- There's Something about Barry:Media Representations of a Home Run King
On August 8, 2007, Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron's longstanding major-league record by hitting his 756th career home run. Despite the historical magnitude of this feat, Bonds's accomplishment was not widely celebrated or accompanied by a flood of praise and adulation for the new record holder. The commissioner of Major League Baseball (MLB), Bud Selig, did not attend the record-setting game. Hank Aaron was not on hand to personally congratulate his successor.1 Bonds's achievement was greeted with mixed reactions from the sports media and from fans as it was announced at stadiums in other major-league cities.2
The lack of celebration and nationwide approval for Bonds, a player who holds both of MLB's most prestigious home run records, raises important questions regarding the relationships between sport, culture, and the process of myth creation.3 Bonds's status in the baseball pantheon is questioned despite winning seven Most Valuable Player awards and garnering fourteen All-Star selections. An eight-time Gold Glove winner, Bonds is also the only player in major-league history with 500 home runs and 500 stolen bases.4 However, these numerous statistical achievements and accolades are overshadowed in the public eye by Bonds's personal reputation, troubled relationship with the media, and allegations of steroid use.5 Acknowledging the multidimensional nature of Bonds's persona, the coverage of the 2007 home run chase serves as a valuable opportunity to examine how the sports media portrays a controversial and polarizing baseball star. This mode of analysis can illuminate the most valued characteristics within the discourses surrounding baseball and explore the ways in which media representations can work to reinforce these cultural values.
Throughout this paper, I employ such an approach to evaluate the media reaction to Barry Bonds's record-setting season in 2007. Incorporating the concept of myth as outlined by Roland Barthes, I assess the media discourses [End Page 56] that construct the representations of Barry Bonds and consider them alongside the values and meanings that constitute the mythology of American baseball. While it might be expected that Bonds's unhealthy reputation and personal history would result in coverage that unanimously contradicted the mythology's values, my analysis reveals considerable tensions between positive and negative aspects of Bonds's persona. Comparing the traits most commonly represented through Bonds to those believed to be embodied by baseball's ideal player further illustrates the ambiguities and inconsistencies that exist within the media portrayals of Bonds's historic season. I argue that the paradoxes evident in representations of Bonds elucidate a journalistic tendency to depict star athletes in endearing ways, despite pre-existing or well publicized shortcomings. I also propose ways in which the media discourses concerning Barry Bonds have contributed to significant changes involving some of baseball's underlying values and myths.
The Mythology of the American Baseball Hero
The discourses surrounding baseball consist of several taken-for-granted assumptions that outline the characteristics a successful player should possess. The underlying semiotic process that promotes these types of assumptions was the subject of Roland Barthes's Mythologies (1952).6 Following Barthes, the beliefs and values seen to be inherent to the game of baseball and its players are best understood as myths. Myths operate as partial truths (rather than complete falsehoods or fabrications) and call attention to particular societal constructions while marginalizing others. Myth's fundamental processes entail privileging the version of reality favored by those in power (to the point where it is seen as natural) and de-emphasizing the vested interests involved in the maintenance of this symbolic hierarchy.7 For Barthes, many of the most potent examples of myth were found in mass media forms such as advertising and film. A film such as Ken Burns's Baseball (1994), for example, vividly illustrates the semiotic processes of myth through its sentimental and sympathetic treatment of the sport's history. Burns's account naturalizes a particular version of baseball history that reinforces, rather than challenges, dominant narratives and connotations associated with the sport.
Prominently featured in countless popular accounts such as Baseball, many...