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…. An Interview with Jeff Pearlman

Hank Waddles, aka, the Broken Cowboy, has interviewed writer Jeff Pearlman. I have just finished reading Jeff’s book, Love me Hate me, (subject, Barry Bonds), and thought it would be a good segue into Hank’s interview. My review of his book is short and sweet:

It is a detailed, concise, and throroughly depressing view of a man who seems gifted in only one way, as an athlete. Bonds’ inability to interact well with other human beings is legendary; but Pearlman’s book paints a picture of him that borders on sociopath. Bonds apparently has no idea of how to be thoughtful, or kind, or forgiving. He insults and demeans everyone around him, almost from birth. In his book, Pearlman says he interviewed over 500 people in an effort to create the most accurate and compelling portrait of Barry. As far as that goes; Bonds comes across as the biggest asshole in history.

It’s not a book that compells me to read it more than once, but it is a must-read for a true Giants fan.

And now, here’s Hank’s interview:

…. A few weeks ago Jeff Pearlman was kind enough to spend part of his day talking to me about his recent Barry Bonds biography, Love Me, Hate Me. Following the themes addressed in the book (review forthcoming), our conversation focused on Bonds the person as well as the baseball player, and we also talked about steroids for a while. Enjoy…

BrokenCowboy:
I think Iím almost as interested in the process as in the resulting book. In your acknowledgment section you spoke a little bit about it — the 524 people you interviewed, the investigators you hired, etc. — what was this whole experience like? When you did you first get the idea to write about Bonds, and how long did the research portion of the project take?

Jeff Pearlman:
It took about two years overall. I started the whole thing about two years ago. I got into it with the idea that Iíd interview everybody. I didnít know what everybody meant, but I wanted to interview everybody — anyone who had interaction with Bonds, the people who knew Bonds best. I didnít even think about interviewing Bonds himself, because I knew he probably wouldnít talk, but I wanted to interview everybody who knew him. And the truth of the matter is, when you write a biography interviewing the main subject doesnít matter that much, because people have skewed visions of themselves. You really learn more about someone by talking to the people who know them well and interact with them. So that was my goal. The best thing for someone in my position is word of mouth, and you just start. Who knows Barry Bonds? You talk to his first grade teacher, you say, do you know any other teachers? You talk to the Cub Scout den mother, oh, do you know any of the other kids? One name usually begat five others, and five begat ten, and I ended up with 524, which is a pretty good number.

BC:
Yeah. I obviously havenít written a biography, but that seems like a really big number. Based on what youíve heard, or what you know about, did you go above and beyond, or is this kind of par for the course?

JP:
Itís probably above and beyond, but Iím not sure. My first book, I wrote a book about the Mets, and I interviewed about 150 people. I probably shouldíve done more, looking back, but I donít know. The thing is this. A friend of mine is Leigh Montville, who has a Babe Ruth book coming out. Babe Ruth is dead, so thatís more of a historical analysis. Youíre not gonna get a million new stories about Babe Ruth now because his contemporaries are dead, but Barry Bonds, his contemporaries are all still alive. I know that sounds real simplistic, but it makes you interview more people than a biography of someone whoís been dead for a long time.

BC:
That makes sense. Something thatís always intrigued me about professional athletes, especially the great ones, is that they mustíve been insanely dominant as kids when they were playing against people who grew up to be teachers, say, instead of linebackers. What kind of an athlete was Bonds back when he was just Bobby Bondsís kid?

JP:
Oh, he was great. Great. He was only Bobby Bondsís kid for a very short time because he was such a good athlete that he kind of jumped off the page at you. He was four years old, actually two and a half years old when he shattered his first window. His mom used to go down to the window pane store all the time because he was breaking so many windows with a wiffle ball off of a bat. He went to a school called the Kerry School, which was his elementary-slash-middle school. He was the catcher in baseball, he was a great catcher, strong arm. He was the star forward in baseball. He was above and beyond, Iím not doing it justice. He was the fastest kid, he was the strongest kid, he was the biggest kid, he was the quickest kid. Across the board, he was he best athlete. Nobody you talk to is really surprized that he is a major league ballplayer. It would be hard to expect 700 home runs, but he was just so advanced, so beyond everybody else, he was legit. He was the kid. You know how every school, or every school district has that kid? He was the kid, times a thousand.

BC:
Growing up like that, not only as the greatest athlete anyone had ever seen, but also as the privileged son of a major league all-star, it almost seems like the end result is obvious. Again, Iím not talking about the seven hundred home runs, but it might have been something of an upset if Bonds had turned out to be polite, well-adjusted, and compassionate. How did his experiences as a player at Serra High School and Arizona State affect the man he would become?

JP:
I think the first place you have to look for him is his dad and his godfather, too, Willie Mays. He was watching these two guys who were just adored by the public, these two guys who were worshipped by people. When you see that great athleticism equals worship and adulation, that registers with that eight-year-old kid. So he learned from a very, very early age that if you perform athletically, everything will be taken care of for you. When he was at Serra High School, he was the kid who during batting practice would be napping in the outfield. He was the kid who wore his dadís jerseys during practices, who would expect that his glove would be run out to him into the outfield…

BC:
He was a major leaguer already…

JP:
He the major league attitude at fourteen that takes others at least another ten years to get. You learn from an early age that if you walk the walk, people will treat you a certain way. Itís hard to blame him. I always say itís kind of hard to blame him for being who he is. Heís easy to dislike, because he is dislikable, but itís hard to blame him because this is what he was raised to be, essentially.

BC:
I think thatís my feeling as well. There are a lot of great guys, Iím sure, but itís almost expected that heíd turn out this way.

JP:
Like David Bell, as an example, was raised in a major league clubhouse, and heís a great guy. Aaron Boone is a real good guy. So itís not that itís hopeless, but I think your odds of becoming normal… I would be interested to see what Celene Dionís kids are gonna be like one day, you know? Itís not a normal way of growing up. You donít learn to interact with people normally, you donít see your parents coming home from a nine to five job exhausted and cooking dinner. It doesnít work that way. You have your dinners made for you. Barry Bonds signed his first autograph when he was, like, ten. Just for being the son of.

BC:
Wow. I have to admit that there were times when I cringed when reading something Bonds had said or done. Before reading this book, to be honest, I would sometimes dismiss some of the stories youíd hear about Bonds. You mentioned the incident reported in Ron Kittleís book, about Bonds saying he wouldnít sign autographs for white people.

JP:
Right.

BC:
When I first heard that reported in the press, it didnít even occur to me that it might be true, because I couldnít imagine anyone actually saying something like that.

JP:
Itís so funny you say that, because as soon as I heard that, I knew it was true.

BC:
Really? I was gonna ask you that, because my perspective is obviously different from yours, so I was wondering — what was your response to all this? Were you shocked by anything you heard, or was this, based on your different experiences and perceptions, was this what you expected to find out?

JP:
Good question. I didnít expect the depth of bad behavior, I would say. You hear a guy is a bad guy, you hear heís difficult, and you see instances… Like for example, the one thing that blows my mind in the book, two grounds keepers for the Pirates die… did you read the whole book?

BC:
Oh, yeah, I loved it.

JP:
Thanks. Two grounds keepers from the Pirates die, and they hold this auction and Bonds refuses to sign autographs. Brian Fisherís son has cystic fibrosis and thereís a fundraiser…

BC:
This is what Iím talking about.

JP:
Right.

BC:
I canít imagine a human being reacting that way.

JP:
I know, itís hard to believe a human being that big of an asshole.

BC:
What about the good things he did? Sometimes it seemed like he could actually go out of his way to do the right thing. Was that what was surprizing to you? Were you surprized by those things?

JP:
No, because I think everybody has humanity in them, you know? I was more surprized… you hear the story about the grounds keepers, and you think, god, thatís a crappy thing to do. And then you hear the thing about Brian Fisher, and you realize the guyís done it more than once! Thatís whatís surprizing sometimes. I can understand you being a jerk to someone, but he really can totally emotionally distance himself from situations and detach himself, not just distance himself, but detach himself from the feelings of other people and not read the feelings of other people. And the depth of that, his ability to do that, Iíve never come across anybody like that. Weíve all met jerks in our life, and Iím not even saying he is a jerk… Well, itís unbelievable to me.

BC:
I think what surprized me is that, kind of like how we were talking about his upbringing, I can completely understand that there can be an athlete or an entertainer or whoever, when you have microphones in your face every day, and people questioning you every single day, I can understand how you could become a jerk. You could get tired of that, and you could — to the press — really be a jackass. But in these situations where itís someone he knows coming to him saying people have died, can you help us out? And he responds that way. Thereís something deeper going on.

JP:
I agree with you. I agree with you a hundred percent. If you ask me what surprized me, that did surprize me. You hear one story, and you think maybe itís an isolated incident. You hear two, and you think, well maybe heís had two bad days. Then you hear seventeen of them, and you think, man, this is a different kind of guy. He just handles things in a different way, sees things in a different light, doesnít have the emotional maturity. You can only hear, ďOh, nobody knows what itís like to walk in my shoesĒ how many times before you realize that, if I was walking in your shoes, I still wouldnít handle that situation that way. There could be a million people asking me for my autograph when I find out that some grounds keeper died and he didnít have health insurance and all I have to do is sign three baseballs to make his life a little easier, I have to question the person that doesnít make that move.

BC:
Another thing about his personality, I think people generally feel a need to make connections, you know, when youíre talking to somebody new. For instance, you mentioned that you became friends with Brian Johnson?

JP:
Right.

BC:
Immediately I want to tell you that, hey I once played basketball against Brian Johnson. With Bonds, though, it seems the opposite — he even denies connections that actually exist. Is this just a superstar trying to maintain distance from his fans, or do you feel like thereís something — I know Iím asking you to kind of psychoanalyze a little bit — but do you feel like thereís something more going on with Bonds?

JP:
I do. Yes, thereís a distance thing. One thing that really interested me in the book, and I almost wish I had gotten more into, is how when guys are traded all of the sudden he opens up to them. Darryl Hamilton spends two years as a Giant, they barely talk, and then he gets traded and Barry says, ďI love you, man,Ē and gives him a hug.

BC:
Itís like he doesnít have to worry that now thereís a friendship.

JP:
Right, but I also think thereís an element to Bonds that heís always thinking in his head, ďWhat is a superstar? How is a superstar supposed to be perceived? How is a superstar supposed to handle this situation?Ē When Richard Hoffer of Sports Illustrated in 1993 comes to do a profile of Bonds and Bonds blows him off for eight days in a row. Now, thatís not just him being too busy, because if he was too busy he was busy picking scabs and watching Growing Pains or whatever on TV. He wanted to give this impression that I am haughtier than you are, I am higher than you, youíre gonna have to wait for me, and I know youíre gonna wait for me. Itís not that he wants to be guarded, he wants to give a certain impression to people. Bonds tries to tell people that he doesnít care what people think. To me, itís just the opposite. He cares tremendously what people think, and heís working hard to show that he doesnít care. Itís almost like heís doing reverse psychology on himself.

BC:
Yeah, I thought it was interesting — there was a point in the book where you talk about when players were leaving from the hotel to the bus to get to the game on the road, talking about how all the players would just kind of hole up in the hotel to avoid the crowds, and Bonds would stand on the sidewalk just so that he could wait for the crowds and then tell them to get the hell out of his face.

JP:
Vintage Bonds. Vintage.

BC:
I think you did a great job in the book of really driving home the fact that Barry Bonds was a phenomenal player long before he became the Bonds we now know. What was he like as Pirate, during those days before he was chasing history as he is now?

JP:
Do you mean personality-wise, or playing-wise?

BC:
Just as a player, just on the playing field.

JP:
Oh, unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. Thatís the thing. To me, he was a better player as a Pirate than he has been as a Giant, because he was so multi-facetted. The only thing he didnít have for him was an arm. Even the guys who hated him — Van Slyke, R.J. Reynolds to some degree — nobody denies the fact that he was ungodly as a baseball player. The saddest thing to me about the steroid thing isnít, ďoh, the youth of America,Ē which sucks, or other areas that are terrible about it. Whatís saddest to me is he was just driven by greed. If he had just never touched the steroids, he still couldíve been one the ten best baseball players of all time. And that whole legacy, those Pittsburgh years are now just totally forgotten. They arenít even a factor anymore, and thatís sad, because he could do everything when he was a Pirate. Absolutely everything as a Pirate. When he came up with the Pirates, he was a terrible, indifferent outfielder, and pitchers hated having that guy playing center field behind him. When he moved to left, and he started feeling a little jealous over Andy Van Slykeís defense, he became the best left fielder in the game. He went from being a horrible outfielder, to the best left fielder in baseball, and probably one of the ten best left fielders ever in baseball, defensively.

BC:
That, of course, brings us to San Francisco and everything that he has become. I donít think you can look at Barry Bonds without thinking of three things, all addressed significantly in your book. First, his personality; second, his greatness as a player; and finally, the steroids. You can make this answer as long or as short as you like. How sure are you that Bonds took performance-enhancing drugs?

JP:
A hundred percent. A hundred percent.

BC:
There are two issues I wanted to talk to you about concerning steroids, both of which you addressed in the book. First, and I loved that you had this in there, about the role of the press. For the last year or so, reporters have been like rabid dogs pursuing this story, but where were they in 1998? Do you think they were in denial?

JP:
Well, first I have to say ďtheyĒ includes me, so I canít bash the media and not include myself. I was not there either. I was a baseball writer at the time, too. I think there are a few things I have to say. One of the guys I interviewed is a great writer, great guy, Jeff Bradley from ESPN the Magazine. Jeff was saying that when he would be in these meetings in Ď98 — and Jeff Bradleyís brother, Scott, played with the Mariners as a catcher — and Jeff Bradley would be in these magazines at ESPN the Magazine saying, ďThis is all bullshit. Maybe we should do something about this.Ē And I gotta say, at [Sports Illustrated], there were times when I brought up, or [Tom] Verducci would bring up, or different people would bring up steroids, and ďdonít you think we should be looking into this more?Ē And there wasnít that much interest. I think a lot of writers were beginning to be skeptical of it, but I donít know, there was this big love train going on with McGwire and Sosa, do you remember it? It was almost like we all drank the Kool-Aid. It was just happy-happy time.

BC:
For me, definitely, Iíve been a huge baseball fan all my life, and during those times when youíd hear people talk about steroids, I just didnít want to believe it. Even though Iím 35, thereís still a part of me that looks at these baseball players, even still today, the same way I did when I was ten. Thatís from a fanís perspective, so I wonder: is there some of that still with reporters?

JP:
I will say this. I donít know if the fan thing is so much. Bill Madden, a guy who writes for the Daily News, I think I quote him in the book. He said something thatís stuck with me which was, nobody who covers baseball is happy covering this stuff.

BC:
Yeah, you did mention that.

JP:
Right. Nobody wants this stuff to happen. A lot of these guys it tears apart, myself in a lot of ways. It hurts you in a lot of ways, because this is a game you love. When baseball players act like weíre outsiders, you know, what are we doing in the clubhouse? Weíre not outsiders. Weíre as much insiders as they are Ďcause we freakiní love this game, too. Nobody wants this stuff to happening to baseball. It tears them up. So I donít think writers were ignoring it. I think part of it was ignorance; I just donít think we knew a hundred percent what was going on. And I also think we just got caught up in it all, you know? The game was sinking, McGwire and Sosa come along, they go crazy… Yeah, Sosa used to be a pretzel and now he was the Incredible Hulk, but he was hitting home runs, and I donít know, it just wasnít there. People werenít talking about it. I donít know.

BC:
Second, tell me what you think about this argument. Iíve speculated that it might be a bit hypocritical to criticize Bonds and others for taking steroids. Being a professional athlete is nothing but performance enhancement. Weíre talking about a sport in which pitchers have tendons from cadavers sewn into their elbows and batters have surgery to improve their vision beyond 20/20. Whatís your response to this slippery slope argument? Iím not looking for you to say, yes, steroids are okay, but where does it fit in that spectrum?

JP:
The number one thing for me, is steroids without a prescription are illegal, factually illegal. So youíre talking about breaking the law. They say in Christianity that all sins are the same, so whether you rape a kid or you steal a gumdrop, itís the same thing. But to me in baseball — Iím not a religious guy, by the way, I just use that example — to me in baseball, itís not all the same. Gaylord Perry…

BC:
I like that you added that. I agree completely with that whole thing. Iím sorry to step on you but…

JP:
No, no. Gaylord Perry is totally different to me. He didnít break the law. Thatís the thing that bothers me, the argument where people say steroids werenít illegal in baseball. Yeah, they werenít illegal in baseball, they were illegal in the United States of America. You can go anywhere in America, play a pickup game of baseball and use pine tar on your bat, and they canít arrest you for it. But anywhere in America, when you use steroids without a prescription, you will get arrested for it. The laws of the United States umbrella major league baseball, not vice versa.

BC:
I found it interesting that in the midst of your talk about the steroid issue, you were still able to step back from it and discuss the historical numbers Bonds was putting up at the time. Five or ten years from now, do you think weíll be able to make that division between what Bonds did on the field and what heís alleged to have done to get there?

JP:
No, itís hard for me to make the division. I did it because I didnít really know another way to go about it. No matter what happens, the asterisk is there. No matter what happens, heíll be known as a steroid guy. If he gets into the Hall of Fame, it has to be on his plaque in Cooperstown. Maybe it wonít be, but it should be. Itís him. Barry Bonds and steroids now are linked like anything else.

BC:
Baseballís clearly struggling with that issue also. He hit his 711th home run the other night, and itís a matter of time until he passes Babe Ruth. Just today I saw that Selig says there will be no celebration, and his argument is that heís not setting a record, but itís not like heís passing Harmon Killebrew or something. My guess is that if there were no suspicion, this would be a huge love fest going on.

JP:
Definitely, definitely.

BC:
So what do you think baseball should be doing? Whether itís Ruth, or if he hangs on and next year heís chasing Aaron?

JP:
Very, very, very, very tough. Selig pretty much dug his own grave here by just ignoring the problem for too long. Itís funny, when he held the press conference when he named George Mitchell, he started the press conference and I was convinced that he was gonna start the press conference by saying, ďIím gonna be honest here. Weíve screwed this up, we have not done a good job here, and thatís why weíre taking action.Ē Instead he does the exact opposite. He opens up by listing his accomplishments on steroids, which is just laughable. What can they do now? I donít know what they can do now. If I am Selig, this is what I do. Number one, I donít count Bondsís record because we just know for a fact that he cheated to do it. Factually, he cheated to do it. I donít count the McGwire/Sosa records, because we didnít know. Itís like track and field. They donít go by blood tests anymore. They donít need a steroid test anymore to ban you from competition because some things are just so crystal clear obvious. You have an appeals committee where you let the guy appeal a suspension or whatever. [In baseball], youíre just bastardizing the record book. Thatís all theyíre doing. The record book is a joke now. And it kills me, guys like Griffey, McGriff, even a guy like Shawn Green, guys who have had very good careers who didnít use — Frank Thomas — and are now just like afterthoughts in the whole baseball thing. Thatís very upsetting. I donít know what he can do, but if itís me? I donít count the records.

BC:
Finally, two questions. Will he catch Aaron?

JP:
I donít think so. I just think heís too banged up more than anything. I think he even knows thatís a can of worms. I think Bonds knows thatís a can of worms he does not want to open.

BC:
Last one. You addressed this a little bit in the book. If you had a Hall of Fame ballot, whether itís today or, if he retires and itís five years from now, would Bonds get your vote?

JP:
No.

BC:
No?

JP:
He would not. Thereís a clause people donít always mention in the criteria for Hall of Fame voting, basically a morality clause, a ďgood of the gameĒ clause — which was used against Pete Rose — and to me what Bonds has done to the record book… You know, Iím still amazed, I still donít understand, and this book is not a slam Bonds book, you read it, itís not a kill Bonds book…

BC:
Yeah, I described it someone yesterday. Someone asked me, ďWas it a hatchet job?Ē And I said, well, yes it was, but I donít think thatís how it started. I donít feel like there was an agenda, it was only a hatchet job because that was the only way that it couldíve turned out. That was my feeling.

JP:
Right, thatís his life. Right. I just donít know how heís able to look Hank Aaron in the eye, or Willie Mays in the eye, or Willie McCovey in the eye, or any of these guys. I just donít know how you do it. Itís the same thing with McGwire. How did McGwire, how did he go up to Marisís family, after all Maris went through to break that record? Itís just amazing how completely devoid of compassion these guys are, and morality.

BC:
I feel like thereís something about being an athlete, and Iím certainly, certainly not speaking from experience, but if youíre an elite athlete, and your whole life has been driven towards being the best you can possibly be, I bet that deep down these guys believe that theyíre not doing anything different than twenty years ago when guys started to work out for the first time. Maybe thatís naÔve to think, and Iím not making excuses for them, but I think thatís how McGwire looks the Maris family in the eye. Heís being the best that he can be, even if heís getting help from a bottle.

JP:
You just summed up why I am happy my daughter has no athleticism.

BC:
I think it would be kind of scary. For instance if youíre an Olympic sprinter, and your whole life is based on ten seconds four years from now, I guess Iím glad I never had to make those decisions.

JP:
I guess, I donít know. This is weak, but I ran cross country and track in college, and I feel very confident in saying that if someone came along and said hereís a drug thatíll make you faster. Itíll make your testicles shrink, itíll put acne on your back, itíll increase your head size, and itís illegal, but itíll make you faster, Iím pretty certain I… You know I actually get made when people make the argument, ďWell, what about if youíre a low level minor leaguer, and youíre not good enough to make it and then this steroid comes along. Whatíre you gonna do?Ē Iíll tell you what can do. You go to freakiní college and you get a job in another field. If youíre not good enough, youíre not good enough. Iíve wanted to write for GQ. I never got asked to write for GQ. Iím not gonna cheat or find some way to write for them. Itís a bad example, but you donít have to cheat. Some things in life are not meant to be. Iíd love to have a great physique. I donít have a great physique. Some things you just donít do. You just donít do it. Itís wrong. Some things are WRONG. Thatís what bothers me about this. We have lost our compass of right and wrong, a lot of people have. People make the argument that steroids werenít banned by baseball, but theyíre still wrong. Is that how lost we are, that itís not obvious, completely obvious that they are wrong? And if they werenít wrong, wouldnít you be bragging that you were taking steroids, not trying to hide it from everybody?

BC:
I agree, thatís a good point.

JP:
It pisses me off, makes me mad. I feel like this isnít the kind of stuff that Iím trying to raise my daughter in where right and wrong is just whether you get caught or not, essentially.


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All commentary is the opinion of John J Perricone unless otherwise noted.
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