It has always been easy for Dodger fans to thumb their noses at Giant fans. When I was growing up, in particular, there was an abundance of easy targets to mock about the second-tier baseball franchise up north.
There was Candlestick Park, where a summer day could be spent shivering in arctic winds, watching one's full soda get swept down the aisle by a pocket tornado in that multi-purpose disaster of a stadium.
There were the garish orange and black colors, highlighting a 1980's-era all-caps GIANTS uniform logo, looking like an outfit that only deserves public viewings on October 31 amidst ghouls and goblins trick or treating.
There was the fact that the San Francisco Giants have never won a World Series, while the Dodgers have had five World Series titles since moving west to Los Angeles.
And then, in glorious 3D Technicolor right in front of our eyes, there was Barry Bonds. Bonds, a man of truly superhuman talent, was the cornerstone of the San Francisco Giants organization from 1993 to 2007. It was challenging for any reasonable baseball fan to deny that Bonds' offensive powers were godlike, with his laserlike intense focus and lightning quick bat speed and ridiculously smooth power swing. Add in the fact that at one point, he was a decent outfielder and a decent threat on the basepaths, and Bonds was quite a formidable foe, worthy of our derision and hatred. When the centerpiece Dodger, Mike Piazza, was unceremoniously traded in 1998, the Dodgers were left with a squad of largely unremarkable talent through the early 2000s, struggling for identity and for a marquee player who had the wattage of Bonds. Ironically, San Francisco's team had star power, while the team with proximity to Hollywood had nothing in that atmospheric level.
But like some Faustian deal, Bonds came with warts--no, huge, festering, open sores--that were incredibly easy for any fan, let alone a Dodger fan, to assail. Bonds' corrosive nature and elitist attitudes around his teammates made him unloved within the clubhouse, and his self-righteous arrogance won him no fans with the media. It was always clear that Bonds was about himself, not his team. And it's easy to rag on the know-it-all who has no friends and makes no bones about it.
Especially when said know-it-all was clearly, almost undeniably, bending the rules to gain advantage. Bonds' body parts swelled to inhuman proportions, while anyone could see his basic agility decline at a rapid, inversely proportionate rate. Rumors of steroids swirled around Bonds as his continued home run trajectory belied what the decay of age should have caused to atrophy. And as unsavory BALCO representatives began to grab headlines, Bonds' hiding behind ignorance of "the cream and the clear" was sad and pathetic. His years of failure to cultivate a media image or relationship of any sort resulted in mass carnage, as everyone--media, Dodger fans, baseball fans, casual observers--picked away at Bonds like vultures on carrion.
And Dodger fans revelled in their superior glory. Bonds' talent was undeniable, true, but he was almost certainly a cheat. A lowly, good for nothing, cheat. The public floggings and incessant booing that he received at Dodger Stadium were the proper karmic response to his arrogant demeanor and outright flaunting of fair rules of play. Boo, Barry. You're not a nice person. And you're a cheat. And you and your cartoonish skull and Popeye-like frame are a perfect example of why Dodger fans are superior to cheating Giant fans.
"A cheat is a cheat," we Dodger fans would reply. "And Bonds is a cheat."
What was always curious, in this debate, was how Giant fans would defend Bonds to no end. Sure, he was arrogant, they would admit. And abrasive, and divisive, and corrosive. And probably a cheat. But he was the only shot that Giants fans had whatsoever: at greatness, and a potential World Series title; at relevance, among a team of also-rans caused by Bonds' vacuum of a salary; at visibility, on a national stage where sports stories are dominated by east-coast biases. And so, Giants fans stuck by Bonds, to the bitter end, refusing to believe that their emperor had no clothes despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
I remember having conversation after conversation with Giants fans who would acknowledge that steroids were bad, that Bonds' refusal to address the issue with the press exemplified his conceited self-righteousness, that the physical signs of steroid usage in Bonds were undeniable, that the game's rules and spirit had been violated. "But steroids only accentuate the god-given talent that Bonds already has," the Giants fans would argue, overlooking their ability to help muscles recuperate at otherworldly speeds and how they could amplify raw skills by orders of magnitude. "Bonds always had those skills in them, even when he was a scrawny toothpick with the Pirates--so you see, he isn't all bad," they would feebly argue.
"A cheat is a cheat," we Dodger fans would reply. "And Bonds is a cheat." And the fact that he was a jerk who got into clubhouse skirmishes with teammates, or would weakly serve up his kids as human shields while trying to play the victim card, only served to further emphasize our point. Bonds may be talented, but history would not smile upon him.
You want to build your franchise around Barry Bonds? Take him, Giants fans. Win a couple more games a season, possibly even beating us Dodgers in the process. Your rewards, if any, would be hollow and worthless. We Dodger fans would rise above.
To be fair, Dodger fans have had their brushes with steroid ignominy as well, but these were always fleeting glances, sideswipes that scratched the edges of our bumpers, not the multi-automobile, SIG alert inducing, traffic-stopping disastrous wreck that was Barry Bonds. Dodger catcher Paul Lo Duca was called the "heart and soul" of the Dodger squad when he was traded away, only to (basically) admit to steroid usage while watching his career atrophy with the woeful Washington Nationals. But we could write him off, since he admitted to his deception while he was with another squad (and, the Brad Penny trade worked out pretty well for us at first, to boot).
Eric Gagne? Same thing. Sure, his 84 consecutive saves was a streak of beauty that will probably never be broken. His breakdown at the end of his Dodger career couldn't have signalled any steroid usage, right? We can still cherish the memories of his incredible ninth-inning exploits, wonders so powerful that they kept Los Angeles fans in their seats until the bitter end, since pitchers never came under the same level of scrutiny about steroids anyway. Gagne hasn't been able to re-bottle the genie since then, with Boston or Milwaukee? Nah, it's not because Gagne might be coming off the juice. It's gotta just be a case of bad luck.
And then came Manny Ramirez, in the second half of 2008, singlehandedly lifting the Dodgers onto his shoulders and carrying the team into the National League playoffs like a deity. We couldn't find a reliable offensive threat in the lineup, our clubhouse was rife with factions and lacked leadership, and we were languishing amidst a division of weak teams that should have been left in the dust. But along came Manny, winner of two World Series rings in Boston, and the Dodgers' messiah was here. With the Los Angeles Dodgers. With the good guys.
Disparaging talk of Ramirez lollygagging through the end of his Boston reign were glossed over by Dodger fans, who cited inconclusive statistics (which don't show a drop-off in performance), as well as sour grapes. And how could you argue with someone so media-friendly, so likable, so wonderful for the team and the clubhouse and the community and the organization? Manny turned us around. And we did it without stooping to the Giants' level.
Can we give our unyielding support to a player who may be guilty of the same transgressions as a Giant who has incurred our wrath for almost two decades?
Once again, we were above it all. We were above Giants fans, both figuratively and literally (in the standings, just as we are now). Ramirez = good. Bonds = bad.
And then, came the news today, the news that we may not be above it at all. That Manny, innately talented with the bat--just like Bonds--might be tainted by steroids himself--just like Bonds. And we might not be able to hoist our flag from the higher ground after all.
Now, Manny Ramirez is a different case than Barry Bonds. Manny is incredibly likable, with an infectious personality and kid-like approach to the game that can't help but make one smile along with dreadlocked man with the ear-to-ear grin. Bonds was not a nice man, by any stretch. Manny is a team player, one who brought harmony to a divided clubhouse and gave a group of young and raw players the confidence that they could be solid contributors, even breakout performers. Bonds never took anyone under his wing, or even let them near his clubhouse recliner. Manny's statements Thursday demonstrated clear repentance and apology, to fans, teammates, and the Dodgers organization, while Bonds has apologized to no one for his behavior, years into his own media circus, hiding his grotesque physique behind shady colleagues who refuse to testify to the federal government.
And I should give credit--the Dodgers handled today's press conference with much more transparency and openness than I would have expected, from multiple people in the organization. The Giants have dodged the issue and hoped that Bonds, and their own prostituting of the home run record's chase, would just fade away.
But at heart, is Manny really that different? I suppose that's what all of us Dodger fans are wrestling with tonight. Can we give our unyielding support to a player who may be guilty of the same transgressions as a Giant who has incurred our wrath for almost two decades? Even if he is friendlier, and goofier, and possibly even a better person--is it all that different?
And that's the dilemma on which I sleep tonight. I'm not sure if this is a pill I have to swallow--again, the cases and individuals and facts may indeed be different, as we wait for information to trickle out--but if I do have to swallow this, it will indeed be bitter.
There aren't as many easy targets for Dodger fans to use to discredit and devalue Giant fans. AT&T/PacBell/SBC Park is indeed a huge upgrade over Candlestick. Orange and black garishness has been muted by a more stylistically palatable updated uniform and logo. And now, the foundation of their franchise may be just as corroded as our own franchise's marquee player.
At least we still have the five World Series titles, I suppose.
And we still have Manny Ramirez. The question is, Dodger fans, can we still defend him as our guy? Particularly when we need him so much?