SI 60 Q&A: And on the eighth day, Richard Hoffer finally got Barry Bonds to speak to him
In conjunction with Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the magazine's best stories. Today's selection was "The Importance of Being Barry," in which former SI senior writer Richard Hoffer produced one of the most spot-on profiles ever done on Barry Bonds. All the more impressive: he managed to do it despite being kept waiting for an interview for more than a week by the slugger, who had already developed a reputation as a great player on the field and a difficult one everywhere else. At the time Bonds was in his first season with the Giants after leaving the Pirates the previous December and signing what was then the richest contract in the game: six years and $43.75 million. He went on to set the single-season and career home run records but his accomplishments were overshadowed by his role at the center of baseball's Steroid Era.
Hoffer, who joined SI in 1989 and is still a contributor to the magazine and SI.com, has written on a number of sports but is perhaps best-known for his brilliant boxing writing. His most recent book, Bouts of Mania, was published this year and is about the last golden age for the sweet science, when Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman traded punches and the heavyweight crown in a series of unforgettable fights. You can purchase a copy here. SI.com associate editor Ted Keith spoke to Hoffer about the unusual circumstances surrounding the Bonds feature, which ran as the cover story of the May 24, 1993 issue. (NOTE: Follow Richard Hoffer on Twitter @richard_hoffer.)
SI: How did you get this particular assignment, on a baseball superstar?
HOFFER: I’m not sure at that time I was a boxing writer. Pat Putnam was still around, I think. When I came here I was just doing anything they threw at me. I had done a lot of bonus stories early on, and [senior editor] Chris Hunt just assigned it to me.
SI: Did you know much about Bonds and his reputations, both as a player and a personality?
HOFFER: No, I didn’t know much about him. I knew nothing about him actually. I don’t even remember there being any marching orders with the assignment. It was just supposed to be a run-of-the-mill profile. I don’t think there was any agenda going in for sure.
SI: So you had to familiarize yourself with him then?
HOFFER: I had done some background work. I don’t think I had come up with anything that would steer me one way or another. When I went up to San Francisco it was just kind of to do a straight-ahead profile. I knew that he had been difficult to other members of the media. I remember talking to a Pittsburgh beat writer, and the impression he had was that Bonds was a double-sided guy. He could be fairly friendly on the one hand and capable of blowing you off on the other. That turned out to be kind of the case.
HOFFER: Day Eight? It’s hard to believe I waited eight days. Of course that was 20 years ago.
I do remember at some point it became a source of amusement, not just for me but for the other players in the clubhouse. They were fully aware what was going on and they were fairly aware of Bonds at that point as well. It became a running joke. I believe that [SI colleague] Steve Rushin had come up on another assignment and I had dinner with him. I was getting paid one way or another. I don’t remember what day it went from being aggravating and eventually became interesting.
But then I realized, "This is kind of fascinating, I’ll just ride this out." I don’t remember it being a huge part of the story. Everybody remembers it being a huge part, but obviously this told you a little more about Barry Bonds than the actual interview.
SI: Did he ever apologize for making you wait so long?
HOFFER: I don’t think it occurred to him to apologize. He was definitely doing it on purpose in this ridiculous little way. Even his teammates were chuckling about it. It was very willful and purposeful. I don’t think it was malicious. It just felt like an adolescent move by somebody who wasn’t quite sure of himself.
SI: Did he just not want you to do the story?
HOFFER: No, I think he enjoyed the attention and the idea that there was going to be a story. He wanted a Barry Bonds story and he wanted the exposure. I think he was coming to terms with the idea of fame and how he could acquire that and what it would mean for him. This was an ass-backwards way of doing it. But there's no question he wanted the story.
SI: It's a little surprising that his father, Bobby, who was a Giants coach at the time, and his godfather, Willie Mays, wouldn't help convince him to talk to you.
HOFFER: It was interesting to see how, I don’t think submissive is the word with Mays, but he didn’t -- how do I put this -- he didn’t try to get in the middle of this. He was deferring to Bonds in every respect.
SI: Were you promised time with him when you went up there?
HOFFER: I’m sure I had an assurance from the team of, "Yeah, we’ll work it in after the game."The PR guy was, I guess, helpless. [laughs]
SI: How much time did you wind up getting with him?
HOFFER: Probably not even 30 minutes, but it was actually during the Giants game. He came out early -- I don't know how this happened, someone must have sent for me from the press box -- and I was definitely interviewing him down in the clubhouse while the game was going on. He was affable and pleasant as if nothing had ever happened as far as delays or anything.
SI: You have a line in the story: "If Bonds hadn't failed to produce in each of the last three National League Championship Series...it would be reasonable to suspect that he was toying with the game." Knowing what we later found out about Bonds, were you at all suspicious of how great he was?
HOFFER: I had no idea. I was a babe in the woods even then. It didn't occur to me then and it didn't occur to most people. Looking back I can't even say, "Oh yeah."
SI: Did you continue to track everything that went on with Bonds in the years ahead?
HOFFER: I didn't take a particular interest after the story was published. At no point did I think I missed the target, though.
SI: Did you ever deal with Barry Bonds again?
HOFFER: I don’t think I did. I don’t think I ever had occasion to go into his clubhouse. He probably wouldn’t have even recognized me.
SI: What do you remember about the reaction to the piece both inside and outside SI?
HOFFER: I was in New York the week that it was going to come out, coincidentally. I do remember Chris Hunt had just read it for the first time and he said something like, "Man, it’s like you did surgery without even using a knife." He probably was more clever than that. The effect was that the story was kind of a subtle anatomy.
It seems that when it came out that a columnist in San Francisco took a shot at me for the treatment of Bonds. It would be interesting to have asked him about that a couple of years later. It felt like [at the time] they were being protective of him.
I was surprised when it came out, and maybe it was the coverline that did it. At no point did I think I was doing a takedown of Barry Bonds. I wasn’t pissed off. It wasn’t "I’ll show him." I thought I nailed the guy pretty good. I thought this is who we have here.
SI: Did you know it would be a cover story and were you OK with that coverline, which read "I'm Barry Bonds And You're Not"?
HOFFER: I don’t think I knew at that time until I saw it. I was cool with that coverline, though. I think it prejudiced the reader to think that this was a takedown. It was, but it was also other things. To that extent I thought it was a pretty accurate portrait and not just a raid on the guy. I heard that Bonds was furious with it and railed against it, according to his cleaning lady. He hadn’t read it himself but he had got the gist of it from his cleaning lady.
It wasn’t like SI to say let’s get this guy. If anything most of our stories are tributes or honorariums. It might have been a shocking story for us to show someone the back of our hand.
SI: Why do you think it sticks with people?
HOFFER: Just because I don’t think we ever showed that much attitude in our stories. I don’t know if we have since or not but I think it was surprising in that way perhaps. It wasn’t a groundbreaking thing, I don’t mean that.
SI: In that way it feels like maybe a precursor to the Michael Jordan cover the next year that got him so upset at the magazine.
HOFFER: Probably. I'll tell you a quick story. Maybe it was a year or two later, I had gone up to Portland to do a story on Clyde Drexler, and Clyde kept me waiting for maybe two days. And I said to myself, "I’ve been down this road before, screw you Clyde." And then I went home and there was no Clyde Drexler story, not that he cared. Then I returned to Portland later and was doing a story on some other Trail Blazer. I was sitting in the team's office with a different player and Drexler poked his head in and laughed and said, "Don’t mess with this guy, he’ll leave your ass."