Tuesday, August 10, 2010

An achy back, Barry Bonds and the reason I'm still alive

I have a bad back. I've had one for the last six years or so. This is a story about a back spasm that might have saved my life, and Barry Bonds is very much a part of this tale.

Let's hark to those very dark days of yesteryear, 2005, and Bonds' terrible offseason. This was the height of the BALCO scandal, and my colleagues at the Chronicle, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, seemed to be publishing damaging information about the slugger every week. At the same time, Bonds had his knee scoped after the 2004 season and had to have it scoped again during spring training of 2005.

As an aside, allow me to explain my role in the Chronicle's steroids investigation. Mark and Lance would dig up incriminating information. Mark invariably would phone me in the evening and explain what they were going to publish the next day. When I saw his number pop up on my phone, I started to get the shakes. My job was to go to Bonds, present him with the info and ask if he wanted to comment. As you can imagine, that did wonders for my relationship with Bonds. To this day, when I'm kicking back at his pad in Los Angeles drinking his best hooch while we discuss which clubs to hit that night, we still laugh about it.

Even I wasn't prepared for what our paper published on March 20, 2005. Mark and Lance reported that Bonds' former girlfriend, Kimberly Bell, told the BALCO grand jury what she knew about Bonds' alleged steroid use. In fact, Ms. Bell spoke to our reporters and provided evidence of their liaison. One document was a hotel receipt from the Westin Oaks in Houston, where the Giants stayed. The room was Ms. Bell's, and the receipt included the name of the Giants' then-traveling secretary, Reggie Younger. The implication was that Bonds had Younger book the room for her.

On March 19, I had a fortuitous back spasm in the press box at Scottsdale Stadium while watching the Giants play the Padres. I remember the opponent because former San Diego Union-Tribune beat writer Tom Krasovic had to carry my stuff to the car for me. I went to my condo for the usual treatment, ice then heat. When I awoke the next morning my back was still killing me and I decided not to go the stadium for the morning interview sessions. That was a good thing.

Mr. Younger saw the article that morning, and according to witnesses he bounded down the stairs into the clubhouse in a eye-bugged fury yelling, "Where's Henry. I'm going to kill him!" Never mind that I didn't write the article nor even know what it was going to say. I was the face of the Chronicle. I honestly don't know if Mr. Younger would have physically attacked me, but he was a large man, and given the state of my back I would have been defenseless.

Mark and Lance would have to admit -- and if I recall Mark did admit -- they did not go out of their way to let Mr. Younger know he was going to appear in a BALCO story linked as he was. The writers did not call me this time asking to get a comment, and their attempt to reach Mr. Younger was half-hearted. They phoned the Giants' offices in San Francisco on the previous Friday afternoon. Not being baseball writers, perhaps they did not know Mr. Younger would be in Arizona, not California.

Bonds was not in Arizona, though. He had returned to the Bay Area for the second of what would be three knee operations. He returned two days after the story ran, on crutches. That was the day of the famous "picnic table" press conference in which Bonds, with his son Nikloai seated next to him as a prop, quietly told reporters (in obvious reference to the Kimberly Bell story), "You wanted me to jump off the bridge. I finally jumped. You wanted to bring me down. You finally have brought me and my family down. You've finally done it, everybody, all of you. So now go pick a different person. I'm done. I'll do the best I can."

Well, he didn't tell every reporter that. As Bonds emerged from the clubhouse and greeted a group of us, I decided I would be the one to ask Bonds if he would speak, fully knowing the storm that would follow. One of my baseball writing mentors, Kit Stier, told me if you (or your paper) write something that angers a player, your face should be the first he sees the next day. It shows you're not scared. It shows you stand behind your work.

I said, "Barry, can we get you for a few minutes?"

"I'm never talking to you for the rest of my life," Bonds said.

So I walked away from the group to let the interview proceed as Bonds told a Giants PR man in reference to me, "Make sure he doesn't listen in."

As Bonds and Nikolai sat atop the picnic table, I stood along the stadium gate watching from 30 feet away. A woman waiting to get into the stadium for the game shouted at me from outside, "Why don't you leave that poor man alone?" I looked at her and said, "You see me talking to him?"

The ESPN boys were nice enough to drive me to their satellite uplink facility and let me watch the videotape of the entire press conference. I wrote my story with the disclaimer that I saw it on tape.

Later that season, Bonds came to realize -- or somebody told him -- that despite my affiliation with the eventual "Game of Shadows" authors who wrote those stories for the Chronicle, I had nothing to do with it aside from receiving my paychecks from the same firm. My relationship with Bonds, never great to begin with, did not deteriorate from there. He did talk to me that season and every season thereafter until the Giants "retired" him in 2007.

I got to watch him set the all-time home run record that year. If not for a back spasm, I might have had to read about it from the beyond, in the Beelezebub Times.


  1. Sorry about your back, Henry. Sports Journalism is a tough show. Stay on stage ;). Do you still talk to Barry? Am sure he'd like to talk about things other than the trial.

  2. I do not speak to Barry unless he comes to the ballpark. I don't have his number. As for my back, one of the Giants' trainers had a good suggestion when I asked for a couple Advil because it was acting up during a road trip. The trainer said, "Tell Henry to get rid of that boiler."

  3. Great story Henry. First time visitor but setting as a bookmark as we speak.