Has there ever been a major league career as paradoxical as Bobby Bonds's? On one side of the ledger he appears to be one of the game's superstars. Only five men in baseball history have hit 30 or more homers and stolen 30 or more bases in the same season. Ken Williams, Tommy Harper and Henry Aaron did it once; Willie Mays did it twice. Bonds has done it five times. Only two players have hit 300 or more homers and stolen 300 or more bases in their careers. Mays is one; Bonds is the other. Bonds holds the major league record for hitting homers—35—leading off a game. Defensively, he is an outfielder with sprinter's speed and a powerful arm who can play any of the three positions with skill. He won Gold Gloves in 1971, '73 and '74. He's durable. In eight of his 12 complete big league seasons, he has played in 150 or more games. And a nicer guy you would never hope to meet.
Ah, but on the other side of that ledger.... Bonds set what should be an enduring major league record by striking out 189 times in 1970, thereby breaking the former record of 187, which he himself set the previous year, and he could well become the alltime major league career strikeout king, supplanting the soon-to-be-retired Willie Stargell. Bonds's career batting average is only .269. Perhaps most significant, after spending seven seasons with the San Francisco Giants, he has played for seven teams—in order, the Yankees, Angels, White Sox, Rangers, Indians, Cardinals and Cubs—in the last six years. Such a history of nomadism indicates he is either much in demand or, as the consensus has it, quickly out of favor.
Wherever Bonds goes, and he now goes with the Cubs, he carries a heavy load of personal luggage. He is alternately accused of being a drinker, a drug user, a troublemaker and, most recently, a malingerer. And he must forever live with the popular notion that he has never lived up to his enormous potential.
Yet Bonds endures. Suffering from a nagging hand injury, he had his worst major league season in 1980, hitting only .203 in 86 games for the Cardinals, who promptly released him after the season. He was available, but for once no one came calling. "It was strange," says Whitey Herzog, the Cards' manager and general manager. "No one ever called to ask me about him. Oh, some newspapermen would say something from time to time, but no one in baseball ever asked. No one at all."
September 6, 1981
Bonds didn't leave the Cardinals laughing. The hand injury, he insists, wasn't properly treated until after the season, when most of his right arm was put in a cast for the better part of two months. He was falsely accused, he says, of dogging it when, in fact, he could scarcely swing a bat. Bonds is certain that this new imputation, added to his already sullied reputation, made him an even more undesirable property.
Still, he persevered. He had no spring training this year, but he did finally convince Texas Rangers Executive Vice-President Eddie Robinson that the hand, hit in the first weeks of the 1980 season by a pitch from Pittsburgh's Eddie Solomon, was mending. Robinson required proof, so on April 19 Bonds agreed to test himself with the Rangers' Triple A farm team in Wichita.
Early in June, Herman Franks, his old manager with the Giants and then the newly appointed general manager of the Cubs, called on Bonds. Lord knows, the Cubs needed help, and Franks believed that if Bonds was even half as good as he once was, he could provide it. The Rangers let him go to the Cubs for, as Bonds puts it, "two doughnuts and a cup of coffee."
Time now for more bad luck. In the first inning of his first game with the Cubs, on June 4 in Pittsburgh, Bonds tripped over a seam on the Three Rivers Stadium carpet while chasing a short fly and broke the little finger of his right hand. He hadn't even had a time at bat.
It was time at last for some good luck. A week after his injury, the players struck, so the busted pinkie didn't continue to keep him out of the lineup, there being no lineups anywhere. When play resumed 49 days later, Bonds was ready, and Cubs Manager Joey Amalfitano, who once coached Bonds in San Francisco, was ready to give him his shot. "I told him that if he had any bullets left in the chamber, he'd better fire them," Amalfitano recalls. Bonds came out gunning. After the first three weeks of the new season, he was hitting .271 and had driven in five runs from his cleanup spot and four more from the fifth position in the batting order, and on the whole he has been fielding brilliantly in centerfield. "I told Joey I want to play every day," he said, an expression of his eagerness to dispel his latest bad rap.
Bonds will never completely live down his reputation, and, as an older and presumably wiser man of 35, he knows it. Only Dorian Gray had a worse image, and he earned his. Bonds feels his is undeserved. "It's easy to start a rumor," he says, "but where is the verification? I'd like to meet the individual who has ever seen me take drugs. Yet a thousand people write that I do. I can't say I'm perfect. There are days in everybody's life that shouldn't be remembered. But I ask you, how could I have accomplished what I have if I'd done what people say I've done? First of all, I'd be dead. Some of the things I read and hear about me—the drinking and the dope—scare me. And I hear that I'm a troublemaker. How did that get started? I've never been in a fight with a teammate. Until last year I never complained about anything. I played for the Giants in the '71 playoff's with bad ribs. I played in '75 and '76 with bad knees. After all these years in baseball, people should know that I don't complain. But last year I was hurting. I need strong wrists to hit because I hold the bat low. Last year I couldn't turn a doorknob without feeling pain. I couldn't lift a grocery bag."
Bonds believes, and with good reason, that his uncommon natural ability is as much a curse as a gift because people have always expected so much of him. He was an extraordinary all-round athlete—9.5 sprinter and 25'3" long jumper, football, basketball and baseball star, California High School Athlete of the Year in 1964—at Riverside Polytechnic High in Southern California. He was touted by the Giants, almost from the day of his signing in 1964, as a "new Willie Mays." Unfortunately for him, the old Willie Mays was still very much around when Bonds was called up, midway through the 1968 season, from San Francisco's farm team in Phoenix, where he had hit .370 in 60 games. He broke in as if he were indeed a new Mays, hitting a grand slam in his first game.
Far from being jealous of Mays, Bonds was dependent on him almost to a fault. When the Giants traded Mays to the Mets in 1972, Bonds, outraged by the callousness of it all, lapsed into a season-long depression that caused his batting average to decline from .288 the year before to .259. Even with this bad year, he averaged 31 doubles, 31 homers, 41 stolen bases, 122 runs scored and 89 RBIs in his first five full major league seasons. By then, comparisons with Mays weren't the only accolades Bonds was receiving. After being named MVP in the 1973 All-Star Game, no less than Sparky Anderson said of him, "As of today, Bobby Bonds is the best ballplayer in America."
But the troubles that would fix Bonds's reputation in many minds were already beginning. He was arrested for drunk driving near his home in the San Francisco suburb of San Carlos on Aug. 13, 1973. Three months later he was arrested again for interfering with a police officer, who was citing Bonds's brother, Robert V. Jr., for speeding. That same year, his sister, Rosie, a former holder of the U.S. women's record for the 80-meter hurdles and a member of the 1964 U.S. Olympic team, was arrested and held on suspicion of the murder of a tavern owner. The charges were dropped after a man confessed to the killing.
Misadventures such as these can unhinge the sturdiest among us, and Bonds is an unusually sensitive man. While with the Giants, he thought he was doing everything right. He was playing every day, he was kinder than most athletes to fans and he was a hard worker, virtues that were suddenly overshadowed by his off-field troubles. San Francisco traded him to the Yankees for Bobby Murcer following the '74 season—and he hasn't stopped traveling since.