He was the first son of Bobby Bonds and the godchild of Willie Mays, and when Barry Bonds was six, he would slip on his San Francisco Giants uniform, grab his glove and join his father and godfather in the outfield at Candlestick Park while they shagged balls during batting practice. Though he stood shoulder-to-thigh to them, Bonds didn't linger long in their shadows. With each crack of the bat he would pour himself into a headlong pursuit of the ball. "I was too young to bat with them," Bonds says. "But I could compete with them in the field."
Bobby Bonds and Mays have long since retired, and these days it would appear that Barry Lamar Bonds has the field all to himself. At 6'1" and 185 pounds he is built like a heavyweight contender. And he is luminously handsome. In three full seasons as an outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates—after playing only 115 games in the minor leagues—the 25-year-old Bonds has averaged 23 home runs and 27 stolen bases, while hitting .264 and slugging .469. Batting mostly leadoff in his career, he is the only player in the National League to score more than 95 runs in each of the past three years. And his knack for running down shots in the alley, learned at some very famous knees, has left him without peer in leftfield.
But for all his accomplishments, Bonds is still trying to outrace shadows. "Barry's at the point in his career where he should be," says Pirate manager Jim Leyland. "If he handles himself the way he is capable of, he's going to be a consistent star for years." If he handles himself.
"Barry's the only individual I've met who can turn it on and turn it off. I didn't think that could be done," says Pittsburgh outfielder R.J. Reynolds. "I think one day he will put up numbers no one can believe." He turns it on and off.
June 24, 1990
"When it comes to ability, Barry's one of the top five players in the league," says Pirate centerfielder Andy Van Slyke. "The application has not come yet, but I want to be around to see it when it happens." The application has not come.
People close to Bonds feel safest drawing conclusions about his future in the sand. How good can he be? The words have twisted him around and made him annoyed, angry and alienated. As of Sunday, Bonds was hitting .322 with 11 homers and 17 steals for the first-place Pirates. And he was batting an astounding .522 with men in scoring position. But as he struggles to come into his own, he sees himself measured against an imposed standard called potential, ensnared by a web of perceptions that define him by what—or who—he is not:
•He is not popular. In the wake of a salary dispute last winter, the Pittsburgh press branded Bonds "a bad guy to have in the clubhouse" and "the Pirates' MDP—Most Despised Player." Says his agent, Rod Wright, "Barry puts up a front because he doesn't want people to know who he is." Says Bonds, "My job does not say, Walk in the locker room and kiss butt. It says, Go to work. I say hello sometimes, and sometimes I don't. I get to the ballpark and I'm going to be focused on what I have to do. But you know what they'll say? 'Hey, Barry, what's your problem? What's your attitude?' 'I don't have an attitude, I'm sitting here by myself. You got a problem with it?' "
•He is not focused. During the off-season, Bonds trained five days a week, five hours a day. "We'd start working out at 10:30 in the morning," says strength-and-conditioning coach Warren Sipp. "And every day Barry would be in the parking lot, waiting for me." But during games he has failed to run out ground balls. "Everyone knows I want to be good, very good," Bonds says. "I had it figured out—I was going to get a hit in every single game. And when I didn't get a hit the second game of the season, I was mad the whole week. The whole week. I was mad because I blew my streak. Can you believe that?"
•He is not selfless. Critics say Bonds grandstands at the expense of his team. "He goes through times when all he wants to do is hit home runs," says Pirate utility-man Gary Redus. "Someone on the other team will go [out of the] yard, and Barry will try to show that he can do it, too." Says Bonds, "Since I was a kid, I've had a stamp on my neck: Barry Bonds has a bad attitude and only thinks of himself. Who else am I supposed to think about out there? I go out there to put up the best numbers to help us win. That's being part of the team."
•Above all, he has not done enough. "Barry Bonds plays hard, he plays hurt, and he goes to the post," Leyland says. "I've been satisfied, except for what he hit last year [.248]. And the only reason he hit that is he spent a month and a half trying to hit his 20th home run." Although Bonds has yet to achieve the standard of 30 steals and 30 homers in a season that was foisted upon him at birth, he is getting closer. To some, just as Bobby was supposed to be the next Willie when he broke in with the Giants in 1968, playing right to Mays's center, Barry is supposed to be the next Bobby. And that expectation placed him on the discomforting cusp of stardom and disappointment.
Bobby Bonds, who works part-time for the brokerage firm of Dean Witter Reynolds and is a player-manager for the St. Lucie Legends in the Senior League, is sitting in the living room of his home in San Carlos, Calif., sipping a cup of coffee and looking at a picture of Barry as a two-year-old. In the snapshot, Barry is wearing a uniform and holding a plastic bat in his hands. Even as a kid, Bobby says, Barry could hit a Wiffle ball so hard it could break glass. "You know what I'm proudest of?" asks the 44-year-old Bobby. "That now I'm known as Barry Bonds's father."
In the early '70s, Bobby Bonds was considered by some to be the most complete player in the game, possessed of a rare combination of righthanded power and long-legged speed. But for every positive thing he accomplished, there seemed to be a downside. Despite balling leadoff often, he drove in a total of 1,024 runs in his 14-year career. But he also set a record for strikeouts in a season (189 in 1970) and wound up wearing seven different uniforms. Twice he was the recipient of the Good Guy award from a Giants booster club. And once he was arrested for drunk driving, to which he pleaded "no contest" and paid a $360 fine. Three times he made the All-Star team, and once a teammate said Bonds never stole a clutch base and wouldn't hit a cutoff man if he were King Kong.
During his days as the heir to Mays, Bobby considered the comparison an honor. In the '50s, Mays hit the 30-30 mark twice, and Bonds then topped him, doing it a record five times, beginning in 1969. But what Bobby could never fathom was the insatiability of the baseball public, to whom his feats were never enough. "What is potential?" Bobby asks. "Why do I have to live up to anybody's expectations? If you use that word, then nobody in this world has been a success, because he has failed somebody's expectations."
The eldest of Bobby and Pat Bonds's three sons, Barry is very close to his father, accepting his counsel on life in general and baseball in particular. And he never ends a phone conversation with his parents without saying, "I love you." "Barry has a lot of Bobby in him, as far as baseball goes," Pat says. "Barry has goals, and that was Bobby, too." The two hold the record for most homers by a father and son—332 by Bobby, 95 by Barry—and confidence reverberates from one generation to the other. Says the son, "Tell me something I can't do, and I'll show you I can do it." And the father: "I would never say I was better than everybody else. But there was nothing on the field that anybody could do that I couldn't."
But there are differences between the two as well. Barry is not the good-time guy his father was. Aside from golf and baseball, Barry's passion is taking care of his wife, Susann, and six-month-old son, Nikolai. He derives joy from playing with kids, but not from defeating them. "When I played with my dad he was such a competitor, he couldn't lose," Barry recalls. "When Brian [Wright's 14-year-old son] hits a drive that's better than mine, I compliment him, and he feels good about it. So then he wants to play with me, and he feels he's a better golfer."
As a child, Bonds was saddened by the negativism that swirled around his dad. He became angry at the expectations of others then, and is defiantly hardened to them now. "No one gives my dad credit for what he did, and they want to put me in the same category," Bonds says. "He did 30-30 five times, and they say he never became the ballplayer he should have become. Ain't nobody else done 30-30 five times. Nobody. Zero. So I don't care whether they like me or they don't like me. I don't care."
The Giants drafted Barry out of Serra High in San Mateo, Calif., in the second round of the '82 draft, but Bobby felt their $75,000 offer was some $5,000 short of acceptable. Besides, Barry wanted to go to college. He chose Arizona State, and under batting coach Jeff Pentland, learned to use his strength to hit 23 home runs his junior year.
Though Wright says Sun Devil head coach Jim Brock put enormous pressure on Barry, the two became very close. "I liked the hell out of Barry Bonds," Brock says. "Unfortunately, I never saw a teammate care about him. Part of it would be his being rude, inconsiderate and self-centered. He bragged about the money he turned down, and he popped off about his dad. I don't think he ever figured out what to-do to get people to like him."
The Pirates chose Bonds with the sixth pick of the '85 free-agent draft, and less than a year later he was their starting centerfielder and leadoff hitter. (Since then, he has spent time batting fifth because of his all-fields power, and been shifted to left because of his less than powerful arm.) When the Mets came to town his first week in the big leagues, the press asked Bonds how he felt about facing Dwight Gooden. "He's going to have to face me," Bonds retorted. That day he went 1 for 2 with a single and two walks, and has hit .258 off Gooden since.
Bonds says there is a method to his brashness, that it is his means of self-motivation. "To me, when people say I have an attitude problem, it gives me an edge," he says. "It makes me mad, so I play better." His stiff-arm demeanor has created some curious scenes. When Bonds was in San Francisco for a recent game, a local TV station asked him for an interview. Bonds said no, and refused repeated requests. But a few minutes later he wandered onto the field, consented to the interview and garrulously answered all questions.
"Barry has to have faith in his coaches, his manager, the players on his team," Leyland says. "He has to know they believe in him. He's a guy like so many of us—he has to know that he's needed."
But some people have begun to question whether he is, indeed, needed. When Bonds lost his arbitration case over the winter—receiving $850,000 instead of his requested $1.6 million—the Pittsburgh press quoted Wright as saying that if he were Bonds, he would not bat leadoff and would, in fact, be happier playing elsewhere. Every broadcaster and columnist in the city urged that the deal be done. The Pirates did shop him for a frontline starting pitcher and a solid position player but did not get a viable offer.
The millstone of "potential" may hang around Bonds's neck for the rest of his playing days. Perhaps when they are over, he will have reached 30-30 once or twice or joined his father and Mays as the only members of the 300-300 club. But maybe he will merely have the best career he is capable of having. Either way, he seems to be going forward, but with only his family at his side. Bonds talks about entering the dugout after his 400-plus-foot homer to straightaway center in St. Louis earlier this season. It was a moment of triumph, but because he had been withdrawn from his teammates before the game, they chose not to revel in it with him.
"What they were saying is, Let us applaud you, instead of you applauding you," Bonds says. "But you can only be happy for what you do, you can only be disappointed for what you do. If I'm supposed to wait for you guys to applaud me, I could be waiting a lifetime."