?" he asked USA Today. "Whenever I go home, I hear people say all of the time, 'Baseball just doesn't like black people.' " Matt Lawton of the Seattle Mariners, who got busted for steroid use last year, insisted that if Bonds "were white, he'd be a poster boy in baseball, not an outcast."

Sure. And if Matt Lawton were white, he'd be secretary of state.

Does he really think McGwire, who refused to deny steroid use at a congressional hearing last year, is still a poster boy? Or Palmeiro, who failed a drug test last season after adamantly denying ever using steroids? They're both disgraced, and McGwire's feats are so tainted he's no longer a cinch for the Hall of Fame.

If baseball doesn't like black people, it has a funny way of showing it. Many of the game's biggest stars are black -- Derek Jeter, Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez and Derek Lee. Bonds has been given the national league's MVP award four times in the last five years.

But Lawton and Hunter are not alone in blaming bigotry for Bonds' unpopularity. Leonard Moore, director of African and African-American Studies at Louisiana State University, told USA Today, "White America doesn't want him to [pass] Babe Ruth and is doing everything they can to stop him."

In fact, "white America" doesn't have a uniform opinion of Bonds or anything else. About the only whites doing anything to impede Bonds, aside from opposing pitchers, are the nut cases who write him hate mail. But they are no more representative of their race than Louis Farrakhan is of his.

To think Caucasians will all go into mourning if Bonds eclipses Ruth is a strange fantasy. Ruth's career record got demolished by Aaron in 1974, and most whites, believe it or not, have gotten over it by now. In 1961, of course, Roger Maris also got hate mail from people who didn't want him to break the Bambino's single-season record -- even though Maris was whiter than Wonder Bread.

Why would Commissioner Bud Selig order an investigation focusing on someone who has never failed a drug test? Maybe it's because Bonds is black. Or maybe it's because a grand jury investigation got testimony and evidence from several sources that Bonds was juiced.

It's hard to find evidence that white fans have a stubborn aversion to black athletes. If so, how do you account for the popularity (and lucrative endorsements) of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Donovan McNabb and LeBron James? In 1994, when the San Diego Padres' Tony Gwynn made a run at being the first player since Ted Williams to hit .400, I don't remember white fans booing him.

But nobody suspected the roundish Gwynn of using anything stronger than ice cream to bulk up. Bonds' other problem is his personality. He's always been regarded as surly and selfish, even by his teammates and managers.

If the slender, smiling Ken Griffey Jr. were the one making the run at Ruth and Aaron, he'd be the toast of the nation. The same would not be true of, say, Jose Canseco or Jason Giambi. In the realm of sports, race doesn't explain very much.

But if you have no good way to refute allegations of wrongdoing, the race card is the next best thing. It's just a shame Pete Rose couldn't use it.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate

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