where the writers are
"SON OF SAN FRANCISCO"
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Scottsdale, Arizona is the long-time Spring Training home of the San Francisco Giants. On the surface, it makes sense to train there. The weather is great. The facilities were up-graded to first-class status a few years ago, and it is conveniently located in the middle of the Cactus League.

            The Cactus League mainly involves big league clubs who train in and around the Phoenix area. Scottsdale is the most up-scale suburb of Phoenix. There are a few teams that train outside Metropolitan Phoenix, but for the most part Phoenix is Baseball Central every March.

            The Cactus League beats the heck out of the Grapefruit League, which is in Florida. The Grapefruit League gets rain and requires more long bus trips than the Cactus League. Also, a large number of big league players make their residence in the Phoenix area - mainly in Scottsdale.

            So, Scottsdale makes sense. The only "problem" is that Scottsdale, Arizona is one of the great secrets of the Western World. The nightlife in Scottsdale may be the very best in the Continental United States.

            Scottsdale? It is a retirement community. Old people live there. Very true. It is also, for reasons not known but worth researching, the home of the most beautiful women in the U.S.

            Beautiful girls and hot nightspots would seem to be the province of Hollywood, Manhattan, and Miami's South Beach. Ask anybody who hangs out at Sanctuary, Jilly's, Six, Maloney's, Martini Ranch or any number of bars located mainly within walking distance of each other near downtown Scottsdale. In the interest of thorough journalism, I have done just that. I can tell you that the "talent" - a code word for cute girls - is as impressive in Scottsdale as any of these glamour places.

            Scottsdale can hang with any spot in the world: Ibiza, Cannes, Budapest, the Italian Coast. Furthermore, it boasts an All-American quality these other places lack. Young, fresh-faced people having fun. Drugs are not nearly the problem in Scottsdale as they are in other dens of inequity.

            So what is the problem? Well, into this environment arrive hundreds of young (usually single), handsome professional baseball players. Their employers pay a lot of them large sums of money. Some of them are married. They are supposed to be there for a month and a half to buckle down and get ready for the rigors of a long season. They are supposed to be at the yard early, and this means getting to bed at a reasonable hour. It does not happen that way.

            The Oakland A's, who train next door in Phoenix, made nightly pilgrimages to the Scottsdale nightclubs, led by their Master of Fun, MVP outfielder Jason "Party like a porn star" Giambi. Somehow they still had the best record in the Cactus League in 2001, but before embarking for Oakland at the end of March, pitcher Tim Hudson remarked to me they had best get out of town "while we're still standing."

            Whether the hang-over effect of 45 days in party town was responsible for Oakland's 8-18 start to the 2001 season is up for debate, but once the team settled down they finally turned it on and won 102 games en route to the play-offs.

            The San Francisco Giants have become an institution in Scottsdale. They practice at Indian School Park and play their exhibition games at Scottsdale Stadium. They used to train in Phoenix proper. Del Webb, a local developer and one-time owner of the New York Yankees, was one of the men responsible for bringing spring ball to the desert. He used the game as a lure for upscale hotel guests staying at his resorts.

            In 1951, the New York Giants and Yankees switched spring sites, giving Phoenix fans a chance to see a rookie named Mickey Mantle. The Mick terrorized people sitting behind first base. A shortstop back then, Mantle's throws would careen like errant missiles into the stands.

            Giants' manager Dusty Baker is a mdern man who treats his players like men. A longtime big leaguer himself, he knows that boys will be boys who will get out and about at night. He also knows that they are professionals with a job to do, and he does not hector them with intrusive rules and constant bedchecks.

            In 2001, Baker went to his ninth Spring Training as Giants' skipper with a veteran club, led by one of the greatest vets in history, Barry Bonds. Bonds has never been a monk, and he certainly has enjoyed the Scottsdale nightlife in the past, going back to his college days at Arizona State.

            By 2001, however, Bonds was a man of maturity and purpose, leading a team of maturity and purpose. The Giants, unlike the young A's, were a group of experienced pros who went about their tasks efficiently.

Bonds' second marriage was working out. He was a family man. He was heading into a free agent season at age 36, and he was in the best physical condition of his life. Bonds has always been one of those guys who plays his best in free agent seasons.

            Somehow, controversy and Bonds are constant, however. The kind of smooth sailing that always characterized Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken has eluded Bonds. 

The press coverage of the Giants' opening camp centered on Bonds and their efforts to retain their superstar.  The Giants "unequivocally" wanted Bonds back in 2002, and there was virtually no chance they would trade him before his contract expired in the fall, general manager Brian Sabean said.

But Sabean also reiterated the team had no plans to sign the 36-year-old left fielder to a contract extension before the end of the 2001 season, when Sabean would have a clearer picture of the Giants' financial future.

That did not sit well with Bonds, who checked into camp saying he wanted to remain with the Giants as long as they stayed competitive, but also wanted to know posthaste whether they planned to re-sign him after his three-year, $22.9 million extension expired.

"It's up to them and my agent to sit down and talk and see what happens," Bonds told reporters during an informal, 15-minute chat. "I've got two kids from one marriage where it's really important to be able to establish some form of bond or even a closer relationship if there's a situation where I'm not going to be here. If I am going to be here, let's talk about it and get it done."

When asked whether it was possible the Giants truly did not know whether they could sign him for next year, Bonds said, "They know. I don't believe that for one minute."

Bonds was setting no deadline for an answer, but said he expected the team and his agent, Scott Boras, to start talking before the end of Spring Training.

"There has to be some form of communication," Bonds said. The Giants feared the agent would negotiate with them only to leverage a bigger contract for Bonds as a free agent in the off-season.

Sabean was caught between a rock (giving Bonds what he wants) and a hard place (trying to maintain a competitive team with a smaller budget than most contenders).

"I've said from Day One, consistently, we want the player back, but . . . we also need to look at getting other people signed for the future," Sabean said. "While Barry's the most important piece, we also need to figure out Shawn Estes: When he gets a raise, whether it's through arbitration or a long-term contract."

"I look at it this way," Bonds countered. "Why should it be any different for me than the way my Godfather was sent out, the way the rest of them were sent out, the way Matt Williams was sent out? Why should it be any different for me? It's just unfortunate, that's all. We'll see. Time will tell."

 A New York paper published a projected Mets' play-off lineup with Bonds hitting third. Bonds had the right to veto any trade but said he would waive his right if dealt to a desirable team.

Sabean, however, insisted he would not move Bonds before the July 31 trade deadline, just to ensure the Giants getting something in return before he could walk away as a free agent in October.

"We'd have to end up flat on our face and literally be out of it at the trading deadline," said Sabean. "There would have to be horrific consequences to even entertain him not being here. So he will be here for the duration to help us win the division."

Wherever Bonds signed in 2002, he would earn far more than the $10.3 million he was to earn in 2001. He said he was willing to take less in San Francisco as long as the Giants committed to staying competitive.

"I don't want Alex Rodriguez money," said Bonds.

Barry did establish something of an informal deadline - the end of Spring Training - by which he would like to at least begin a dialogue about his future.

"I'm not saying the deal has to be done," he said. "I'm just talking about some form of communication. If there's just dead silence by that time, then all my questions are answered."

Sabean responded that Bonds ought to know the Giants want him back, and that the team's wishes had nothing to do with why there was no new deal in the works.

"Unequivocally we want Barry back," Sabean said, "but as we stand here today it's easier said than done. As I stand here today I don't have answers to the questions that need to be answered: How many years and for how much money?"

Sabean said Boras had not yet contacted him.

Boras is notorious for squeezing teams for every last penny when his clients hit the open market.

"I don't expect to talk to Scott," Sabean said. "That's not Scott's style. He kicked and moaned when we wanted to get Robb Nen's contract done. Scott is about marketability."

Sabean noted that if Bonds waited he would be perhaps the premier player on the free agent market come winter.

"I find it hard to believe Scott Boras and Barry Bonds would contact us and do the kind of deal Robb Nen did, which, in the end, was well below market value," Sabean said.

Nen, another client of Boras, had signed the previous September with the Giants for $32 million over four years. The bargain in that deal was made clear when Yankees' closer Mariano Rivera, who was not eligible for free agency, signed a four-year deal worth nearly $40 million.

Sabean also seemed wary of making the first offer to Bonds because Boras might simply use it as a benchmark for free agent bidding in the winter. Boras also represented Rodriguez and Johnny Damon, two elite players who turned down lucrative offers from their former clubs and wound up playing elsewhere.

"We make offers to sign people," Sabean said. "We don't make offers to not get signings done. I know it's always incumbent on the club to try to get something done in the end, but I've said from day one consistently, we want him back. But for all people it's going to be better served probably at the end of the year, when I know exactly what we're up against for 2002 and into the future."

Bonds was just six homers away from 500, and number 600 was well within his reach. In short, his market value in this era of exploding salaries could be as much as double the $10.3 million he was due to make.

The Giants' payroll in 2002 figured to be around $65 million, probably no higher than tenth or twelfth in the majors.

Bonds said he would waive his no-trade clause, if he were headed to a contending team. Still, he would leave his heart in San Francisco.

"I have no bitterness toward the Giants," he said. "I was able to come back and play in my hometown. I was pretty lucky to have that opportunity. I don't hold grudges. I'm not a vindictive person. There would be a lot of dead people if I was."

Holding grudges? Dead people? There is a sense of fantasy in the athlete's world. Barry Bonds says he flunked English in high school. He went to college, but his academic credentials are short of, say, Bill Bradley's. He has a brother who has struggled like the rest of us.

If he were not a big league baseball player, he would not be a millionaire. He would have to work for a living. He would have to keep his bosses happy and, if he held grudges against them, he likely would have to find another employer. Dead people would also not be an option, and if any showed up it would be, well, a  matter for the police!

Barry Bonds' employer from 1993 to date has been the San Francisco Giants. Every two weeks, the Giants dutifully deposited huge checks in Bonds' bank. The checks never bounced. They were never late. Is there is some set of circumstances, some alternate universe, in which the very concept of Bonds holding a grudge against the depositors of those checks is anything less than preposterous?

Then there is the injury factor. Once the contract is signed, the money is theirs, even if they get hurt. There may be some variables on this equation, but by and large the player gets paid no matter what. If the player plays lousy, which happens a lot, they still get paid.

These guys have no business complaining or holding grudges. 99.99 percent of them would be lucky to make $50,000 doing anything else. A lot are just plain lucky to be living in America. If not for the teams some hold "grudges" against, they would be living in squalor in their native countries.

Bonds is not unusual. Many, many pro athletes think like this. Average people cannot figure them out, but obviously money changes people. Not everybody, but a lot of them.

By the same token, some of these people, like Bonds (or Michael Jordan) are so good that they are virtually irreplaceable, at least in the short term. They do draw fans, they are franchise players, and they are responsible for fortunes being made, championships being won, even stadiums being built.

Furthermore, athletes are less the diva than many entertainers. Rock stars and movie stars are far worse than athletes, who are required to stay in top shape and work within a team framework. Tom Hanks (who is not a diva) makes roughly $20 million for one movie. Did preparing for, filming and promoting "Saving Private Ryan" take as much time and effort as Alex Rodriguez getting ready for and playing one baseball season?

Hanks and Jack Nicholson do not have to go work every day facing an opponent who has been plotting and strategizing on how to make them fail, and is loaded for bear to do just that. Britney Spears does not face 50,000 booing road fans trying to shake and rattle her into having a very bad night.

Kid Rock does not have a general manager whose purpose in life is very much about breaking down his value by exposing, in contract negotiations, that he is not worth the money he makes.

"Say, Kid, you're not hittin' the high notes like you did last year."    

Somewhere in all of this celebrity status is a human being that has been elevated, like a modern Caesar, above the people. So far, we at least ask them to live within the law. Old Roman Emperors could have people thrown to the lions or boiled in oil for displeasing them. The Barry Bonds's of the world are not at that pitch, although if a guy like that so much as smiles, or demonstrates normal human traits, people use this as "evidence" that they are such nice persons.

On the flip side, they do not have the privacy of going to work every day in anonymity. Instead, their failings, their worst professional, and often private, embarrassments are exposed in the papers, on the radio, and on television.

Drunk driving, infidelity, children born out of wedlock, late-night barroom brawls - if a celebrity is ensnared in these not-so-unusual endeavors, it is splashed all over the news.

 

At Indian School Park in Scottsdale that spring, Scott Boras, an ex-minor league player, emerged wearing jeans and a sports jacket, and carrying a briefcase.  He "looked as pale as someone who spends 12 hours a day in the library," wrote Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

He said they had a good meeting, but don't they always? He said he had conveyed the feeling in no uncertain terms that Bonds wanted to remain a Giant.

"You may not know this but Bonds is a sensitive guy," continued Cohn, a longtime Bay Area scribe with an acerbic side. "He's not sensitive to your feelings or my feelings - Heaven forbid. He's sensitive to his own feelings, and a suspicion exists among Giants players that a sensitive guy like Bonds may sulk without a contract extension. The sulking may lead to depression, and depression may lead to poor play, and before you know it, Bonds could go into the tank."

(Bonds, of course, would prove this side of Cohn's analysis to be about as wrong

as any so-called professional sportswriter could possibly be proved wrong, with his 2001

performance.)

Cohn then "covered his ass" by positing the opposite possibility, that his pride had been challenged, so he would burst onto the scene like "Superman rushing out of a phone booth..."

So why not sign Bonds right then? Maybe the Giants thought they could get more out of a hungry Bonds than a satisfied Bonds. If this was Sabean's intent, then he might go down as the best motivator since Knute Rockne told the Irish to "win one for the Gipper."

Maybe, back then, the Giants had no intention of ever re-signing Bonds. He was getting older. He was a "pain to have around," according to Cohn. Maybe they just wanted one last season out of the guy.

The Giants were understandably leery of Boras. Some pundits said he comes off as the kind of guy who smiles at you while he is stabbing you in the back.

Seattle negotiated with him in good faith right up until the time Rodriguez signed with Texas the previous year. The same thing reportedly occurred with Johnny Damon, until Oakland stepped up.

Bonds came into the 2001 season with eight Gold Gloves under his belt, and a reputation as one of the greatest defensive left fielders of all time. His competition is not a long list. Carl Yastrzemski comes to mind. Mike Krukow, a Giants broadcaster since 1991, remembered how Bonds used to play Gwynn, one of the best left-handed hitters in Major League history, like he was some pitcher who couldn't get the bat around.

Why?

"He knew with the speed of Bill Swift's sinker or the speed of John Burkett's sinker and with Gwynn's swing type, he had to hit the ball down there," Krukow told the Press Democrat's Jeff Fletcher. "He couldn't pull the ball or he couldn't drive the ball in the gap. He knew that if he tried to do that, he'd have to alter his swing.

"So the guy in left field has affected the guy at the plate, just by the way he's positioned himself. That is a smart sucker right there."

"He's one of the smartest players in the game," Fletcher quoted Shawon Dunston. "Barry's no dummy. He might want you to think that, but he's no dummy. He's got a lot of talent, but he's smart, too."

"I really don't want to discuss that," was Bonds' reply when asked to address the difficult, complex, controversial question of why he plays defense so well.

 "Being around that your entire life, you are going to learn this and that," Giants hitting coach Gene Clines told Fletcher. "You are going to pick up some stuff quicker than guys who don't have that exposure."

Clines was the hitting coach in Seattle in the early '90s, when Ken Griffey, Jr. was rising to his prime. Clines said Griffey, like Bonds, seemed to be able to easily absorb the nuances of the game.

"We had meetings and we'd go over scouting reports and you'd think he was sleeping, but he was taking it all in," Clines said. "It's just his way of doing it."

"I played with Bobby <Bonds> in Chicago at the end of his career and I marveled at the little stuff I learned from him," Krukow told Fletcher. "He knew about pitchers tipping what's coming, middle infielders tipping. Middle infielders tip pitches more than anybody does. Those guys understand that stuff…They see the game in a different way."

Giants bench coach Ron Wotus played with Barry Bonds in the minor leagues in the mid-1980s. According to him, Bonds does little things that today's players often ignore, like watching an opposing pitcher in the bullpen, before he's even gotten into the game.

Bonds is not like Gwynn, who watches a lot of video tape, and he does not go over scouting reports on how to position himself against hitters. Defensively, he has instincts, which is what they said about Mays.

"I believe it's just from being out here and watching the game," Fletcher quoted Wotus. "Everybody talks about his talent, but he's real sharp. He picks things up that other players miss."

Bonds knows what he knows, but does not share his knowledge easily.

"I don't think he is malicious with the fact he holds back the information," Krukow told Fletcher. "He feels that other people see it, too, and he's surprised when they don't, because to him it's easy."

Bonds has expressed a desire to go into coaching after he retires, maybe at the college level. However, Krukow's observation may be what prevents him from becoming a great coach. Like Ted Williams, who could not relate to ordinary hitters, Bonds may not be able to understand mediocrity. Celtic Hall of Famer Bill Russell had the same problem, once he retired as a player and coached so-so teams. The best baseball managers are often journeymen, like Leyland and Sparky Anderson. Gwynn, who is taking over at San Diego State, will hope to dispel this "trusism" of the game.

Left-handed relief pitcher Chad Zerbe had a surprisingly close relationship with Bonds because he played for Class A San Jose while Bobby Bonds was the hitting coach. He said that sometimes Bonds' advice is wasted on ordinary players.

If asked, however, Barry will help out. Once Shawon Dunston failed to make good contact when he knew a slider was coming, so he sought out Bonds. He told him that not merely knowing what kind of pitch is coming is less important than waiting long enough to see if it's going to be a strike.

The problem is that this ability to "wait long enough" is a Bonds' trait that few, if any others, share.

Bonds can play 10 feet off the line because he has the speed to still track down a ball if fooled.

"It's a combination of baseball smarts and talent that make Hall of Famers," wrote Fletcher.

"There are a lot of stars, but then there are superstars," Dunston said, "and that's what separates them."

 

Image, as Andre Agassi's camera commercial used to say, is everything. Sammy Sosa has a good image, and he signed a multiyear contract extension with the Chicago Cubs.  Barry Bonds did not have a good image, and he would play this year for the Giants without an extension.

 When Ken Griffey, Jr. played with the Mariners, he had a golden image. Club executives, however, said Griffey did nothing off the field unless he was paid for it. Griffey has a beautiful smile, but when he got to Cincinnati, he let his guard down. He left the 2000 All-Star Game early, saying he had to take care of his fireplace. Of course, he needed to make sure his fireplace in the Queen City was in good working order in July. It gets about 119 degrees with humidity in Cincinnati in the summer, so of course this makes sense. Radio talk show host Jim Rome was on Griffey like a cheap suit, saying that, naturally, Junior had to get out of town because he had "fireplace issues."

Sosa had made nasty public statements about Cubs' management, but he remained a lovable figure in Chicago. This, even though he had become, like Jose Canseco with the A's in 1990-91, a player who had decided that the only part of the game worth concentrating on was hitting home runs.

In 2001, Sosa rallied his game and improved defensively while having another great offensive season. The Cubs, a perpetual loser yet a popular team because they, more than any club, live on image, felt they had no choice but to extend his contract.

Bonds often contributes his time and money to charities without publicity. He actively discourages efforts to make his efforts known. His image is mostly negative, but is he better or worse than Sosa and Griffey?

This was a factor on the Giants' approach to a contract extension. The Giants get excellent TV ratings, and while fans receive Bonds well at the park, there is a core of fans that call in to KNBR and email the papers with anti-Bonds sentiments. Are these the people who do not buy tickets?

Bonds does not seem to care. He does not "work" the media. He talks on his own schedule. He is unpredictable. He may sing like a bird after an oh-fer, but retreat to the trainer's room after a two-homer day.

Sosa had public leverage that Bonds lacked. Amazingly, spring pundits were saying that despite Bonds's superb condition, there were signs that his age was beginning to catch up with him. His 2000 season may have been the best of his career up to that point. Baker's decision to occasionally rest him, however, was used as "evidence" that the man was losing it.

 The Giants knew they were taking a risk by not waiting on Bonds, but they felt they had no choice. They could not afford to pay a high salary to a player who would no longer be worth it, and they were not bound by their fans' love of Bonds, like the Cubs were with Sosa. The general feeling in Scottsdale was that it would be Barry's last spring there.

Some say that when the pressure is on, Barry chokes. As Bonds prepared for the season, those who consider such things were asking whether he was one of the greatest athletes, and one of the most important people, in Bay Area sports history. Or, was he  selfish, whining, overpaid, and unwelcome. E-mails from Giants fans to media outlets suggested both, and very little in between.

Some days, he is a great guy and a credit to his team.

Other days, he is mean. He does not always hustle. The universe revolves around him.

Without Barry Bonds, there is no Pac Bell Park, and the Giants probably would be in Florida. The Giants have been better with Bonds than they were with Mays. He has carried the franchise on his back.

During the regular season, he is money when the game is on the line. Bonds has to throw away at least 100 at-bats a year before the season even starts, yet he still put up his numbers while making his teammates better.

No one takes the extra base on him. He plays the wall like few before him.

He has experienced personal problems and is hassled constantly, yet he does not get the benefit of the doubt.

Is he the man?

He once came storming into the locker room calling everyone "green flies."

"Where the hell've you been all year?" he yelled at everybody within 50 feet of him, most of whom had ben right there, all year.

At times like this, writers have described him as "demonic," dismissing entire groups like Nero giving the thumbs down to a downed gladiator. In 2000, this attitude, or memories of it, may have cost him his fourth MVP award. It really should have been his fifth, since his loss to Atlanta's Terry Pendleton in 1991 was a travesty, too.

Approach Barry Bonds with something and he wants to know if it will change his life. Prior to 2001, it had been said that he does not even talk to Kent, that he would not even have dinner with his teammate. Some say he is a racist.

On the other hand, Bonds has been asked to help kids and contribute to charity, and he has done so without asking how it will change his life.

The man is a conundrum.

Bonds has enemies in the media. There are those who have examined his post-season failures like Woodward and Bernstein going after Richard Nixon. They say he is one of the biggest chokers in baseball history, and always has been, going back to little league. He has been accused of being a lifelong loser, a bum who half steps singles into doubles or misses fly balls. They say he is a phony who turns on his act like Bill Clinton when he saw the cameras at Ron Brown's funeral.

Once, Bonds turned on the charm for the media at a press conference. He smiled. He was handsome. He was humble. He listened to every question attentively. When the cameras and the microphones were turned off, a writer approached him. The writer did not have a question for him; he just wanted to tell him he was friends with one of Bonds' teammates from Arizona State. Bonds did not say, "Really? How is he?" or "Yeah, he was a great guy, when did you see him last?" No, he turned his back on the writer without so much as gracing the man with acknowledgement. The Patrick Swayze effect.

The real test of a person's character or personality is not how they "perform" for the media, but the way they are with average people in average situations, when nothing is required of them except grace.

Hall of Fame basketball player Rick Barry has a sports talk show on KNBR. He is intelligent, articulate and knowledgeable. He sounds like a very nice guy. Once, he was given a tour of homes on the Northstar-at-Tahoe golf course, and the real estate agent guiding him said he took rudeness to a new level.

Bonds has been both nice and rude. Not everybody is like John Wooden, a legend in his time, comparable to Bonds. Wooden always deals with people in a kind, gentle, honorable way. That is what makes him better than the rest.

So Bonds hides in a fancy locker with big-priced toys. One San Francisco writer used a term typical of that town's politics, calling him "elitist scum."

These were words used to describe Bonds prior to the 2001 season. That kind of rhetoric is gone for now. How soon we forget. Bonds lives in the ultimate "what have you done for me lately?" world.

When Bonds made his spring debut, it did not come with the usual bombast. There were no bold predictions or outlandish statements. There was, however, a little sadness as he pondered his future.

Bonds may not have felt there were many big-money contracts left in his career.

"I really don't know what's going to happen," Bonds said. "But if I'm not going to be here, I should just be told so I can tell my family. If I am going to be here, then let's talk about it and get it done.

 "They know what's going to happen," Bonds said of the Giants' front office. "I ran into <vice-president> Larry Baer last week, and he said he couldn't envision me not wearing a Giants uniform. But last time I looked, he didn't own the team.

  "If they don't want me back, they should let me know…What I've done for this team, I deserve that much."

 In eight seasons in San Francisco, Bonds had hit 318 home runs, but he knows baseball history. He knows it is a business. He was eight in 1972, when the Giants traded Mays to the New York Mets for knuckleballer Charlie Williams.

              "That's the only thing that irks me," Bonds said. "They traded my Godfather. They traded Matt Williams. It's unfortunate. But why would it be any different for me? This is my first choice. But I have a family to support."

            Athletes who have enough money to support 10 families until the end of the 21st century love to talk about supporting their family, providing "security" for them. It is bogus. They want the money for various reasons. Greed is one of them, but as often as not, the money is a sign of their place in the pecking order of their profession. It is as much about pride as anything is. It is also, crazy as this may sound, about respect. It seems ridiculous to normal people to consider that a baseball company paying an employee millions does not respect him because it is not enough millions.

Consider the Rod Tidwell character, played by Cuba Gooding in "Jerry Maguire." There was nothing sympathetic about Tidwell. He turned down money from the Arizona Cardinals that was more than most high-priced lawyers and doctors make. Tidwell claimed he was not getting "love" and "respect," all wrapped up in some kind of quasi-word - kwan - from any and all entities that, in his warped view of the world, owed he and his a living for as long as he walked the Earth.    

  Bonds, who like Tidwell would not be a Wall Street banker, a Beverly Hills lawyer, a top surgeon, a hotshot advertising executive - or a top-notch writer - if he was not an athlete, insisted that he was not Tidwell. He swore that it was not about the money and that he was not trying to break the bank for one last payday.

  "I just want what I work for," he said, echoing the sentiments of most anybody outside of homeless bums. "I'd even give up a little to be on a ballclub committed to winning. I'd work out anything if it was a contending team."

 Dusty Baker had been in a similar situation in 2000, waiting until the season was over to sign a new contract after the Giants won the NL West.

Baker was prescient in his observations of the situation.

"It's hard to get the top, top money if you don't take a risk," Baker told the media. "You think I would have made as much if I'd signed early?"

The three-time Manager of the Year expected a huge season out of his star.

"Players become totally focused in their contract years," Baker continued. "If he stays healthy, he's going to get it."

 "I've played pretty good every year," Bonds said after being told what his manager had said. "A contract year isn't going to make any difference."

Of course, playing "pretty good" and playing the way he would this season are two separate things.

In the exhibition opener at Scottsdale Stadium, the Cubs beat the Giants, 6-5, and the first thing on everybody's mind was the high strike, which the Commissioner had declared would be in force this season. Livan Hernandez opened with a fastball above the belt of the Cubs' Eric Young, and home-plate umpire Kerwin Danley called it a strike. Young stepped out of the box and gave Danley a look that said, "Huh?" They chatted briefly, smiled, then got into a mock argument.

Former Giant Julian Tavarez sent Barry Bonds a message by firing a first-pitch fastball over his head.

"I want to throw strikes," Tavarez said afterward. " I haven't pitched in a while. I was trying to pitch inside and the ball got away from my hand. I wasn't trying to hit Barry. Why should I hit Barry? I've got nothing against Barry. I don't have any reason to hit Barry."

Bonds hugged Tavarez when they met at first base after Bonds grounded out.

"Barry didn't think it was intentional," Baker said. "He had fun with it. I'm just glad Barry didn't get hurt."

In Florida, Gary Sheffield was telling the Dodgers, through the media, that he might not play as well unless his demands were met. Frank Thomas was boycotting the White Sox camp to protest his salary. Bonds, on the other hand, continued to let his representative do his bidding.

"This reminds me a lot of the Kevin Brown contract," Boras said of the seven-year, $105 million deal he negotiated with the Dodgers a few years earlier. "The issue was a 33-year-old pitcher. Most pitchers at 33 are near or at the end of their careers. But we have situations where these players are anomalies. Their performances exceed the customary performance you see for players their age."

"I don't think it's fair to anybody that you engage in this and don't get something done," Sabean said. "Then everybody's going to take a side, people on the team, the fans, the media. Then it becomes counterproductive."

The Commissioner's office, meanwhile, ordered that Bonds' elbow protector be no longer than 10 inches. The one Bonds has worn for years is longer. How much longer?

"None of your business," was Bonds cheery answer to the writers doing their jobs. "My elbow pad is not illegal. Does that answer your question? Goodbye."

  Gene Clines confirmed that the shield is a few inches too long and would be modified. The new restrictions were designed to make hitters more fearful of leaning into tight pitches, reducing hit batsmen, and cutting down on brawls.

On March 10, Willie Mays arrived for his annual visit to camp saying he was happy that Bonds soon would join him in the 500-homer club.

What about Mays' 660, a stated goal of Barry's?

"That's kind of shaky," Mays told the media. "We've talked about that. I don't think he should be worried about how many. Just go up and do it. When you start concentrating on just one aspect of the game, then you lose the game. I think with his ability, he should just go enjoy what he's doing. If he gets to that number, that's fine."

Bonds' first six homers would make him the seventeenth Major Leaguer to reach 500.

"Anytime you can get 500, that's a great feat," Willie told the press. "There aren't many guys up there. I've talked to him about that. That's a great accomplishment. He could have gotten it last year, but I guess 49 home runs is pretty good. I wanted him to try to get 50, because not many guys have gotten 50 in a year either."

Going into 2001, Bonds needed to average 34 a season for five years to surpass Mays for third place on the all-time list.

Over at Phoenix Muni, the A's, despite being led on near-nightly forays into neighboring Scottsdale by Giambi, had a great spring. They were favored to win the American League West, and many felt they would do better than that.

Of course, of all the cliches in sports, "It's only Spring Training" might be the truest one. San Francisco broke camp at 9-19 after their seventh straight loss, 9-8 to Arizona.

"So far nobody's hurt," remarked Baker. "But it's time to start practicing winning. The season is right around the corner."

"We haven't played worth a shit in spring training since 1997," Sabean told the Bay Area press before the team headed to San Francisco and an exhibition series vs. McGwire's Cardinals.

Picking the order of finish to a baseball season before the season starts is one of those things that seems reasonable at the time, but in hindsight it is just filling space. The Chronicle's Henry Schulman saw it this way on April 1, 2001.

            1. San Francisco.

            2. Los Angeles.

            3. Arizona.

            4. Colorado.

            5. San Diego.

 

Baker's lineup looked like this:

CF, Marvin Benard.

SS, Rich Aurilia.

LF, Barry Bonds.

2B, Jeff Kent.

1B, J.T. Snow.

RF, Armando Rios.

3B, Russ Davis.

C, Bobby Estalella.

RHP, Livan Hernandez.

LHP, Kirk Rueter.

RHP, Russ Ortiz.

LHP, Shawn Estes.

RHP, Mark Gardner.

RH closer, Robb Nen.

 

2001 would, of course, be still another year of the great Giant-Dodger rivalry. The Los Angeles Dodgers had seen better days. For the first 60 years of the existence of the Dodgers and Giants, the Giants had it all over their New York rivals. The Giants were given that name, one of the best and most time-honored in sports, by their owner-manager, Jim Mutrie, who in the nineteenth century surveyed his troops and proclaimed then, "My Giants." Many felt they got that moniker because they played in a "giant" city filled with "giant" buildings. Not so.

The Dodgers got their name because of their fans. In the old days, Brooklyn was a suburb of New York, a city in and of itself. Therefore, one of their names was the Suburbas. Can you imagine that at one time Brooklyn was considered a suburb?

In order to get to Ebbetts Field, at the corner of Bedford and Stuyvesant Avenues in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, their fans had to navigate a difficult series of trolleys, the precursor of the current subway system. Brooklyn baseball fans would find themselves "dodging" the trolleys. Somebody started to call them "trolley dodgers." By the early part of the twentieth century the team was the Dodgers. Not exactly Giants.

In the last 16 years of their mutual stay in the Big Apple, the rivalry was intense but favored Brooklyn. Until Barry Bonds arrived in San Francisco, the Dodgers dominated the rivalry in California, too.

 By 2001, the Dodgers had "gone Hollywood." Dodger Stadium had always been a meeting place of L.A.'s Beautiful People. However, despite being run by Fox and studio mogul Bob Daly - people weaned in the entertainment industry - the team and place had lost much of their lustre. The club was no longer headed by the O'Malley's, a dedicated baseball family. They had lost their touch. In a fashion typical of the go-go late 1990s, Fox just threw money at their problems like a government bureaucracy gone bad.

The team entered 2001 carrying a $100 million payroll filled with big-name underperformers. On the other hand, Kevin Brown, Chan Ho Park, Darren Dreifort and Andy Ashby made up a formidable starting staff, with All-Star closer Jeff Shaw out of the bullpen.

            Right fielder Shawn Green had disappointed when he returned to his hometown after putting up big years in Toronto. Former UCLA first baseman Eric Karros was good for 30 home runs and 100 RBIs a year. None of them, it seemed to his critics at least, when it counted.

In Phoenix, manager Buck Showalter was gone, replaced by ex-Giant Bob Brenly. Brenly inherited some great names that were past their primes, among them third baseman Matt Williams and second baseman Jay Bell. Center fielder Steve Finley would still provide strong defense. First baseman Mark Grace, a free agent signee after years of great seasons in Chicago, promised to still have something left. In left field a new star had emerged. His name: Luis Gonzalez.

Arizona, though, would live or die with Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson. Reliever Byung-Hyun Kim from South Korea had looked unhittable when he first came over with his sidearm delivery, but the question about him would be, When would the hitter's figure him out, sooner or later?

Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle had signed for a mint to pitch at Colorado's Coors Field, but the plan was to improve on the club's 34-47 road record in 2000.

Former Tennessee quarterback Todd Helton was a budding superstar, and third baseman Jeff Cirillo, along with ex-MVP Larry Walker, rounded out a strong offense, especially in Denver's thin air.

            San Diego added Mark Kotsay, the 1995 College Player of the Year at Cal State Fullerton, but the Padres had fallen far and fast from their 1998 World Series team. Tony Gwynn was past his prime entering his swan song season. Ryan Klesko and Phil Nevin were quality players, but the Pads had very little starting pitching to set up ace closer Trevor Hoffman.

San Francisco had scored a franchise record 925 runs the year before, but that included Burks' 96 RBIs. Henry Schulman would prove prescient in his assessment of Aurilia: "Although Rich Aurilia is not the prototypical number two hitter, his homer and RBI potential gives the Giants a different look there than they had with Bill Mueller, and that's not necessarily bad."

Not necessarily.

Defensively, questions dogged the team, not the least of which was Bonds, who it was felt could not get to balls he used to routinely catch. The big problem was in center, where Marvin Benard had occasionally justified Baker's faith in him, yet he had the potential to be a bust in the field and at the plate.

Shawn Estes and Russ Ortiz entered the season considered to be, finally, pitchers. Livan Hernandez, Kirk Rueter and Mark Gardner made up a potentially strong staff, veterans capable of taking advantage of the new higher strike zone.

Closer Robb Nen was a one-inning guy, so Felix Rodriguez and Tim Worrell would have to do the job in set-up roles.  

Dusty Baker was the owner of a new two-year, $5.3 million contract with one managerial playoff win, a record of 1-6 in two Division Series (plus a tiebreaker loss to the Cubs).

Each club would play the other division teams 19 times. Bonds and his teammates would be facing plenty of Johnson, Schilling, Brown, Park, Dreifort, Neagle, Hampton, Pedro Astacio, and Woody Williams.

 "You don't know until you get into competition," Schulman quoted Baker. "You don't know if you've got enough or don't have enough. Who would have guessed last year we were going to win more than anybody in baseball? If you had gone to Vegas and put that down in December, you would have won a lot of money. You don't know what's going to happen. It's all a plan. It's all speculation. It's all on paper."

Somebody once approached Mays and asked him who would win the pennant that year.

"Man, how should I know?" Mays mocked in that whiny voice of his. "That's why they play the season."

The Giants' would live or die on offense with Kent and Bonds, the one-two finishers in the 2000 MVP race.

"How much more can they do?" was Baker's rhetorical question to the media. "A man can only do what a man can do. All I want them to do is what they can do, and everybody else has to do their jobs.

"And you may never make up for Ellis…Like it says in the Bible, the Lord never puts more on you than you're capable of doing. I'm not the Lord, but that's how I feel about it here.

"I can't ask Jeff to hit 52 home runs and drive in 172 runs, or ask Barry to hit 68 home runs…"

68 home runs? Now just hoooold on there, Dusty.

``I've had a good spring; Dusty managed me very well during Spring Training,'' was Bonds' assessment. ``He conserved my body a little bit and it paid off. I feel good - strong and flexible."

Bonds thought about it, then scratched his head.

*"I think I'll hit 72 or 73 homers this year," he said.

AT BOTTON OF PAGE: *Just kiddin'.

On opening day at Pac Bell Park, the Giants beat the Padres 3-2. Already they were doing better than the previous season, when they started 0-4 and had people wondering if the new park was jinxed.

It was their first game played in anger at Pac Bell since the play-offs against the New York Mets, and not a few among the crowd reminded Bonds that he hit all of .176 in that one.

            On this Opening Day, or opening, depending on your view of things day (as Jim Bouton once said), Bonds did it with his arm, his bat and his glove, just like Mays in his prime.

In the top of the fourth inning, Bonds fielded a ball hit by Wiki Gonzalez, jamming his two left fingers in the process, yet he was able to fire it in to catcher Bobby Estalella. He made the tag on Gwynn, ending the inning.

In the fifth, on the first pitch he saw, Bonds hit a 423-foot home run to the left-center-field bleachers. 40,930 paying customers knew they were getting vintage Barry.

Bonds finished up his trifecta with a seventh inning catch of Chris Gomez' fly ball to left center that both Bonds and Benard went for. Bonds lost it in the sun, but he recovered. He is one of the best outfielders in history when it comes to negotiating fly balls in the sun, the clouds, and the lights. After catching it, he crumpled to the ground.

Throwing, catching, hitting…what did he enjoy the most?

``I can't say throwing out Tony, because he's 45,'' said Bonds, giving him five extra years. ``So I guess it would have to be the home run.''

Barry's post-game comments were more than he usually gave, but this was an indication that maybe he was opening up a little more this year.

``I'll talk to you about the game and nothing else,'' he said. ``I'll talk as long as it's about baseball.''

As in baseball playing, not baseball contracts. Bonds was sensitive to his being lumped in with Thomas and Sheffield, who had hurt their clubs and themselves by not approaching Spring Training with full intensity, because they were unhappy with contract negotiations. Bonds may not have been happy with negotiations, but nobody could accuse him of a lack of baseball dedication.

``We've got an older team,'' he said. ``If you go night-day-night-day you'll lose a lot of us. We need more recovery time.''

There was one other thing Bonds was happy to talk about. His 11-year-old son Nikolai, a team bat boy, was waiting after his homer. Bonds, who was not allowed in the dugout during games as a child, gave his son a kiss on the cheek.

``That's nice,'' he said. ``I enjoy that. I didn't have that opportunity with my dad, but there are different rules now.''

Bonds still had another game this day. Nikolai had a 5:30 little league game on the Peninsula and Dad was going to be there. He would not hide in the car, either.

By April 12 the thrill of his Opening Day performance was already a memory. Bonds was approaching the longest hitless streak in his career (20 at-bats), so Baker gave him the night off.

The ever-observant Gwynn, however, said, "He's like a time bomb waiting to explode," he said. "You just hope when he does it's just solos."

When he returned the next day, he hit home run number 496 to snap his hitless streak in the Giants' 8-3 loss at San Diego.

"You start thinking about things, how lucky I am to be in the position where I am in my life through baseball," Bonds said. "I just needed to get back in the fight. I kind of got star-struck for a little while, a little nervous, trying to block things out of my mind and go back to the basic things and play the game.

"It's hard to explain the feeling that you go through. It's like you never dreamt you'd be in a position to do certain things in your life and your career. You never thought it was possible or reachable. The next thing you find out, you're knocking on the door and you're a little bit nervous. You find you're on center stage. You're out there by yourself alone."

Next came a telling remark. "Now I've probably figured out why I don't hit in the play-offs," admitted Bonds. "The spotlight. It's tough."

The Giants were 6-3 after sweeping the Padres at home to start the season and going 3-3 on their current trip with three games to go in Milwaukee.

Life is a fragile thing, and the Giants understood that after their flight to Milwaukee ended with 25 fire engines lining the runway in Chicago.

As the team plane from San Diego approached Milwaukee at around midnight, the pilots discovered that one of the flaps on the right wing would not deploy. They decided to land at O'Hare International Airport, about 80 miles south of Milwaukee, which has longer runways to accommodate speeding planes with no flaps to slow them down.

The pilots never announced the diversion until the plane landed and everyone saw all the flashing lights.

The Giants considered chartering buses and driving to Milwaukee, but mechanics fixed the flap and the plane took off again for the 16-minute flight, where they arrived about 2 a.m.

In 1971, the Oakland A's, favored to win their division under new manager Dick Williams, had started 2-4 when they ran they ran into a close call on another plane ride to Milwaukee. Everybody fueled themselves with alcohol after that, resulting in some horseplay by the players, who stole a bullhorn. Williams, who had powered a few scotches himself, let them know in no uncertain terms that he was capable of being a "prick," and unless they buckled down on and off the field, they would learn just what a prick he could be.

            The team went on a tear after that, and finished with 101 victories. Would San Francisco react in a similar manner?

            Barry Bonds motivates himself. He does not need close calls in the sky, whether he finds out about those close calls after the fact or not. At Milwaukee's brand new Miller Field, he hit three homers and two doubles over his next nine at-bats.

"Don't ask me," Baker said. "I don't know. Maybe that's called greatness."

The Brewers, however, hit five off Mark Gardner in an 11-6 victory. Bonds' three-run homer in the fifth keyed a five-run rally that brought the Giants within 7-6 before they stalled.

The Great One, however, was humbled the next evening when he dropped Jeffrey Hammonds' routine line drive with two out in the bottom of the eighth to widen the Brewers' lead to 7-3, killing any real chance the Giants could complete a comeback.

A TV network was ordered to the Giants' clubhouse to get a Barry Bonds sound bite on his approach to homer number 500.

"I don't care about that right now," Bonds said softly. "If you want to ask me that question, come tomorrow. This ain't a good day. I lost this game for us, and this ain't the right time."

Bonds did not cause the Giants' 7-4 defeat, but he carries his team and feels the responsibility.

"I straight fucked it up," he said. "That's the best way I can put it. I just,

wow. That's all I can say. I saw it. I just took my eye off it at the last minute. I took it for granted that I had it and made a beeline to the dugout."

"You rarely see it, maybe once on a blooper tape nine years ago when he was with the Pirates," said Hammonds of the rare Bonds mishap. "That's gold out there."

"It shows he's human," said Baker. Human, huh. Who knew?

Bonds had earlier lined number 499 over the left-field wall off David Weathers.

The Giants returned to San Francisco for their longest homestand of the season, 12 games, starting with the first of three against Los Angeles, and with Bonds one homer away from 500.

"Now, he'll get number 500 at home," Milwaukee manager Davey Lopes said. "That's the way it should be, and better yet they're playing the Dodgers, so the stage is set."

"Imagine how many home runs Barry Bonds might have if he had signed with the Giants in 1982 instead of going to Arizona State for three years," wrote Schulman in the Chronicle.

"We drafted him," muttered Frank Robinson, the Giants' manager at the time. "Didn't get him signed. Missed by $5,000."

14 of the 16 hitters who have hit 500 homers are in the Hall of Fame, and the other two (McGwire and Eddie Murray) almost surely will be. It is one of the most exclusive clubs in the world - Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Jackson, McGwire, Schmidt, Mantle, Foxx, McCovey, Williams, Ernie Banks, Eddie Mathews, Mel Ott and Murray.

"I think Todd Helton put it well last year when he was going for .400," Bonds told the media. "He said, 'I'd rather just do it than talk about it.' I'd rather talk about it after it's done. That would make it a lot easier for me, and I don't have to think about it that often. Sometimes, when things seem like they're forgotten, they're better. They happen a little easier."

Bonds acknowledged that his 0-for-21 slump came about because was trying so hard to get to 500.

"You've got your family going, 'We want to be with you when you do it,' and I'm saying, Wait until I get to 499," Bonds explained to the media. "Everybody can travel with me. I'll pay for it.

"I want my parents there. I want my wife there. I want my kids there."

The Hall of Fame contacted Boras to see about getting the bat he would use to hit his five hundredth, as well as the ball, his shoes and the like. Both Willies - Mays and McCovey - were on hand.

"It took awhile," said McCovey of his five hundredth on June 30, 1978. "There was a lot of pressure because a lot of the media was following me around waiting for me to hit it. I just wanted to get it over with."

500 homers, like 3,000 hits and 300 victories, is a magic number that is supposed to assure somebody of entrance to Cooperstown. However, there have been debates. Jose Canseco needed just 54 homers for 500 in April, 2001.  He has been a DH since 1994, and not a particularly complete player prior to that. Dave Kingman approached 500, but nobody thought the surly ex-Giant was Hall material.

Don Sutton had made it to 300 wins as a pitcher, mostly by compiling 15- and 16-win seasons over many years. Despite grumbling, he was enshrined. Tommy John had come close to 300 but just missed it, yet he was not generally considered a Hall of Famer. Neither was Jim Kaat.

Bill Buckner had approached 3,000 hits, but he was also a World Series goat, and not generally looked upon as an all-time great. Was longevity enough?

500 home runs, 3,000 hits, 300 victories - these are a lot of homers, hits and wins no matter how you slice it, all earned at the big league level. It is difficult to deny somebody their due if they attain these kinds of figures. 

Taking the argument one step further, should McGwire's 555 homers be mentioned in the same breath as McCovey's 521, for instance, given that Big Mac hit 300 of them in what is considered the modern juiced-ball era?

            Barry Bonds was already a first-ballot Hall of Famer. 500 home runs was not something he needed to get in. By 2001, Bonds was something new and different. He was born with remarkable genetic gifts, and those gifts had carried him a long way. But now he was much more. His training regimen, his diet, his knowledge of the game, his sheer experience had elevated him far above even his own prior accomplishments.

            Baseball is a game of repetition. If one does it enough, practicing every day, playing against the best; learning, observing and improving; they can become great players that way. Prognostications of their ability when they are young go out the window.

            This is what had happened to Kent. He was a solid high school player growing up in Huntington Beach, near Los Angeles. He was a top college player, helping the University of California to the 1988 College World Series. He had moved through the minor leagues and become a major leaguer. He was solid, but not a star.

            A smart, observant, driven man, Kent worked the game. He improved over time. His experience became as important in his approach as his natural ability, and by 2000 he had earned an MVP award.

            Jeff Kent is a nice player who knows the game inside and out. Bonds is a great, great star who had not wasted an ounce of his ability, which many before him had.

Jerome Holtzman, the longtime Chicago newspaper columnist, felt that perhaps Bonds was the last classic baseball player, which reeks of the "in my day" rhetoric that old-timers have passed down since Ruth played.

"I think Bonds can classify that his 500 home runs have been more difficult to come by than McGwire's and Sosa's," Holtzman told Schulman. "Maybe he's the last one through the door." Sosa is projected to get there eventually.

"The best setting would be tonight, game winning home run in the ninth," Baker said before the first game of the homestand. "We'd all be extremely happy." Nobody had to wait long.

On April 16, his five 500th homer came in the bottom of the eighth inning against Los Angeles reliever Terry Adams. With cameras flashing, Bonds' shot sailed over the right-field wall and into McCovey Cove. Almost as importantly, the home run gave the Giants a 3-2 win over the Dodgers.

"Deep to right field," Jon Miller called out from the broadcast booth. "This is on its way to McCovey Cove, number 500."

"Unbelievable," said his partner, Mike Krukow.

There was hardly any spontaneous joy, however. There was no reaction in the dugout. A batgirl met him, followed by Aurilia.

"I think there's some who had no urge to shake his hand," said Mark Gonzales of the Arizona Republic on "Sports Century."

His teammates "were all happy for me," Bonds insisted.

He hugged Aurilia, who scored ahead of him, then his parents and his brother. Then he greeted the two Willies.

"When I touched him, he was still shaking," Mays said. "That shows me he realizes what history is all about."

After Aurilia's leadoff triple, he turned on a 2-0 pitch and drove it 417 feet out of the stadium, over the portwalk and into San Francisco Bay, where sailor Joe Figone scooped it out.

"He threw me a slider in," Bonds said. "I couldn't believe I hit it because everything was in slow motion. I was looking up and the ball was in midair and it wasn't going anywhere. Then, when it got to the people, I said, 'Wow.' "

41,059 fans, the largest crowd ever at Pacific Bell Park (the Giants added 129 new seats into the club and field levels) gave him a standing ovation.

"I was getting kind of stressed because everyone around me was making me a little nervous, and I really was," he said. "I knew my wife wouldn't be nervous anymore, and my dad would be grateful and not in my ear saying, 'Relax, relax, relax.' "

It was his fifth homer in five games, a first for him, and his third at-bat since his 499th in Milwaukee. In those three at-bats against Darren Dreifort, he struck out, hit a fly ball to the warning track, and grounded out.

The high fly in the third, caught by Sheffield, almost got out.

 "I think so, yeah," Bonds replied when asked whether he was happy the big one went into the Cove. "That was kind of nice. I'm glad the one in left field didn't go out."

The San Francisco Examiner gave it front section headlines: "OUTTA HERE" in big boldface, along with my article, "On this night, time to give Barry his due."

I wrote that Bonds, the "son of Bobby, the Godson of the `Say Hey Kid,' and  according to a few, a son of maybe something else" was "above all, a son of San Francisco" who had now entered the pantheon of Bay Area greatness previously reserved for Mays, Joe Montana, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Walsh. My piece also stated that Bonds' experience could be compared to Ted Williams returning to Boston after Korea, or Mickey Mantle "capturing New York's imagination" when he chased Ruth's home run record with Maris in 1961.     

"Barry was sort of like Mays, when he came to San Francisco," McCovey said. "He was not universally accepted. But it turned around. Barry was the same way. I hope this home run tonight erases all that and he's accepted in San Francisco the way he should be."

"First of all, I could care less about Barry Bonds' achievements," said Adams. "All I worry about is winning and losing a game. That's all I care about."

Nen saved it after his warm-ups were interrupted by the ceremony, striking out the dangerous Sheffield to end it.

             Bonds, despite his lifelong affiliation with the Giants and The City, bears none of the usual San Francisco angst when it comes to the Dodgers.

 "No," he said. "I have a lot of respect for that ballclub. I have a lot of friends there, Gary Sheffield, Marquis Grissom. We're all going for the same goal, winning a World Series."

This one was just the latest among key milestone home runs in his career, which included:

1st: June 6, 1986 off Atlanta's Craig McMurtry.

100th: July 12, 1990 off San Diego's Andy Benes.

200th: July 8, 1993 off Philadelphia's Jose DeLeon.

300th: April 30, 1996 off Florida's John Burkett.

400th: Aug. 23, 1998 off Florida's Kirt Ojala.

 

Bonds had now entered a new era. He found himself compared to Mays, not just as a player, but as a San Francisco icon. Mays had encountered resistance from the fans when he came with the team from New York in 1958. Orlando Cepeda and later McCovey, for some odd reason, seemed to be more popular with the fans. Cepeda and McCovey were both single, and were seen out and about in the City's nightclubs. Cepeda, in particular, liked to cha-cha-cha the night away at Latin dance clubs.

In the mid-1990s, a Wendy Finerman-produced film starring Robert DeNiro and Wesley Snipes, called "The Fan," was produced. It was based, not too loosely, on Bonds, but morphed the Snipes character with Mays. The "Cepeda character" was played, brilliantly, by the great actor Benicio del Toro.

Mays was New York's guy, and as great as he was, his occasional pop-ups with men on base seemed to reinforce the fan's ultra-high expectations of him. Through his sheer greatness, Mays had won the fans over, probably by 1962, when he led the team into a thrilling seven-game World Series against the Yankees, who won the last game, 1-0.

Now, Bonds was there, with Mays, Willie Mac, Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, and the other legends of San Francisco.

Nowadays, The City's public high schools no longer put out great athletes, but there was a time when San Francisco and the Bay Area was a gold mine of sports talent, the way Southern California, Florida and Texas are today. San Franciscans, always a fickle and hard to please bunch, had reserved some of their greatest idolatry not always for the greats who played on the local teams, but for those who came from the area and played in other parts of the country.

Joe DiMaggio was first among these legends, having attended Galileo High (where his grades were so bad he did not play baseball), then starring for the local San Francisco Seals. The Seals had played at Seals Stadium, located at 14th and Valencia, not far from where Pac Bell Park is today. Prior to owner Charlie Graham building Seals Stadium, considered one of the greatest minor league parks ever, the Seals and Mission Reds played at Old Recreation Park. There is no sign of either stadium now.

This part of San Francisco has changed over the years. South of Market Street, known as SoMa, has seen many transformations. "Alternative" night clubs sprang up in low-rent bungalows and warehouses, but it has proven to be a place of pitfalls for partgygoers. A straight man would go there on a Friday night, meeting hot chicks and having a great time. The following weekend he would return on a Saturday, only to find out that Saturdays are "Gay Night." Hey, that is San Francisco.

In the '90s, SoMa became Yuppieville, when the Internet Revolution turned computer-literate 20-somethings into IPO paper millionaires. As it says in the Bible, this too shall pass, and it has. 

On Brannan Street, a convention hall became notorious for teenage rave parties and the even-more notorious Halloween "Exotic, Erotic Ball," a pseudo-gay-hooker flesh carnage.

Before the days of pseudo-gay-hooker flesh carnages, there was baseball, and in 1935 DiMag had hammered out base hits in 63 consecutive games for the Seals. From 1936-51, he was a legend of the first order for the New York Yankees.

Then there was Bill Russell, who prepped at Oakland's McClymond's High before leading the University of San Francisco to two NCAA basketball championships and a record 60 straight victories. He would be the leader of the great Celtic dynasty of the 1960s.

O.J. Simpson had gone to Galileo, a school that boasted one of the greatest athletes ever in three different sports; DiMaggio in baseball, Simpson in football, and Hank Luissetti, who "invented" the jump shot, in basketball.

Simpson had starred in Buffalo before ending his career, and later his popularity, when he was accused of murdering his wife and a Los Angeles waiter in 1994.

So, entrance into the special club San Franciscan's reserved for their heroes was no easy task, yet Barry was now a bona fide member. It should be argued that he deserves membership in this club even more than the others, in that he is not just a superstar there, but is from there, too.

At a post-game press conference after home run number 500, Mays and McCovey demonstrated as much humility as Don King. When asked whether Bonds' entrance into a new pantheon of San Francisco greats reminded him of his own struggle from out of  DiMaggio's shadow, Mays had this to say:

"You can't compare Joe to me. None of his statistics hold up to mine. I had 660 homers, he had 363."

Somehow, Willie did not think much of the fact that DiMaggio had personally cajoled and willed his team to four straight World Championships from 1936-39, and three more from 1949-51. Plus, a few more in between. Comparably, he had led San Francisco to second place finishes every season from 1965-69!

McCovey was asked about his winning the Most Valuable Player award in 1969, when two writers refused to place Mets' pitcher Tom Seaver on their ballots. Seaver, who carried the Miracle Mets on his back and deserved the award, would have won if two writers had placed him fifth or sixth. He only lost by a few points. The system awards 10 points for a first place vote, one point for a tenth place vote. Both writers had decided pitchers should not win the MVP, since they already had the Cy Young award.

"He had no bidness winnin' MVP over me," McCovey said. "In fact, I shoulda won it the year before over Bob Gibson."

Of course, that year, 1968, Gibson only pitched 48 straight scoreless innings, tossed 13 shutouts, and posted an insane 1.12 earned run average to lead St. Louis to the National League pennant - over McCovey's Giants.

Old-timers.

After the game, the Giants wrapped Mays and McCovey in mothballs, not to trot them out until Bonds' next big moment required their presence. On April 19, Schulman wrote, "We hate to break this to you, Barry old chum, but the pressure is back on.

Thought you could exhale after hitting your 500th homer Tuesday night, did you? You can't, you know."

Next on the agenda? Dale Long, Don Mattingly and Ken Griffey, Jr., who shared the Major League record for homering in consecutive games, with eight.  Bonds needed just two.

"What record are you talking about?" Bonds asked when told about the consecutive homer record. "I didn't know anything about it. I don't care about that. I don't need another thing to think about in my life right now."

Apparently, President Bush had put him in charge of a new task force to find solutions to that spring's energy crisis, so thinking about mundane things like baseball records was just too much for the man.

24 hours after beating the Dodgers with his 500th homer, he did it again by going deep with two out in the seventh inning off Chan Ho Park. Bonds followed Aurilia's game-tying, two-run shot with another water blast. It was the difference in the Giants' 5-4 victory. They were now 5-0 at home. 

The "Bonds stories" were now starting to appear.

Dave Stevens, who retired after 27 years of coaching at Serra and was now spending much of his time in Chandler, Arizona, said he knew Bonds was exceptional.

 "I never thought 500 homers, but I knew he could play because he could do so many things well," Stevens said. "His best qualities were speed, quickness and patience at the plate. He seldom swung at bad pitches."

         The story about the Giants' flirtation with the teenage Bonds was replayed. General manager Tom Haller and Bobby Bonds could not reach agreement, so Barry headed to Tempe.

             "It wasn't a big disappointment," Stevens said. "I told Barry that if he didn't feel ready yet, and didn't factor money into it, that ASU would be a good place with good coaching. Jim Brock was considered one of the best in the country, and Arizona State had won the National Championship the year before."

 "I was criticized for leading off with Barry," recalled Leyland. "I thought it was important for him to learn to get on base and use his speed. I didn't want to put that much pressure on a young kid.

"We all knew that someday Barry would be a big RBI guy. Early on, it was important for Barry to get some confidence. As for 500 home runs, who could have known?

"He'd be hitting .333 and decide to hit some homers, so his average would drop. He finally put it all together and became one of the greatest hitters of all time. If he stays healthy, 600 homers is a slam-dunk."

"Jim Leyland is number one," Bonds said when asked who his greatest coaching influences had been. "He brought me up like a father. He had a flair for saying something and making you listen. He'd say that you didn't have to like each other, but on the field you had to come together and become a team.

"We took care of each other like a family on the Pirates. We felt safe as a team. Leyland could tell when you were out of focus. He saw you drifting, like, `Get out of the playground and back to class.'"

Bonds then allowed himself to make the comparison with other all-time greats.

 "I'm like Hank Aaron because I hit home runs and never hit 50," he said. "And I'm like my Godfather because I can hit homers and steal bases. I'm a Willie-Hank kind of player."

Willie Mays. Hank Aaron. Now that's pretty fair company, and nobody could argue the point.

At 36 years, 268 days, Bonds was the 11th youngest to join the 500 club. He did it in his 7,502nd at-bat and his home run to at-bat ratio of 15.004 was the fifth best of players with 500 homers. Bonds was the fourth player to spend the majority of his career with the Giants to reach the 500-homer mark. Willie Mays (660), Willie McCovey (521) and Mel Ott (511) also had done it.

Bonds had also begun what would be a season-long courtship, of sorts, with the fans.

"I love you and I'm proud to be in a San Francisco Giants uniform," he had told the crowd during his ceremony.

"One of the best players who ever pulled on a uniform," said Bonds' good buddy, Garry Sheffield.

"As far as being able to do it all, I don't think anybody comes close," Eric Davis told the Chronicle. "When you talk about hitting 500 homers, winning eight or nine Gold Gloves and possibly being able to steal 500 bases, those are things that put him in a class by himself. He's set a standard, raised the bar with his greatness."

"I'd like to see him get it out of the way real quick and go toward 600," Baker had said before the historic shot.

Bonds' bat was headed for the Hall of Fame

"Cooperstown will be at our house," said Bobby Bonds. "That bat's coming home."

Chronicle columnist John Shea interrupted the post-homer lovefest when he suggested that Bonds might not go into the Hall himself with a Giants hat on his head.

"…the only question is which team Bonds will represent once he's enshrined, and that's no slam dunk," wrote Shea. "Dave Winfield, who'll be inducted in August, shunned the New York Yankees last week when announcing he's going to Cooperstown as a San Diego Padre.

"So, Barry, which team's cap will you wear on your Hall of Fame plaque? The question was posed before the game.

"`The last team I play for,' he said."

Shea went on to point out that Nolan Ryan played eight years with California, nine years in Houston, and his last five in Texas. He went to Cooperstown as a Ranger. Bonds was in his ninth year in San Francisco after seven in Pittsburgh.

"Is Barry going to retire a Giant? Your guess is as good as mine," Shea quoted Bobby Bonds, employed as a Giants' advisor. "Barry would like to finish his career here, but I don't think anybody knows. If you look at the history of the Giants, you'd have to say it doesn't look good."

Bonds' point was that of the Giants' last five Hall of Famers, only one ended his career in San Francisco, and that was McCovey. He was traded late in his career only to return to the organization four years later.

Mays went out with the Mets. Juan Marichal retired a Dodger. Gaylord Perry played for seven teams and won Cy Young Awards in each league, and Orlando Cepeda won an MVP in St. Louis after leaving town.

"And guess what?" wrote Shea. "All five appear in Cooperstown wearing an SF logo."

Now Bonds' place in the game was becoming a topic of discussion. Not just his place as a player, but his popularity. Fan polls in recent years had rarely shown Bonds considered the best player in the game. More popular names like Griffey, Rodriguez or Derek Jeter occupied that place. Bonds? Too many felt he was the "poster child" for what was wrong with the modern player.

This was a man who was 25 stolen bases shy of becoming the first player with 500 homers and 500 steals. No one else even has 400 home runs and 400 steals. He had three MVP awards and should have had five. Nobody else has more than three.

The Pirates have not had a winning season since he left Pittsburgh. He has eight Gold Gloves. Respected? Arizona manager Buck Showalter once intentionally walked him with the bases loaded.

Unbelievably, Bonds did not make the All-Century team, receiving less than a third of the votes Griffey received, even though Griffey trailed Bonds in every offensive category (except batting average, where he had a slight edge). Junior continues to fall further and further behind. Griffey is a great, great player, and he plays center field, the most important outfield slot, so the All-Century vote can be understood, but Bonds is the better player.

Baseball officials could have added him to the team, but they chose not to.

Pittsburgh is no media capitol, and in San Francisco, his performances often did not make the East Coast newspapers or the early SportsCenter.

Bonds has that .196 batting average in the play-offs. He has never reached the Series. Neither has Gwynn or Griffey. Carl Yastrzemski went twice and his teams lost both of them. Mays hit .239 in the World Series with no home runs and six RBI. Ted Williams hit .200 in his only Fall Classic. Honus Wagner outplayed Ty Cobb when they met in the 1909 Series, and that was the Tigers' third straight Series defeat. The Georgia Peach never went back.

Instead of single, incredible moments that fans could hold on to - Mays and The Catch, Williams last at-bat, DiMaggio pushing his team to victory despite painful bone spurs in a four-game sweep at Fenway Park in 1949 - many fans still remembered him for asking for a reduction in his child support payments during the strike, and the  Sports Illustrated cover statement, "I'm Barry Bonds and You're Not."

Things have a funny way of turning around, though. Bonds was beginning an ascent in terms of both his reputation on and off the field. A recent book on DiMaggio, on the other hand, had revealed what many already knew, that the Yankee Clipper had been an aloof jerk, long protected by sportswriters who paid for access to him by attributing his behavior to his "class" and "desire for privacy."

Bonds can be a jerk, but there is something else there. Ted Williams could be a jerk, too. Still, there is a sense that Bonds and Williams could be a jerk, but that they are not actually jerks. On the other hand, one finds it difficult to ignore the evidence that DiMaggio was a jerk, all the time. Bonds, like Williams, Cobb, and John McEnroe, is a complex person. He is hard to figure out. There is too much evidence of his religious values, his love for his family, for his friends, for kids, for a better society, to dismiss him with the "jerk" label.

People were starting to say that he was the best left-handed home-run hitter in National League history, and the retrospectives were starting.

"My mother could have managed Barry Bonds, that's how good he is," said Jim Leyland.

             Richard Obert of The Arizona Republic wrote this on April 17:

"It was starting to rain before the 1985 Arizona State alumni game at Packard Stadium, and a fearless kid named Barry Bonds was showing off to the big leaguers.

"Bonds, starting his junior season at ASU, stepped into a batting cage, and, with the pitching machine cranked at 80-something, he moved closer and closer. Finally, Bonds was about 30 feet from the machine. Pitch. Whack. Pitch. Whack.

"Jaws dropped at the lightning in Bonds' aluminum bat.

"`He'd just turn on it,' said Louie Medina, then-ASU first baseman who is now a scout with the Kansas City Royals. `None of the big leaguers would try it. He was a special talent.

"`He's slowed down, but he's not a slug by any means,' Medina said…

"He was three years old, running all over the Phoenix Municipal Stadium concourse, when Bobby Bonds was tearing up the Pacific Coast League for the Phoenix Giants…

"`Barry was never quiet,' Medina said. `Barry was Barry. He wasn't the best-liked guy on the team. He wasn't the worst liked. He took care of himself. I got along with him great. He was criticized as not the hardest worker. But when he got between the lines, he always performed.'"

Diamondbacks' second baseman Jay Bell played with Bonds on the front end of his career in Pittsburgh, when he was more of a singles and doubles hitter.

"His drive has always been there," Bell told Obert. "I think he's driven by the Hall of Fame and strives to show he can equate some of the numbers produced by his childhood heroes."

 

An odd topic also began to make the rounds during the early part of the season. There was supposed to be a gay player who was dating a prominent gay journalist, who wanted to “out” him. Jim Rome explored the issue, asking the question, "What if a gay player came out?"

At first, he would be the "Jackie Robinson of gays," but things are more accepting and less shocking than in the past. Over time, if he could hit or pitch he would do okay. The player's identity has yet to be revealed, but he would not be the first gay athlete by any stretch, just the first openly gay, active male athlete in a team sport. Billy Beane (not the A's GM, who must be thrilled to share this name) was a gay baseball player with the Padres. Dave Kopay was a gay player in the NFL. Glenn Burke of Berkeley was gay when he broke in with the Dodgers, a family-conscious team that constantly asked him when he was going to get married. Burke ended up with the A's, where he would make regular trips to San Francisco's gay bars, always frightened about getting recognized. Eventually, he passed away from AIDS. Ex-Cowboy Dave Meggysey, who wrote "North Dallas Forty," hinted around in the novel that he was bi (although the darker elements of the story, and bi-sexuality, were not part of the film's depiction, featuring a semi-macho Nick Nolte).

It is now obvious that a large number of women athletes are gay, to the consternation of not-a-few outspoken parents. Billie Jean King broke that ground years ago.

Considering the incredibly crude, misogynistic, screw-anything-in-a-skirt ways of many male athletes, it seems odd that they should be judgmental about sexuality, but they are. Bonds' teammate, Eric Davis, said he would want to know if a teammate was gay so he could steer clear of him. Bonds, the kid who went to Catholic school, steered clear of the issue himself.

The fact is, there is not much that supercedes ability on the field. It is about winning, and talented players put money in their teammate's pockets. That is the real bottom line. Players' sexuality, criminal behavior, poilitical affilitations - unless these matters become all-encompassing, on-the-field performance is what counts. 

It has been said that Stalin could have had a job in baseball if he could hit with consistent power. It was, in fact, mainly wildness on the mound that kept Fidel Castro from becoming a pitcher with the Washington Senators (of all teams) instead of a despot. As a radical lawyer and budding revolutionanista, he once inserted himself into a Winter League game, and almost knocked the head off of the Pirates' Don Hoak with a bean ball pitch. If the Senators had come through, and if Castro had learned control, in more ways than one, then who knows what could have happened? Maybe, established in the U.S., he would have gotten involved in politics and gotten elected to Congress as a left-wing Democrat.

The point is, baseball is a game that has seen all kinds.

 

In a 5-4 win over St. Louis, Bonds was not wearing any protective gear on his right wrist, which was injured when he robbed Albert Pujols of a home run. He had injured it when his wrist hit the top edge as he was coming down, causing him to miss one game and delaying a face-off with McGwire.

While Bonds was getting hot, a soap opera of sorts was taking place over his number 500 home run ball.

On May 1, 2000, Bonds had hit the first baseball ever hit out of a Major League stadium and into a body of water. Joseph Figone, 39, recreation supervisor for the City and County of San Francisco, was waiting in an inflatable raft and scooped up the ball in a fishing net.Figone offered the ball to the club, but Magowan told him to keep it.

"The ball should have been put on display at Pac Bell," Figone told Bob Padecky of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. "Peter said because I was so generous in my offer I would be allowed to throw out a first pitch before a game."

Figone is a San Francisco native and a lifelong Giants fan who said he had seen around 500 games. Consumer marketing director Tom McDonald left a message on his home answering machine saying it would not be appropriate for him to throw out a first pitch since he "wasn't a sponsor," said Figone.

"I've seen a lot of people throw out first pitches and they weren't sponsors," Figone said. "I was lied to. That was an insult."

"We never expected any ill feelings from Mr. Figone," a club official told Padecky. "We never had any intent to mistreat him. We're sorry he misinterpreted events."

This all seemed to fall into the "no good deed goes unpunished" category.

 "I know they give tours of the stadium," he said. "I wasn't offered one. Why couldn't I have taken a few photos with Barry?"

A few days later, KNBR radio sportscaster Gary Radnich asked what the Giants had done for him. Very little, according to Figone.

"Three hours later the Giants called and said I had two free tickets to that Friday's <May 5> game," Figone said. "But when I went to my seat, I wasn't sitting in the owner's box. I was sitting a half-dozen rows back of them. And during the game, without my knowledge the Giants put my picture up on the Jumbotron. I had no clue they were going to do that to me. I knew because of what happened my privacy was going to be invaded."

So, who retrieved Bonds' 500th homer on April 17? You guessed it.

"I put myself at great risk," Figone said, in what is really not an understatement considering that the Cove, on these occasions, looks like a miniature version of the Normandy Invasion."I could have been killed out there."

When Figone met Bonds after the game, he showed him the ball but did not give it to him.

 "But Barry's jaw dropped when I took it back from him," Figone said. "He was ready to walk away with it. I just caught the ball and now it's time for me to turn it over? I should let them walk all over me and give them the ball? I wasn't prepared to do that."

It was an awkward situation.

 "I really felt I was put on the spot," said Figone, once a Candlestick Park grounds keeper who had often chatted with players, including Bonds, during that time. "It made me a little uncomfortable. I would never put family or friends on the spot."

"The moment was awkward but there never was any pressure placed on Mr. Figone at all to give the ball up," a Giants' official told the press. "It was never our thought to disrespect him."

"Both home run balls are equally significant," Figone said. "So why would they let me keep one and return the other? Both should be on display at the park. I just don't think this is the way you treat people."

Figone put the ball in a safety deposit box. John Acheson, a collector who owns Card Pro in Sonoma, valued the ball at $500,000, but he believed that by the time Bonds retires it could be worth $1 million.

"Barry could come over to the house for dinner," Figone said. "Barry could call me. That would be nice. If the 500 ball is really important to him, then you would think he would have called by now. But he hasn't. So I guess it can't be that important.

"Barry needs to talk to me. We are both on the same level. We are no different. Barry went to Serra. I went to Sacred Heart.

"I guess you could say I feel a certain amount of betrayal. Why does one fan get $3.1 million for Mark McGwire's 70th homer and another fan is offered two free tickets for another home run ball? Is that fair? MLB needs to address this issue.

"Fans have been polled on what they would do with either ball. The majority said they would sell it. I have never tried to sell it."

The next step? Lawyers, of course.

"Don't you think they will bring a lawyer?" Figone asked. "I'll bring one because they know how to talk to each other. Had I not been so generous in the beginning none of this would have happened."

            One argument beginning to make the rounds was whether the Giants were a big market or a small market team. The Bay Area supports two teams, which has proven to hurt both the A's and Giants over the years.

Now, after its initial season in Pacific Bell Park with revenue of $165 million - exceeded only by the New York Yankees and Mets, Brian Sabean said, "From year to year, we're at a fixed level with no dramatic increase on the horizon. A lot of that has to do with owning and operating our own park, from the year-to-year debt service [of about $20 million] that has to be paid up front to the ticket takers and ushers and cleanup crew. You just have a lot more going out than you ordinarily would, and that's without adding in a $62.5-million payroll."

The Giants were said to require a profit of at least $1 million a year, which they achieve with a payroll in that $62-million range.

The Giants had traded third baseman Bill Mueller, who was arbitration eligible, and let Ellis Burks, who hit .344, drove in 96 runs and was a clubhouse force, offsetting the distant relationship between Bonds and Kent, join Cleveland as a free agent. The thin line between failure and success on a team like this required new blood and unexpected strong performances from certain "journeyman" players, like Aurilia. The stars, Bonds and Kent in particular, had to be at their best.

"As important as it is to bring along a younger player or two each year, it's more and more difficult to just go with kids and try to rebuild long term in this division," Sabean said.

            The question of whether the team would be better off without Bonds was a double-edged sword. There was the argument that said the team had never gone to the Series with him, so why bankrupt the team to keep him? On the other hand, San Francisco is a town of frontrunners in an area with a million things to do. The thrill of the new park would fade, as it had in Toronto. A marquee name like Bonds would be required to fill regular season seats even if he failed to produce post-season wins. The team could contend without him, but would lose too many spectators in the early part of the season, before people got serious about them.

"It's just too difficult to go with kids and fill the ballpark and pay

the bills," said Sabean. "I don't know who would understand us being in a rebuilding phase in any year. I mean, people talk about the veteran players we've taken on, but there isn't one starter we're asking to play more than they have for most of their careers."

In early May, the Giants traveled to the new PNC Park in Pittsburgh. Baker, a man who thinks about such things, told the media how happy he was to see a new park there, emblematic of an economic re-birth in Steeltown. After describing the new, shiny buildings and storefronts he saw during his last visit to downtown Pittsburgh, this writer said to him, "Maybe it was a Potemkin Village."

Baseball people - writers, players and managers alike - are a cliquey group. Most who were crowded around Baker did not know what a Potemkin Village is, and what they do not know or understand, they show contempt for.

In an odd twist of reality, most baseball managers would have looked at me like an idiot for speaking about something they were ignorant of. Instead, Baker genuinely wanted to know what a Potemkin Village was.

He listened patiently while I explained that the Queen of Russia had been told that her country's economy was good, its people happy and prosperous. In fact, they were starving. The Queen's advisor, a man named Potemkin, derived his political power base from the Queen believing the rosy scenario. In order to con her into believing his lies, he created fake storefronts and homes depicting happy, dancing Russian citizens when the Queen toured by boat along the Volga River.

"Talulah Bankhead played her in the movie," remarked the San Jose Mercury's Ron Bergman, an erudite type who enjoys the theatre and other pursuits of intellect.

Bob Smizek of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette waxed melancholia over the return of Bonds to the city he had once brought success to.

"Beautiful PNC Park, the pride of Pittsburgh, is graced on the outside by three statues of the players who are widely acknowledged as the greatest Pirates," he wrote. "As is well known, all three of the men immortalized - Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell - are deceased.

"So how could it be that last night, on a glorious spring evening, the greatest player to wear a Pirates uniform was playing left field on that sweet PNC Park grass?

"Although Wagner, Clemente and Stargell had the greatest Pirates careers and are the most revered players in franchise history, that doesn't mean they're the best to wear the team's uniform.

"The man in left field last night is not a Pirate, although he played for the team for six <correction: seven years> years. When he goes into the Hall of Fame, it won't be as a Pirate. He wouldn't want it; the fans of Pittsburgh wouldn't want it.

"But that doesn't mean Barry Bonds isn't the greatest player to wear a Pirates uniform."

Smizek went on to write that Bonds was better than the Waners, Ralph Kiner, Bill Mazeroski, or Pie Traynor, too.

Smizek said that Pittsburgh fans "detested" Bonds, but acknowledged that he was reaching for an excellence that went beyond the petty boos and catcalls that are part of the game. Bonds' sheer greatness was literally beginning to overshadow his personality.

Bonds had batted .191 with one home run and three RBIs in 20 games as the Pirates lost three consecutive league championship series from 1990-1992.

"But to judge Bonds on 20 postseason games," wrote Smizek, "as opposed to the 860 regular-season games he played for the Pirates is, to say the least, unfair. He won two Most Valuable Player awards while with the Pirates, which is twice as many as any other Pirates player and was a major reason the team advanced to those three postseasons…

"The notion held by many that Bonds is not as good as Clemente is barely worth arguing. By virtually every comparison, Bonds is a better player.

"Although Bonds, who hit six balls into the Allegheny River during batting practice before the Giants' 11-6 win, has more than 1,900 fewer at bats than Clemente, he has 265 more home runs and 122 more runs batted in. Although Clemente won four batting titles and Bonds has not won any, Bonds' on-base percentage - a far more significant figure than batting average - is 52 points higher than Clemente's.

"Bonds has scored 183 more runs, stole 390 more bases and has a slugging percentage that is 94 points higher than Clemente's.

"It's a rare feat for a player to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season. Bonds averaged a 30-30 for the 1990s. Clemente never hit 30 home runs, never stole 30 bases…

"A more convincing argument could be made that Wagner, who won eight batting titles, is the greatest player to wear a Pirates uniform. With almost 3,000 more at bats than Bonds, Wagner has 305 more RBIs. Although Bonds will likely catch him, that's an impressive number."

Roberto Clemente? Honus Wagner? These are legends who left indelible marks on the game. All-time greats. The best of the best. Now, a writer in a provincial town was saying this guy was better than they had been.

Of course, everyday life has a way of intruding on even the gods of the game.

"BARRY -- NICE THROW -- SID BREAM," said a banner trailing a plane over PNC Park during the first game of the series. It was a reference to Bonds' throw, just slightly off, which had allowed Bream to score and give Atlanta the win over Pittsburgh in game seven of the 1992 Championship Series. 

"That's a waste of money," Bonds wryly commented about the plane episode.

The Giants battled from 4-1 down with a two-run home run by Bonds en route to a victory.

When twilight arrived, the lights did not go on. The game was stopped when only two of the seven light banks were on, both behind the left-field bleachers. Several players were jammed because they did not see the ball very well before the situation was rectified.

On May 6, Willie Mays turned 70, and a celebration was held for him at Bally's in Atlantic City, where Mays is employed in an ambassadorial role.

Mays' 70th birthday occasioned the question of whether he is the greatest living ballplayer, a title that Joe DiMaggio supposedly demanded at public appearances.

"Greatest living ballplayer?" Peter Magowan said to Henry Schulman. "Yeah, I do think he is. I thought it when Joe DiMaggio was alive. DiMaggio was a little ahead of my time, but of the players I saw - Willie, Stan Musial, Ernie Banks - Willie was the best, and if you talked to most of the guys who played with him they'd say the same thing, at least in the National League."

Would his Godson take that title away? Every day in 2001, he was getting closer.