George Herbert Walker Bush requested an audience with Johnnie B. (Dusty) Baker last Thursday in the Astrodome. The former president of the United States asked the current manager of the San Francisco Giants how he had survived his torturous autumn spiral—losing eight straight home games in mid-September and ceding first place in the National League West to the Atlanta Braves. "Eight games don't compare nothin' to what you've been through," Dusty told Poppy. But Poppy wasn't buying it. Those eight games had finished the Fabulous Baker Boys. You didn't have to be Ross Perot to hear that Giant sucking sound.
In fact, there it was again last Friday, a giant sucking sound in the Giant dugout three hours before San Francisco's game at home against the nearly winless, Tony Gwynn-less San Diego Padres. It was the sound of leftfielder Barry Bonds kissing his bat, full on the label. "C'mon, baby," he said. Bonds said that; the bat didn't say anything. In fact, the bat didn't speak until the fourth inning, when Bonds hit his first home run in 22 days. The Giants won the game 4-3, and because the Braves had lost to the Philadelphia Phillies a few hours earlier, San Francisco was then only 1½ games behind Atlanta. And that's how the standings remained until Monday night, when the Giants won again and picked up another half game on the idle Braves.
Last Saturday, Bonds hit two more home runs in a 3-1 San Francisco win. On Sunday he hit another, his league-leading 44th of the season, in a 5-2 victory. Suddenly the bat wouldn't shut up, and Bonds wouldn't say anything. He barely spoke to the press on Friday and Sunday, and about all he said of his two dingers on the day in between was this: "I got to do what I got to do."
Scrawled at the top of his To Do list, apparently, was Get Giants back in pennant race. San Francisco, which was 10 games ahead of Atlanta on July 22, had fallen four games behind the inexorable Braves on Sept. 17, when the Giants began a seven-game road trip that followed their calamitous run of eight losses at Candlestick Park. On the trip to Cincinnati and Houston, which ended with Baker's summit meeting in the Astrodome, Bonds's bat became combustible (and just plain bussable) again. Not coincidentally, San Francisco won six of the seven games.
"Barry's proven down the stretch that he's truly the MVP of the league," said Baker on Sunday. "He's turned it on when we've needed him to turn it on. Hopefully he'll carry us into late October."
Last Friday, a typical day in his rarefied life, Bonds stood behind the cage during batting practice and chatted with his friend Danny Glover. The San Francisco-based movie star was doing research for his role in an upcoming baseball flick. "Hey, Lethal Weapon!" fans kept yelling, but it wasn't clear whether they were calling for Glover or the Giants' three-time Gold Glover.
"There's no question who the MVP is," said Giant shortstop Royce Clayton, who wasn't talking about himself. Bonds's .342 average, 44 jacks and 114 RBIs at week's end make him the likely MVP. It would be his third such award, matching Michael Jordan, whom Bonds so closely resembles in his ability to make all others in the arena look...tiny.
Imagine if Bonds had signed with Atlanta last winter, as was first expected. As it is, the Braves and the Giants have the two best records in baseball. (The division runner-up will probably win more than 100 games.) Between them they have five of the league's winningest pitchers (John Burkett and Bill Swift of San Francisco; Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Steve Avery of Atlanta). Between them they have four of the five MVP candidates (the Braves' Dave Justice, Ron Gant and Fred McGriff and the Phillies' Lenny Dykstra are the only other possibilities). And between them the two teams have a healthy infusion of bad blood, much of which has been donated by the seemingly innocuous Padres.
"[Padre outfielder Derek] Bell hadn't played third base since high school, but he played third against Atlanta," says Baker, by way of example. "I didn't understand that. I don't understand why they traded McGriff to Atlanta...."
After San Diego manager Jim Riggleman reconfigured his pitching rotation last weekend to have ace Andy Benes throw against the Giants on Monday when he wasn't supposed to face them at all, it was reported that Riggleman did so at the telephoned request of Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. When asked about this by Baker, Riggleman denied being a member of Cox's Friends & Family Plan.
Baker is so effortlessly cool that he wore shades while watching the Philly-Atlanta game on the tiny Zenith in his office on Sunday. ("Ain't tryin' to be cool," he said, pointing out that they were prescription sunglasses. "I'm tryin' to see.") But when a Brave announcer fantasized out loud about how nice it would be to see the injured Gwynn return to the Padre lineup against San Francisco, Baker waved his hand at the screen in disgust. "See?" said Baker, apparently referring to the Braves. "They cry all the time."
All of which is to say that a one-game playoff between the Giants and the Braves would be especially intriguing. It would also be next Monday in San Francisco, which won a coin flip to decide the game site.
So the Giants still had six days to shake the world. But they would have to play this week without second baseman Robby Thompson (.314, 19 homers, 65 RBIs), a man at the emotional center of their lineup. Thompson's left cheek was fractured by a Trevor Hoffman pitch that hit him flush in the face on Friday night.
What's more, the final week's schedule is not quite as kind to San Francisco as it is to Atlanta. The Braves were to host a three-game series against the frosty-of-late Houston Astros, followed by a three-game set at home against the expansion Colorado Rockies. In the NFL this is known as a bye week.
True, the Giants would get those same Rockies for two games at the Stick. But they were to finish the schedule on the road, playing four games against the personification of evil, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Of course, the Dodgers feel pretty much the same way about the Giants. The Dodgers hope that sucking sound you hear is them, Dustbusting Baker's ball club. "If we win it down there," said Baker, a Bay Area native who played eight seasons for L.A., "it will be extra special—to me and to the fans of northern California."
Should the Giants somehow win the division, they will do so in large measure because of another native of northern California. On Sunday morning Bonds pulled into the players' lot at the Stick driving a spectacular, turbocharged, fuel-injected, low-slung stereo on wheels. "Look at Barry," the lot attendant said, somewhat unnecessarily, as Bonds rolled past him with the top down, the red machine gleaming in the sunlight and pulsating like a giant human heart. "Drives a different damn car every day."
Five hours, one homer, three RBIs and a Giant victory later, Bonds was shooing scribes and cameramen away from his locker. "We have two 20-game winners over there," he said, gesturing across the clubhouse to Swift and Burkett. "Go get their stories."
As the best and richest player in baseball slipped out of the stadium and into southbound traffic on Interstate 101, heading for home and the homestretch, with his son, Nikolai, riding shotgun, the sun still shining and the top still down and five lanes of traffic rubbernecking him, Bonds seemed a living paradox, at once craving recognition and loathing it.
Indeed, as Bonds puttered along contentedly in the far right lane, his hands at the reins of several hundred unused horses, life was a sweet paradox: He was in no hurry whatsoever, and at the same time he was very much in a race.