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An unexpurgated history of Barry Bonds video game aliases

With the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X opening a new age of consumer technology, young gamers have never had it so good. In a world obsessed with instant gratification, these consoles – and the video games they enable – are monuments to our quest for perfection. Every detail is accounted for, and the border between fantasy and reality is suitably blurred. There is no margin for error and little space for fiction. We need everything to be short, sharp and correct – and we need it now, before our attention dwindles down another TikTok rabbit hole.

Imagine the outrage, therefore, if the world’s most popular video games omitted some of the most transcendent legends in their respective fields. Imagine FIFA 21 without Cristiano Ronaldo, for instance, or NBA 2K21 without LeBron James. Imagine Madden NFL 21 without Patrick Mahomes, or Mario Kart 8 without – er – Mario. There would be a cataclysmic meltdown with brand boycotts and citywide protests. We would not settle for such logical redundancy, because it would dispel our illusions of flawless majesty.

Well, in bygone eras, gamers were not so fortunate. In fact, for an entire half-decade in the 2000s, baseball fans were particularly deprived. You see, despite being statistically one of the greatest ballplayers ever to grab a bat, Barry Bonds did not appear in any video games after the 2003 season. A polarising star with the San Francisco Giants, Bonds retired following the 2007 campaign, holding the all-time and single-season home run records. Still, he has not featured in a video game for 18 years and counting. That is an entire generation, and as video game elders, we owe it to the raw neophytes to explain why.

Why didn’t Barry Bonds appear in baseball video games?

In November 2003, Bonds announced his withdrawal from a joint licensing agreement upheld by the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), a de facto union. Targeting the sacred home run milestones of Willie Mays, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, Bonds bet on himself to earn millions from exclusive deals with baseball card manufacturers and apparel merchandisers. Ever the iconoclast, Barry wanted full control over his intellectual property, denying the use of his name, voice, likeness, batting stance and autograph to entities that deigned to pay a separate fee.

Traditionally, the joint licensing agreement rewarded players based on the number of service days they accrued in the major leagues each year. As such, it was a subtle mechanism for stars to help out scrubs – one homogenous group leveraging its marketability for the wider good.

Sure, those marquee players who featured more prominently in advertising campaigns and on branded products received greater remuneration, but ancillary income from collectively bargained licensing deals could be life-changing for bit-part veterans and upstart rookies earning the league’s minimum salary. Hence, an implied agreement not to disrupt that ecosystem, fashioned by decades of hard work. Hence, an unwritten rule not to challenge the equilibrium. Hence, an unspoken utilitarianism among players.

The union knew how to pick its battles, in essence. While revenue from the licensing of players’ intellectual property soared in the early-2000s, dividing that liberally was a small concession when cast against the backdrop of a $4 billion industry centred on television, radio and ticket sale riches. By kiboshing the joint licensing agreement, Bonds showed no regard for the little guy. Barry saw a potential goldmine by going it alone, and there was no stopping his voracious lust for headline adulation.

How Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods inspired Barry Bonds to create his own video game

In this regard, Bonds was inspired by a slew of sporting icons who reclaimed control of their intellectual property rights in the 1990s. At his startling apogee, basketball demigod Michael Jordan was quick to protect his image, displaying extraordinary foresight while maximising his earning potential. Jordan withdrew the use of his likeness from NBA goods in 1992, with trading cards and jerseys exempted. As a result, Jordan never appeared in basketball video games, with popular titles referring to ‘Roster Player 99’ in his stead.

Similarly, in 1998, Tiger Woods signed a lucrative deal with Electronic Arts (EA) to become the face its PGA Tour golf game, released on Windows and the original PlayStation. An emerging genius who captivated crowds, Woods earned $7 million per year from EA, and the game became synonymous with him. So much so, the title was scrapped soon after Woods’ contract expired in 2013. Without Tiger, there was little point in carrying on.

A man of monstrous ego driven by a desire to rewrite baseball history, Barry Bonds wanted a slice of that pie. Bonds wanted his own video game, just like Woods, and so he declined the union’s collective licensing efforts. Confirming the unorthodox decision to break free, Bonds wrote a letter to Judy Heeter, the union’s director of business affairs and licensing, explaining his plans for in-house public relations and autonomous marketing departments. The union made little attempt to dissuade Bonds from his insurrectionist path, losing one of its brightest stars.

In turn, Bonds hired a licensing operations team and launched his own website, seeking to spin a new narrative about his life and career. His entourage negotiated more than 20 individual licensing deals, collaborating with a smorgasbord of firms to produce a litany of tchotchke – from custom jerseys, bats and balls to animated snow globes and collectible coins. However, most leading baseball card and video game producers refused to compromise their goodwill agreements with the MLBPA by humouring Bonds, increasing the likelihood that most prominent titles would omit the perennial MVP from their latest iterations.

In theory, as his home run chase reached boiling point, Bonds wanted to pit retailers like Topps, Donruss and Upper Deck against each other for the right to produce and sell bespoke Barry regalia. There was even talk of Bonds enticing Mays – his godfather, of course – and Aaron into the project, creating a merchandise cabal centred on the home run kings. Bonds was a law unto himself, basically, and that extended to his latent commercial empire. 

Indeed, even as Bonds testified before a grand jury probing the Bay Area Laboratory Company (BALCO) and its links to performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports, organisations could not get enough of the chimerical slugger. Everything Bonds did was must-watch, and several companies gambled on that mass attention by partnering with the Giants’ enigma. There was no such thing as bad publicity, it seemed, and Barry was ready to cash in.

To that end, participating in somebody else’s game was not enough, so Bonds partnered with Mforma Group Inc., a mobile entertainment firm in the Pacific Northwest, to create a licensed cell phone game featuring his name, likeness, signature and voice. When released, in May 2004, Barry Bonds: Home Run History allowed players to take control of a pixelated Bonds and power past the aforementioned greats en route to dinger glory.

“It is exciting to think that fans will be able to play a game on their phones that gives such a great baseball experience,” said Bonds. “I love new technology, and it is amazing to see how excellent a game can be on a wireless phone. The fact that it is based on my quest to break the all-time home run record adds to the fun, and I think fans will really get a kick out of playing it.”

Needless to say, sales were predictably dire, and the internet holds little recollection of this technological flop. After years of haggling and hustling, Bonds’ big release was a damp squib. There was more to this whole eponymous video game thing after all, and the divisive star bit off more than he could chew.

Who is Wes Mailman? Introducing the original Barry Bonds video game alias, and the lead designer after whom he was named

Understandably, Bonds’ untimely licensing decision caused uproar in video game production suites across North America. Suitably flummoxed, a number of titles simply deleted Bonds from their embryonic games. After all, there seemed to be little choice. That sentiment changed in March 2004, however, when All-Star Baseball 2005 was released on Xbox and PlayStation 2 by Acclaim Studios, a New York-based publisher.

While brainstorming potential solutions to the Bonds quandary, an Acclaim working group decided to include a generic outfielder on the Giants’ roster, complete with Bonds’ statistics and attributes yet shorn of his name, likeness or biography. Acclaim Studios was on to something, and work began in earnest to fashion this nondescript doppelgänger.

Of course, the generic Bonds replacement would need a name, and after one exhausting ideation session, it was decided that Wes Mailman, the project’s lead designer, would simply include his name in the game. Thus, the world’s first video game imitation of Barry Bonds was duly created, with Wes Mailman playing left field for San Francisco. You could not make this shit up – except Acclaim Studios did, and to great effect.

Interestingly, their efforts to brainstorm Bonds pseudonym were not unprecedented. A decade earlier, an obscure Japanese video game called Fighting Baseball 1994 shot to fame for its comical use of generic American names in the absence of an MLBPA endorsement. In that game, Bonds was known as Todd Romi, adding to the pantheon of computer-generated hilarity.

Elsewhere, Fighting Baseball chose Jemus Erde for Jose Canseco to Tim Foung for Sammy Sosa. Poetically, Ryne Sandberg was known as Tony Ban Slyke in the game, while Andy Van Slyke was called Elvis Crushel. Likewise, Tim Wakedield was not famed knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, but rather journeyman pitcher Mike Harkey. Go figure. The lunacy is marvellous.

Meanwhile, back in the US, Wes Mailman sparked terrific debate among baseball gamers. Complete with maxed-out attributes and a mythical aura, Mailman was the talk of cyberspace. The virtual stadiums of All-Star Baseball even featured Mailman on billboards, leading some to suggest the lead designer got a little carried away with himself. Nevertheless, I managed to track down the real Wes Mailman during my research, and far from being a self-indulgent weasel, he is currently a teacher in New York, quite admirably. I wonder if Barry Bonds ever takes a class as his substitute?

How Jon Dowd, the replacement Barry Bonds, became the greatest sports video game character of all-time

If Acclaim Studios set a trend in the barren landscape of post-Bonds video games, EA harnessed that trend and powered it into a new stratosphere. While developing MVP Baseball 2004, set to be released in March 2004, EA included a Bonds alias of its own: Jon Dowd, described by Darren Rovell of ESPN as a ‘redheaded Caucasian who bats righty, but is otherwise the spitting image of Bonds, down to his height, weight and batting statistics.’

Indeed, Jon Dowd even had the same date of birth as Bonds. In terms of attributes, Dowd had 99 contact and power ratings against right-handed pitchers, despite being a righty himself. Gamers fell in love with these in-game Easter eggs, dedicating entire blogs, forum threads and Reddit discussions to the synthetic greatness of Jon Dowd. A cult following emerged online, etching a new name into the annals of virtual baseball lore.

Dowd reappeared in MVP Baseball 2005, the last iteration of that franchise before EA lost its exclusive licensing deal. Dowd’s legacy far outlived MVP Baseball, however, and years later, Bleacher Report named him ‘the greatest replacement character in video game history.’ Now that is a niche achievement if ever there was one, but in the world of geeky tech, these things matter. They matter like little else.

Who is Jon Dowd? A real person, amazingly!

While millions of people fondly remember Jon Dowd, comparatively few know that he was actually a real person. Well, in fact, he was two people – at least in the baseball fishbowl. Pretty mind-blowing, huh? Allow me to explain.

Perhaps the most famous real-life Jon Dowd was special counsel to commissioner Bart Giamatti during the investigation into Pete Rose’s gambling transgressions in the 1980s. “You have engaged in a variety of acts that have stained the game, and now you must live with the consequences of those acts,” wrote that Dowd while summarising the Rose case. That his name later became synonymous with Barry Bonds, another alleged rule-bender, tests the bounds of irony. 

However, the Jon Dowd showcased in MVP Baseball was not inspired by Rose’s kryptonite. In fact, rather like the aforementioned Wes Mailman, another Jon Dowd was also a video game staffer blessed by serendipity. That Jon Dowd – keep up, people – was in the right place at the right time, and his name lives on in pop culture wizardry.

Much like the guys at Acclaim Studios, the cabal entrusted with developing a new baseball game at EA threw a lot of shit at the wall while attempting to navigate the Bonds issue. How on earth could they release MVP Baseball without the perennial MVP? Well, during one roundtable in the firm’s Vancouver offices, executive producer Brent Nielsen told Dowd, then an assistant game producer, to attach his own name to the generic Bonds in development. Dowd complied, altering the course of video game history.

“The player creation wasn’t super robust back in those days,” Dowd told MLB.com in a 2020 interview. “You had 15 generic fits to pick from, maybe four white guy heads. It kinda looked like me, but it kinda looked like several million other guys.” Human Dowd gave Video Game Dowd the number 51, Human Dowd’s favourite digits. Human Dowd was also right-handed, although EA always intended to make its Bonds replacement a righty to avoid too many similarities with the real thing.

Hilariously, the MVP Baseball series featured Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper on play-by-play commentary. Of course, Krukow and Kuiper are beloved for narrating Giants games on Bay Area radio, and they frequently rubbed shoulders with Bonds at the ballpark back then. One day, while reading scripts for the video game, Krukow and Kuiper had Jon Dowd sign a baseball, which was then placed in Bonds’ locker. Even Elvis never collected the autographs of his impersonators.

Dowd worked at EA until 2006, before transitioning to a similar role with Blue Castle Games, where he continued to work on baseball titles, including The Bigs, an arcade-style game that resurrected Video Game Dowd as Bonds. Human Dowd returned to EA as a producer in 2017, and has worked there ever since. He is still occasionally stopped by strangers keen to relive the halcyon days of their video game lives.

“I’m happy MVP Baseball has endured in people’s imaginations,” Dowd told MLB.com. “Not too many sports titles have a reputation for that long. There were a lot of very talented people who worked on that title. I had been there since Triple Play 2000, it was like my sixth or seventh baseball game. And it was finally the baseball game we wanted to make all along.”

The curious tale of ‘Adan Buja,’ a short-lived Barry Bonds impersonator in MLB Slugfest Loaded

On the same day that Dowd’s MVP Baseball 2004 was released, another hotly anticipated baseball video game hit the market, too. Developed by Chicago firm Midway for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, MLB Slugfest Loaded focused on online play while bringing an element of fun to a staid old discipline. Many serial gamers bought both titles and never left their lairs for a month. The jury was out on the latest baseball toys.

With players spontaneously catching fire, trading bean balls and literally fighting, MLB Slugfest Loaded was ahead of its time. The game earned favourable reviews, and a loyal audience enjoyed its dynamic gameplay, but there was still no Barry Bonds, and that likely hurt sales of an otherwise refreshing product. Indeed, following the examples set by Acclaim and EA, Midway set forth to birth another Barry Bonds proxy, adding to the growing pantheon.

However, for reasons that elude comprehension, the internet disagrees on the name of the fictional character that was eventually spawned. Some forums refer to Adan Buja, while others discuss Adam Buja. One obscure blog piece even alludes to an ‘Adam Baja,’ quite incredibly, lending mystery to this formulaic Bonds stopgap. Regardless of which moniker rang true, this was undoubtedly the most tenuous representation of the Giants’ slugger to date, and that is reflected in the lack of internet fanfare.

Moreover, despite a beguiling portfolio of risqué games, Midway filed for bankruptcy in 2009 amid mounting debts. Warner Bros. bought most of the company’s assets, and the brand was dissolved entirely by 2011. There is no mention of Adan Buja – nor Adam Buja/Baja – in any company filings, so the genesis of that name remains a mystery. No screenshots of this short-lived Barry Bonds apparition are known to exist, making ‘AB’ the Loch Ness Monster of baseball video game lore.

Enter Joe Young, the video game Barry Bonds created by Visual Concepts and 2k Sports

For developers of baseball video games, then, a myopic paradox soon became apparent: if Barry Bonds could safeguard his intellectual property rights, so could the mortal employees chosen to impersonate him in digital form. In other words, only basic goodwill stopped Wes Mailman or Jon Dowd filing suit against their employers for unauthorised use of their names and likenesses. Disgruntled ex-employees have done far worse, of course, so an element of caution was baked into the process moving forward.

Perhaps cognisant of such pitfalls while developing the ESPN Major League Baseball title, developers at Visual Concepts – a Sega subsidiary – created an entirely new Bonds stunt double, complete with a cryptic name untethered to a single individual. A portmanteau of Steve Young and Joe Montana, legendary San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks, Joe Young was duly birthed as another shadow Bonds. A slim, switch-hitting white guy with designer stubble, Young debuted to much aplomb, as another star was added to the evolving canon.

In January 2005, Visual Concepts was acquired by Take-Two Interactive, a holding company that counts Rockstar Games among its stable. Take-Two launched a revolutionary label off the back of its expansion, bringing 2k Sports into the world. Joe Young made the move across, too, appearing in a slew of baseball titles from 2k, including their annual Major League Baseball iterations between 2005 and 2008.

“While Bonds, with his enormous head, is starting to resemble Mayor McCheese, from different angles, the bearded Young looks like actor Eric Bana, tech god Steve Jobs or perhaps a younger, much taller and more closely shaven San Francisco supervisor Aaron Peskin,” wrote Peter Hartlaub in a 2012 ode for SFGate. “The fictitious Mr Young in no way resembles the Giants’ cleanup hitter, yet still plays enough like him to keep continuity in the game.”

As with Dowd, his virtual predecessor, Joe Young developed a loyal following online, with gamers arguing in forums and on blogs about the best Bonds impersonator. At this time, everybody had a favourite pretend Barry Bonds, just as they had a favourite sitcom character or chat show host. My personal favourite was neither Dowd nor Young, however. Nor was it Buja, Baja or Mailman. My favourite was a force of nature, unlike anything baseball has ever seen. The merest mention of his name makes digitised pitchers quake, for hell hath no fury like a test-tube ballplayer scorned.

Creating Reggie Stocker, my favourite Barry Bonds video game replacement

Yes, that is right – for me me, the most compelling Bonds video game replacement was Reggie Stocker, the burly slugger fashioned by San Diego Studios, formerly known as 989 Sports, for MLB:06 The Show. Sony published the game under an exclusive license, dominating the market. As such, they were finally compelled to address the Bonds issue, adding another reincarnation to the echelon.

In many ways, Stocker was the most Bonds-like of all the generic aliases, a hulking lefty swing possessing superhuman power. Certainly more fresh-faced than the ageing real-life Bonds, Stocker featured the same height, weight and elbow guard as his inspiration, while also launching home runs into a virtual McCovey Cove at AT&T Park.

As an adolescent, The Show was the first baseball video game I devoured, and blasting prodigious dingers with Stocker remains a standout memory. As a baseball newbie, I was initially confused and disappointed at Bonds’ absence for the game, but I gradually figured it out. In the absence of Twitter or even Facebook to assuage curiosity, we had to rely on intuition back then. Something just told me that Reggie Stocker was Barry Bonds. I did not have to read it on Wikipedia to believe it was true.

Today, there are hundreds of YouTube videos dedicated to Stocker, most of which involve incredible moon shots and arrogant home run trots. Some of these videos have been watched almost 100,000 times, speaking to the eternal allure of Barry Bonds and his computerised family tree. In this regard, there was – and still is – a virality to Reggie Stocker that the other replacements lack. For me, he is a king among men, and there should be a plaque in Cooperstown with his name on – even if Barry is never enshrined.

In search of Bert Brundage, Dean Gibeau and Great Gonzalez, obscure video game imitations of Barry Bonds

As with any internet phenomena, there is a dark, seedy underworld to Barry Bonds video game imitations; a world where rumour is rife and where untested hypotheses are the defining currency. Anybody can create an urban legend pertaining to a video game Bonds and have it spread like wildfire. Many of these yarns are apocryphal, of course, but there are some obscure murmurings that deserve consideration.

In Baseball Mogul 2007, for instance, Bonds is replaced by a funky character called Bert Brundage. Nobody knows why. Elsewhere, one corner of the dark web speaks in hushed tones of a ‘Dean Gibeau,’ who may have featured momentarily as Bonds in a version of All-Star Baseball, but I have been unable to corroborate those whispers.

However, the undisputed tour de force of Barry Bonds video game conspiracy theories involves a character called ‘Great Gonzalez’ in MLB PowerPros, a Nintendo Wii game released in October 2007. For some inexplicable reason, this game was licensed by MLB and the MLBPA, and there is a G.Gonzalez character marooned in left field for the Giants. Still, this one seems a stretch – even for me. But maybe I’m just fatigued by this never-ending rabbit hole.

A complete list of Barry Bonds video game replacement characters

To that end, a concise overview of Barry Bonds video game replacement characters seems like something that would improve the lives of many people around the world. Well, there is no need to worry anymore, dear readers – I have got you covered. Without further ado, then, I present the world’s first complete, unexpurgated, succinct and definitive list of Barry Bonds alter egos, alongside the video games in which they appeared:

  • Todd Romi – Fighting Baseball 1994
  • Wes Mailman – All Star Baseball 2005
  • Jon Dowd – MVP Baseball 2004; MVP Baseball 2005; The Bigs
  • Adan Buja, Adam Buja or Adam Baja – MLB Slugfest Loaded
  • Joe Young – ESPN Major League Baseball; MLB 2k5; MLB 2K6; MLB 2k7; MLB 2k8
  • Reggie Stocker – MLB 06: The Show; MLB 07: The Show; MLB 08: The Show; MLB: The Show ‘16
  • Bert Brundage – Baseball Mogul 2007
  • Dean Gibeau – All-Star Baseball?
  • Great Gonzalez – MLB PowerPros

Not since peak David Bowie has one colossus of pop culture morphed into so many different personas. And while Ziggy Stardust may have little in common with Wes Mailman, it would be fun to see Aladdin Sane chew the fat with Adan Buja. Such is the weird and wonderful world in which we live – virtually and realistically. There is no end to human imagination, nor to how we celebrate its creations in the annals of quirky folklore.

The legendary return of Reggie Stocker in MLB: The Show ‘16 

Barry Bonds retired following the 2007 season – or, as he contends, the major league owners colluded to ice his career at that point. The dichotomous villain became something of a baseball pariah in the ensuing years, rarely appearing in public while finding a new obsession: cycling. Bonds did return to the big leagues in 2016, however, when the dysfunctional Miami Marlins made him their hitting coach, somewhat randomly. Team owner Jeffrey Loria wanted to fill seats in his new ballpark, and Bonds still guaranteed must-watch drama – even as a coach. A deal was swiftly agreed.

“I have been away for a while,” said Bonds at his Marlins unveiling. “I can only ride my bike so much. But baseball is who I am. This is what I was raised to do. This is what god put me on earth to do, and I’m really up for the challenge.”

Predictably, Barry lasted just one season in Miami, with the experiment later branded a ‘complete disaster’ by outgoing team president David Samson on The Dan Le Batard Show. Samson also said Bonds was an ‘absolute pain in the ass about pay,’ pulling at those historic threads. Still, the pioneering folks at San Diego Studios sought to capitalise on this newfound momentum by revitalising Reggie Stocker for one last hurrah.

Available in certain game modes as a rare collectors’ item, Stocker intrigued a new swathe of gamers, who were keen to understand his backstory. Hence, another deluge of Reggie Stocker YouTube montages. Hence, the video game elders gathering their young around a virtual campfire for The Talk. And hence, the bizarro story coming full circle, as cherished digital heirlooms were passed from one generation to the next.

What does the future hold for Barry Bonds and baseball video games?

Alas, five years have now passed since Barry Bonds last appeared in a baseball video game in any guise. If you are looking for the real Bonds in a game, that barren spell stretches back almost two decades at this point. Some people have been born and reached adulthood without ever controlling the Giants’ otherworldly slugger on their console of choice. In a world of infinite options and one-click satisfaction, that is a disconcerting reality, and one we should look to rectify.

An entire subculture exists online among budding gamers who like to create their own Barry Bonds in various baseball video games, courting comments and critiques from their contemporaries based on the likeness of their designs. Likewise, whenever a new game is released, rumours abound as to whether Bonds – or any of his splinter characters – will re-emerge in technicolour splendour. The answer is usually no.

Interestingly, however, EA recently announced the acquisition of Metalhead, a Canadian studio noted for its production of Super Mega Baseball, a niche franchise that has gained a hardcore following. EA has promised a chapter of rapid innovation in the coming years, and its return to baseball should excite veteran gamers. How – or even if – EA chooses to address the Barry Bonds dilemma this time around remains to be seen, but it is sure to generate interest regardless.

Somewhere, Jon Dowd waits in hopeful suspension, yearning for one more shot at the big time. One more call from the manager, who needs him in left field. One more invitation from McCovey Cove, so still without his presence. One more time at bat, before riding into the pixelated sunset of a mawkish baseball age.

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Sources

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