Bobby Bonds was supping at the Pink Pony restaurant in Scottsdale, Ariz. with his good friend and ex-teammate, Hal Lanier, and his former employer with the San Francisco Giants, Chub Feeney, now the president of the National League. This was one of those lazy, warms days of spring, and Bonds, who had experienced a trying if ultimately successful 1973 season, was at his ease, seemingly free of past cares. He stretched his long legs and cheerfully joined a discussion of his early days in the Giant farm system.
"I thought I'd never make it up to the big club," he said, nodding at Feeney, who was the team's vice-president in those days. Bonds speaks softly, easily, his casual manner disguising a personality that is far from serene. "The Giants had so many outfielders. It seemed like every time I thought I was ready somebody like Chub here would tell me I wasn't. The worst of it was, they were right and I was wrong. I wasn't ready then."
"The trouble with you, Bobby," said Lanier, "is that not even you know how good you really are." Lanier, a capable infielder but a chronically weak hitter, was released by the Yankees after last season. The son of the former National League pitcher and minor league manager, Max Lanier, he had been futilely applying for jobs at the various Arizona spring training camps for more than two weeks. At 31 he was confronted with the chilling prospect of becoming a has-been before his time. Players of Bonds' raw natural ability are a continuing source of wonder to him.
"I remember when my father had Bobby down in Lexington, North Carolina," said Lanier. "I was with the Giants then, but I would talk to Dad all the time on the phone. So one day we're talking and he tells me he's got somebody down there I wouldn't believe. 'The guy can hit, huh?' I ask him.
April 7, 1974
'A ton,' he says.
'Can he run?'
'He doesn't run, he flies.'
'Has he got an arm?'
'Like a cannon.'
'Has he got power?'
'He can hit the ball a mile.'
"I sort of suspected then that we'd have to make room somewhere for Bobby Bonds."
"Yes," said Feeney, smiling, "but he still takes those right turns at first base. That's how he sets records getting back to the dugout."
Bonds protested mildly that he now runs everything out. Well, almost everything. Then, in an instant, he seemed pained, the descriptions of his myriad athletic virtues fanning an interior flame he cannot extinguish. He is alternately fascinated and tormented by the knowledge that he has fathomless potential. It is his burden, this awareness of something missing.
"I haven't quite got there yet," he said, fingering a wineglass and staring contemplatively at the white tablecloth. "I was unhappy with last season because for a while I thought I was going to reach it. Then I started to make myself do things I should have done naturally. I forced myself when I shouldn't have. But I learned something from that. Someday I'm going to put it all together. It's coming, I know. I can feel it. And when I do get it together, you'll be shocked. Maybe I'll be shocked. The whole nation will be shocked." There was even the suggestion of tears in Bonds' eyes, as if he were lamenting the fact that this historic moment had not already occurred.
There are many in this nation who truly will be shocked if Bonds plays any better than he already has. After managing him in last year's All-Star Game, Cincinnati's Sparky Anderson commented, "As of today, Bobby Bonds is the best ballplayer in America." Says the Oakland A's Sal Bando, "He's the most dynamic hitter I've ever seen." "In my opinion," says the Dodgers' Dave Lopes, "Bonds is probably the best outfielder in the major leagues." "With his individual skills, he can blow a game apart quicker than anyone," says Lopes' teammate, Steve Garvey. "Bonds is a man who's always doing the right thing at the right time," says Del Unser of the Phillies.
But those who know him best share Bonds' own tempered evaluation of his capabilities. "I don't think he's reached more than 80 or 90% of his potential," says his manager, Charlie Fox. "He's not as good as he can be," says Oakland slugger Reggie Jackson, a close friend of Bonds' and a somewhat more successful rival for the fickle affections of Bay Area baseball followers. "That's not saying he's not trying as hard as he can. It's just that he hasn't matured yet as a player. Right now I don't know if he's really at peace with himself. He should be riding higher, be a freer spirit."
Bonds will never be really at peace with himself until the missing parts of his makeup are uncovered. Perhaps not even then, for at 28 he is an intense, highly emotional man who, says the San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer, Bob Stevens, "cries at card tricks." It is just possible that Bonds is almost too well endowed as an athlete. At slightly over 6'1" and weighing 195 pounds, with a rock-hard torso and sprinter's speed, he seems to have a surplus of physical assets. The remarkable thing is that, playing presumably at 80% of his ability, he has accomplished as much as he has.
Last season, his sixth in the major leagues, he missed, by one home run, becoming the first player in history to hit 40 or more homers and steal 40 or more bases (he stole 43). He tried so desperately to set the esoteric 40-40 record that he staggered into a September slump that cost him not only his 40th home run but a .300 batting average as well. He finished at .283.
Bonds did well enough, though. He led the major leagues in runs scored with 131 and he batted in 96 while hitting in the normally unproductive leadoff spot in all but 21 games. He led the National League in total bases (341) and, though he missed the 40-40 goal, he joined Willie Mays as only the second player to hit more than 30 home runs and steal more than 30 bases in two seasons. He set a major league record by leading off 11 games with home runs and he tied the record of 28 career leadoff homers held by Eddie Yost, who played 12 seasons longer than Bonds has. He won a second Golden Glove award for fielding excellence and, though he did not start in the All-Star Game, when he got into it he homered and stretched a routine single into a double—and was named the Most Valuable Player.
He achieved all this under the strain of personal problems, some of his own making, that might have broken a less resilient man. On Feb. 16, 1973, his wife of nearly 10 years filed for divorce. Bobby and Pat Bonds had been next-door neighbors in Riverside, Calif. since they were 12 years old. They were married shortly after their graduation from high school in 1964.
"How long have I been married? Always," says Bonds without bitterness.
The divorce action was later withdrawn and the couple was reconciled. Then on May 26, Bonds' sister Rosie was arrested and held on suspicion of murder in the death of a Los Angeles tavern owner.
"I couldn't believe it at first," Bonds says. "I know my sister. She doesn't go around killing people. She had worked for this guy, kept all of his books, so her fingerprints were everywhere. When I talked to her, she said there was nothing to worry about, that they'd let her go tomorrow. But that tomorrow just didn't seem to come. I don't care what happens to me, but I've only got one sister. I flew south to be with her. I was terribly upset."
Rosie was released five days after her arrest when a man confessed to the killing. Bonds returned to San Francisco and hit a home run against the Phillies the next day.
Early on the morning of Aug. 13, Bonds was driving on the Bayshore Freeway on his way home to San Carlos from an evening spent "drinking beer and playing dominoes" at his brother David's home in Pittsburg across the bay. He was approaching the turnoff to his home when he decided to go one exit farther to stop at a restaurant for a sandwich. He never reached the exit. His car bounced off a guardrail, spun out of control, swerved back onto the freeway at high speed and rammed the rear of another car. No one was injured, but Bonds was jailed for drunk driving. He later pleaded no contest to the charge and was fined $360.
On Nov. 29, also early in the morning, Bonds was in a car driven by his oldest brother, Robert, when they were stopped on the El Camino Real south of San Francisco for speeding. Robert refused to sign the citation, contending that he had been driving within the speed limit. An argument ensued, which Bonds joined—foolishly, he now acknowledges. Both brothers were arrested. Bobby was cited for interfering with a police officer in the performance of his duties. He was fined $125.
"I've got problems," Bonds says. "Everybody has problems. But I'm no troublemaker. I'm no drunk. I went 27 years without getting into any kind of trouble. Nobody in our family ever got into trouble. Then it hit all at once. I suppose it had to happen. Things were going so well on the ball field, something just had to go wrong. I hope it's another 27 years before I go through another year like last year."
While Bonds can display juvenile streaks of wildness, he is capable also of great kindnesses. Few Giants—few ballplayers—are more thoughtful and attentive with fans. In Arizona, Bonds was like a busy neighbor chatting in the sun with the old people who attended the spring games. He is a two-time winner of the Good Guy award presented annually by the Giant booster club of Northern California.
"Bobby does something more ballplayers should do," says Hal Lanier. "He takes time with people."
Almost everyone in Bonds' family was an athlete, including sister Rosie, who was a hurdler on the U.S. Olympic team of 1964. Brother Robert played professional football briefly with the Kansas City Chiefs and brother David was an outstanding high school football player whose career was cut short by a shoulder injury.
Bobby considered football to be his best game. He once scored six touchdowns in only three quarters of play for Riverside Polytechnic High School. He was also a high scorer in basketball, a 9.5 sprinter in track and a 25-foot long-jumper who won the California state championship. But baseball offered him a living. He signed with the Giants after graduation and reported to spring training in 1965.
"I was almost released right away," he recalls. "I must have gone up 20 times without coming close to hitting a ball. I could run and I could throw, but nobody could tell what kind of a hitter I was because I never hit the ball at all. I don't guess I even fouled off five balls that spring."
He was dispatched to the Giant farm team in Lexington of the Western Carolina League to learn the game under the senior Lanier. Bonds hit .323 that first year, and he had 25 home runs and 33 stolen bases. He also very nearly quit baseball.
"I was playing in the South and I was the only black on the team," he says. "I'm a native Californian, born right in Riverside, and I'm just not used to the sort of things I was hearing down there. I was young, immature. I didn't understand the situation. Finally I just said to hell with all this and decided to go back to California."
But Max Lanier dissuaded him and immediately brought up another black, Leslie Scott, from the rookie league to keep his unhappy star company.
"I owe Max Lanier a lot," Bonds says of this critical moment. "If I hadn't stayed, I'd probably be a garbage man or something today."
The Giants called Bonds up to San Francisco in June of the 1968 season after he hit .370 in 60 games for the Phoenix Triple A farm team. He set his first major league record by hitting a grand slam home run in his first game. The pitcher was the Dodgers' John Purdin. The next season he hit 32 home runs and stole 45 bases. In his five complete major league seasons he has averaged 31 doubles, 31 homers, 41 stolen bases, 122 runs scored and 89 runs batted in. He set a major league record by striking out 189 times in 1970, surpassing the old record of 187 set the previous year by...Bobby Bonds.
Bonds' "contact" batting average for 1970—computed by deleting strikeouts from times at bat—was a blistering .422, prompting some experts to suggest that if Bonds were to cut down on his swing, he would be at least a .350 hitter every year. He has cut down somewhat—he had only 148 strikeouts last season—but he does not regard the ignoble whiff as a mortal sin.
"I'm not the type of hitter to choke up and just tap the ball with two strikes on me. I have always been taught that a swinging bat is a dangerous bat, so I figure that if I have one swing left, I can still hit the ball out of the park and maybe win us a game."
Bonds' offensive firepower tends to obscure his defensive skills, but he is generally conceded to be the finest right fielder in the game today. He not only has speed and a powerful arm but is an intelligent student of the hitters and of playing conditions.
"It is absolutely necessary to test a ball park before playing there," he says in the solemn tones of an architect discussing a new civic building. "I always come to the park early to walk my position, to see if there are any irregularities in the ground, any wet spots or holes. You must find out how the ball comes off the turf, how it drifts in the air. Your own speed and ability to go back on a ball have a lot to do with where you play a hitter. An outfielder who plays deep all the time is one of two things. He is either uncertain of his speed or afraid he can't follow a ball hit over his head.
"I will not, for example, play a hitter like Willie Stargell on the warning track. Instead, I'll be only medium deep. That's because when he hits a ball over your head, it's going out of the park anyway. But if you can get to those balls he might hit in front of you, you can take a hit away from him. I'll play a hitter like Willie Davis deeper than I will Stargell. He hits the ball hard but it doesn't go over the fence that often. If you're deep enough, though, you can cut off a triple or a double.
"I don't run into fences. It's a matter of individual judgment. Ninety percent of the balls hit to the fence you know are going there. Basically, then, it's knowing exactly where you are on the field and fixing in your mind where the fence is."
Bonds, quite naturally, learned much about outfield play from Willie Mays. When Mays was traded to the Mets in 1972, Bonds lapsed into a depression that lasted the entire season, his worst in the major leagues.
"When Willie left, half of me left," he explains. "I just went through the motions after that. I had no desire, no determination. It was one of the worst things I could've done—allowing myself to feel that way. Finally, last year, I convinced myself that Willie was gone and that it was up to me from now on. My whole environment changed after that. I could hear people on the bench saying, 'We gotta get somebody on for Bobby to drive in.' It was a good feeling. It suddenly came to me that they were counting on me now, not Willie. But I never thought of myself as another Mays. There was only one of him."
Twenty-four-year-old Garry Maddox is the Giants' centerfielder now, and with Bonds his mentor, the two have worked together as effectively as Bonds and Mays did. Maddox is nearly as fast as Bonds, and so is the leftfielder, 23-year-old Gary Matthews. Maddox hit .319 last year and stole 24 bases; Matthews hit .300 and stole 17. As a trio the outfielders averaged .300 with 21 homers, 95 runs scored and 28 stolen bases. They are easily the swiftest of outfield combinations today and they have the potential to become one of the finest all-round units in the game's history.
Longevity is the key. Most of the better outfields, including the one considered the very best—the old Yankee trio of Bob Meusel, Earle Combs and Babe Ruth—stayed together for no more than five years. Matthews, Maddox and Bonds are entering a second year intact and, barring unforeseen trades, they may be expected to be intact for many more seasons.
Bonds would like that, for he has become conscious in recent months of the evanescence of stardom. He watched dolefully as Mays' great talent slipped away from him and he suffered with him the pangs of retirement from the game. "It bothered Willie not to go to spring training as a player this year," Bonds says. "When he falls in love with something, he falls totally, and he loved playing baseball."
Closer yet to home was the plight of his friend Hal Lanier this spring. Lanier needed but 63 days to qualify for a pension as a 10-year player when the Yankees released him. He roomed with Bonds during the painful weeks of job-hunting and Bonds shared his anguish with him. Bonds also became cruelly aware of his own athletic mortality.
"Thirty-one is too young to quit something you love," he said one day, sprawled on his hotel bed watching television inattentively. Lanier had only recently left the room to, as he put it, "take a little drive somewhere."
"A lot of guys probably wouldn't even care about leaving the game," Bonds continued, "but this guy is eating his heart out. I don't know how I'd handle the same situation. I love baseball, too, but I think what's happening to him would kill me. I just might say forget it and go fishing."
He shifted his weight on the bed. There was a nature show of some sort on television. An elephant was swimming in a muddy stream. Bonds watched for a moment, smiling, possibly at the aquatic pachyderm, more probably at the preposterous notion of his quitting baseball with so much left to prove, so much missing that must be found.
"I can't think of those things," he said, and now the smile was gone. "I haven't put it all together yet."
There will be no peace for him until that is done. As the season begins there is hardly any peace at all.