The Author and The Slugger

It's hard to overestimate UL Lafayette writer-in-residence emeritus Ernest Gaines' place in American literature. His novels such as A Lesson Before Dying and A Gathering of Old Men are some of the most powerful works in 21st-century fiction, and his richly drawn characters and compact prose offer endless revelations both large and small about the human experience. Like all great writers, Gaines' meticulously constructed narratives reveal that no word is a throwaway ' every word does and should have an impact. And Gaines' decades of hard-earned, dignified and powerful wisdom give his writing added weight.

So I was extremely interested when Gaines recently wrote an open letter to legendary baseball slugger and home-run record holder Hank Aaron that appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In the letter, Gaines implores Aaron ' who has refused to acknowledge or comment on controversial slugger Barry Bonds' quest to break Aaron's mark ' to congratulate Bonds and welcome him with open arms should he break the record. Gaines wrote to Aaron:

... You were not arrogant, as Bonds is. You did not take drugs, as some accuse Bonds of doing. You met the press, you spoke to reporters, you smiled, you signed autographs. You did the right things ' still you received death threats. And why? Because you are black.

And the reason they are after Bonds is because he is black. He has broken Ruth's record, and sometime during the year he will break yours, and they don't want this arrogant black man at the top of the national pastime.

We can't all be like you, Hank. We can't all be like Willie Mays (who is my greatest sports hero, with the exception of Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson). We can't all be like Jesse Owens. Some of us are arrogant. We feel that once we do our work on the field, that should be enough to satisfy the fans. And name me one baseball player who has contributed more to baseball than Barry Bonds. Name me someone who has walked more. Name me another player who has won more MVP awards than that same Barry Bonds. Still, the white media wishes to destroy him ' because he too is arrogant. All geniuses are arrogant. Bonds wears his arrogance on his sleeve. And the white world doesn't like it.

If you are black, you are supposed to be humble. A mediocre player would not get the attention Bonds is receiving no matter what he had done. He would be ignored. But giants like Bonds, Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson are attacked by the media. I have never met Bonds in person. I don't even know if I would like him. But I do admire him as a great athlete. As I did you, Mays, Joe Louis, Roberto Clemente, Jack Johnson, and many, many others, both black and white. Sandy Koufax was one of my favorite ball players, even when he beat my home team, the San Francisco Giants.

Hank, think it over. Be there. Shake Bonds' hand. Take a picture with him. Applaud him. As we did you when you broke Ruth's record. Every black man in this country was proud of you. Most will be proud of Bonds when he breaks yours. I am sure that many Asians, Hispanics and white players will applaud his accomplishment. A pity if you don't join the rest of us.

Racial division, tension and inequality remain one of America's most shameful problems, and Gaines' novels address those problems with an eloquence few can match. But I disagree with the premise and much of the logic he uses in this letter, and requested to interview him in the hopes of some healthy dialogue regarding Bonds and race relations. To my regret, Gaines declined.

Yes, I am white and a member of the media, but I don't dislike Bonds because he's arrogant. I simply don't trust him, for the same reason I don't trust retired white slugger Mark McGwire, the first man to break Roger Maris' single-season home run record. McGwire later came under a cloud of suspicion for steroid use and was called in front of Congress to testify as part of a federal inquiry. Given the chance to clear his name and unequivocally state that he'd never used steroids, McGwire dodged the questions.

Bonds took the same evasive approach in his leaked grand jury testimony regarding steroids. In question after detailed question, including repeated attempts to ask Bonds why his name appears over and over on calendars, documents and chemical equations from the federally raided BALCO laboratory, Bonds deflected the questioning. "I never asked [trainer] Greg [Anderson]" about what the products contained, Bonds testified. "When he said it was flaxseed oil, I just said, 'Whatever.'"

It simply defies belief that the fanatically regimented Bonds, a man who trains relentlessly and methodically monitors his diet, didn't ask and didn't care what he was putting in his body. And that's just the tip of the iceberg; anyone who's read the exhaustively reported book Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports knows that there's a mountain of incriminating evidence against Bonds. Until Bonds faces all the unanswered questions about his alleged steroid use, it's unfair to ask Hank Aaron to give Bonds his blessing.

On strictly a sports level, Gaines' argument that Bonds is treated negatively because he isn't humble is puzzling. There are numerous contemporary African-American athletes ' think Charles Barkley, Keyshawn Johnson and Shaquille O'Neal, to name a few ' whom I admire and who are beloved by fans and media alike precisely because they're brash and outspoken about not just their talent, but any issue they feel like addressing. As for Gaines' challenge to name one person who's done more for baseball than Bonds, I'm dumbfounded that Gaines implies that Bonds has done more for the game than Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente ' all heroes he cites in his own letter.

Last week, as I turned on the television with my 6-year-old and 4-year-old boys to watch Bonds try and tie Aaron's record, my youngest son Quinn asked his customary questions: Who's playing, who do you want to win, and why? I told him I wanted the Dodgers to win, because there was a man on the Giants I believed wasn't telling the truth about taking drugs.

My oldest son Evan thought about that for a minute and asked, "Dad, what are drugs, and what do they look like?"

That started a 15-minute talk I hadn't imagined having with my sons for years to come ' and I realized how many variants of that conversation have probably taken place in households across the nation in the last few years. And no matter what I think or what Ernest Gaines thinks about Bonds' rightful place in baseball history, that might be Bonds' greatest legacy ' he was the catalyst for bringing the unfortunate intersection of drugs and sports out into the open.