The biggest slugger in baseball and the biggest retailer in the world have a lot in common — few fans outside their home base, increasing battles with lawmakers and a desperate desire to change their image.
On that score, time seems to be running out for Barry Bonds. But if Wal-Mart achieves its goal to adopt a more fuzzy corporate identity, anything is possible.
It may be a reach to equate one person’s troubles with that of a multibillion-dollar company, but the comparisons couldn’t be more apt or timely.
In the same week Bonds was continuing his national demonization tour, executives at the Arkansas-based retail giant announced that they will not bow to opponents who say the company is too big, too greedy and too defensive.
And what are they going to do about it? Just like Barry, they’re going to show the world Wal-Mart’s sensitive side.
Now I’m not sure which is harder to believe — that Bonds said he didn’t know he was taking steroids or that Wal-Mart actually thinks people will begin to believe that it is going the extra mile for working families.
Of course, I didn’t believe that Bonds would have the chutzpah to launch a reality show while he was still being hunted by federal investigators, so Wal-Mart might want to consider hiring one of the "Survivor" producers to unveil what life is really like in the windowless world of big-box merchandising.
Bonds apparently agreed to do the show as a way to counter his critics — which of course has led to even more criticism about the viability of a series in which Bonds constantly laments that the world is out to get him. He even went so far as to cry on his show recently, saying: "You can’t hurt me any more than you’ve already hurt me." So now we can add naïve to the many failings being attributed to Bonds these days. The powers that be aren’t out to get him yet — right now they’re just warming up in the bullpen.
If Bonds survives this season it will be one of the more remarkable achievements in a stunning career, since it would be hard to be subjected to that kind of abuse and scrutiny without buckling under the pressure. The federal perjury investigation will almost likely feed the fire into Major League Base-
ball’s own inquiry — a combination that will fuel further debate over whether Bonds’ records should somehow be dismissed.
It’s hard to defend Bonds — that’s a task left for him and his attorneys — especially since he’s shown such disdain and arrogance throughout his career to the fans, the media and even his teammates. But as the outpouring of hatred at ballparks throughout the country continues in the coming months, it’s worth noting that if the despised individual was playing for those home teams, they’d be clapping for him just as much as the Giants fans do whenever Bonds comes to the plate.
Yet Bonds, his detractors and the feds aren’t the only ones playing hardball these days. Wal-Mart executives say they are determined to turn around the perception that the company only provides low-paying jobs and poor health benefits — or that its giant retail centers harm the environment. They’ve even gone so far as to use the term "environmental sustainability" in its corporate outreach program, which is kind of like injecting a public relations campaign with steroids.
One Wall Street analyst even offered some sympathy for the retail firm — now just struggling along with 6,500stores and a little more than $300 billion in annual sales — by noting that Wal-Mart’s chief executive officer spends most of his time defending the company’s business model. And crafting a positive message about how to chew up the competition is like standing in against a tight Roger Clemens fastball.
A company spokeswoman, saying Wal-Mart was determined to take a more proactive approach about its employment practices, couldn’t resist adding that "with success comes criticism." (And with leaked memos come image problems, such as the one that disclosed the company was trying to reduce health care costs by not hiring unhealthy workers.)
So they’re trying to tell the Wal-Mart story — you know, the good, friendly one, not unlike "Bonds on Bonds."
Sure, it’s a tough sell, but as we know from experience, Wal-Mart can sell almost anything.