It was reported earlier this week that Barry Bonds wants to come back as a hitting coach for a MLB team. Bonds is probably still the most controversial figure when it comes to performance enhancing drugs in the modern baseball era (you can also make an arguments for Roger Clemens). I’m sure he’s somewhat inspired by Mark McGwire’s recent return to baseball, which has to be viewed as somewhat of a PR and media success.
This story reminded me of one of the earliest posts I wrote for this site, back in August of 2008 when Bonds was still looking to sign with a pro team (To Bonds, Or Not To Bonds). Several friends of mine in Arizona were arguing back and forth over why a team like the Diamondbacks should or shouldn’t sign him. Ultimately, it came down to some short-term positives (on-field performance, and revenue associated with improved results) vs. the long-term team culture, PR and fan relationship negatives.
Fast forward two years, and the same arguments exist today. Why would a team risk long-term brand damage by associating themselves with Bonds? Even the San Francisco Giants’ recent decision to have Bonds throw out a first pitch was seen by some as controversial, and that is about as inconsequential a role that someone can have with a team. You also have to wonder a bit about the timing of his comments. The Giants are back in the World Series, which is wonderful for the city of San Francisco. Why not let the current team get the headlines and wait until after the Series to try and grab the attention?
Another way to look at this is to see what has changed in the three years since Bonds left baseball. I think the simple answer is, almost nothing. He expressed interest in playing in 2008, and even in 2009 I believe, without any teams showing an actual interest in signing him, clearly not a good sign. There is still the pending perjury trial, which will only bring back negative attention. During this time, he could have attempted to generate some positive PR through social media and community outreach, but for all intent purposes, he’s mostly just stayed out of sight.
Let’s compare this to the time between Mark McGwire’s retirement and his return as a coach. First off, there were more seasons in-between, which can only help – there is a reason why “time heals all wounds” is a cliche. Also, McGwire became eligible for the Hall of Fame, but received less than 25% of the vote each of the four years he was eligible. In an odd way, this can actually create some sympathy for him, since he may well never reach the Hall in spite of his tremendous statistics. Finally, the biggest difference is that McGwire admitted his steroid usage. From what we’ve seen, fans seem quite willing to forgive those that have made mistakes, but continue to harbor resentment towards those athletes that appear to have used PEDs but still publicly deny it.
I’d like to say that if Bonds came clean about PED usage, then a major league team would be willing to take a chance on him as a coach, the way the Cardinals took a chance bringing back McGwire. But in his case, with the cloud of criminal charges and a history of insistent denial, it may be too much for him to overcome. Bonds needs to start from the ground up in rebuilding his image and reputation, and maybe a position with a minor league or independent league team could be the right path for him. A smaller team may be willing to take on that risk.