Love them or hate them, Tiger Woods and Barry Bonds have much in common

June 15, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO — Try not to read too much into it. That's what I had to tell myself as I flipped through Jeff Pearlman's excellent Love Me, Hate Me – Barry Bonds and the making of an antihero. (Full disclosure: Pearlman and I were colleagues at Sports Illustrated.)

Maybe it's all just a big coincidence, or maybe this is a Father's Day cautionary tale, but there are a whole lot of similarities between the biggest newsmaker at the U.S. Open at Olympic Club, Tiger Woods, and the most newsworthy athlete in San Francisco over the last two decades, Bonds. Make of this what you will, but here are some of the things that jumped out at me while I was reading the book.

The golfer and the baseball player made it apparent early that they were extravagantly gifted, and both were the product of classic Little League fathers — former Kansas State catcher Earl Woods and former Major League All-Star Bobby Bonds.

Enormous personalities, Earl Woods and Bobby Bonds came of age in an America that was simultaneously waking up from and bogged down in intolerance. Both men endured racism on the baseball diamond, and both were far from perfect.

Tiger Woods, who relied on Earl for help with his putting stroke, and still frequently references his lessons from Dad, erupted onto the world stage at the 1997 Masters, and, naturally, shared a long hug with Earl behind the 18th green.

(Related Photos: Tiger on the cover of Sports Illustrated)

Barry Bonds, who relied on Bobby and only Bobby for help with his swing, made the big leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1986 and, naturally, Pearlman writes, "The first person Barry called was his father." You might ask: So what? Many pros were raised by driven athletes, and who wouldn't hug his dad after winning the Masters or call home after making The Show? Fair points, but the similarities don't end there.

Both fathers told their sons from an early age to watch their backs, because the world, the media in particular, would be out to get them.

Here's Bonds, page 115: "The funny thing is, my dad told me before I went to spring training, 'They're going to set you up when you get there.' He was right."

Here's Earl Woods tutoring a 3-year-old Tiger, as described in Gary Smith's landmark 1996 Sports Illustrated article:

"Where were you born, Tiger?"

"I was born on December 30, 1975, in Long Beach, California."

"No, Tiger, only answer the question you were asked. It's important to prepare yourself for this. Try again."

"I was born in Long Beach, California."

"Good, Tiger, good."

The result for both prodigies was an uneasy relationship with not just the Fourth Estate but also the world at large. In Love Me, Hate Me, a former Pittsburgh Pirates media relations director invokes a quote about Howard Cosell originally attributed to ABC's Roone Arledge: "He wanted the adulation, but he hated the people who gave it to him." Hello, Barry. Hello, Tiger.

Woods has never succumbed to the urge to shove a nosy reporter out of his way, as Bonds has, but his relationship with the press has often been antagonistic. The most recent example: Woods's stare-down of a reporter who asked about The Big Miss, written by Woods's ex-coach Hank Haney, at the Honda Classic earlier this season.

"Have a nice day," Woods said sarcastically, ending the line of questioning.

Raised in a bubble, Bonds never developed his social antennae, making precious few friends and resenting more popular players like Andy Van Slyke and Deion Sanders.

Raised in a bubble, Woods never developed his social antennae, making few friends and resenting more popular players like Phil Mickelson.

Bonds and Woods have become infamous for, among other things, their business relationships ending spectacularly badly. For Bonds, it was the dismissal of his longtime agent, and his father's longtime agent, Rod Wright. According to Love Me, Hate Me, their split became official over the phone, with Wright asking, "Barry, what has happened to you? Who have you become?" Bonds hung up.

Woods was left by swing coach Haney, and sacked caddie Steve Williams, who fired back in the press and at an awards banquet, where his racial remarks sparked a media firestorm.

Woods and Bonds have been criticized as lacking leadership – Woods at the biennial Ryder Cup – and both have been described as infamous tightwads. In The Big Miss, Haney says Woods "seemed to think it was funny to be cheap," and whenever they ordered takeout, it would fall to Haney to pick up the food and the tab. In Love Me, Hate Me, Pearlman writes of Bonds, still in the minors, receiving packages of batting gloves from his dad. Bonus baby Barry sold them to teammates for $8.

Bonds and Woods have professed to a love of watching cartoons, even as adults.

"He would sit alone in front of the TV every morning," Pearlman writes of the college-aged Bonds, "watching the cartoon He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and giggling hysterically." In a 1993 interview, Woods, still a teen-ager, told ABC, "I love cartoons." In a 2005 American Express ad, Rainy Day, the camera scans what we're led to believe is Woods's house, and there on the flat-screen TV is Mr. Magoo.

Both men tarnished their reputations with scandal, albeit in different ways, Bonds with performance-enhancing drugs, Woods with infidelities. And yet with Woods, as with Bonds before him, we cannot look away, and for reasons that go beyond their on-field performances. They're flawed, but they're also complicated, and that makes them even more fascinating. Bonds lived with a host family during one of his minor league seasons, and Pearlman caught up with the mother, a woman named Virg Navarro.

"Nobody believes me," she says, "but Barry was a very loving young man."

(Related Photos: Tiger's career at the U.S. Open)

He taught her teenage son, Jared, how to make omelets in the morning, and let the kid tag along to practices. Bonds called Virg "mom" and became so much a part of the family that Jared eventually chose to attend Arizona State in part because it was where Barry had gone to school. Bonds paid part of Jared's tuition.

That humanity is in Tiger, too, in his dealings with his kids, his foundation, members of the armed forces, or when he's diving and cavorting with the fish, who, he says, don't know who he is.

We don't know who Tiger is, and we don't really know who Bonds is, either. But after reading Love Me, Hate Me, I can definitely say that I know this: Fame ain't easy, and these two masters of the universe are a lot alike.