The 27-year-old Class A outfielder has grown accustomed to the
taunts. On countless summer nights he has stepped to the plate
in one of 10 cozy California League ballparks and had his
eardrums verbally punctured.
At first the derisive one-liners were fresh. They made the
outfielder chuckle a bit. Then they made him angry. Now they're
stale and fairly easy to tune out, like elevator music:
"For crissakes, you didn't learn that from your brother, did
"You better get your daddy down here to help you!"
August 10, 1997
"Hey, Bobby--where are you going to play next year?"
That's the kind of noise you put up with when you've got BONDS
stitched to the back of your uniform. "It used to absolutely
kill me," says Bobby Bonds Jr., in his second season with the
San Jose Giants. "Now I'm older, and I can handle it a little
easier. But when you're 22, you're pissed. You're trying too
hard. You want to shut them up. You want to go into the stands
and kick their asses. You let them get into your head."
Funny, though, how you miss them when they're gone. On this
sultry evening in San Jose, the son of Bobby Bonds and younger
brother of Barry Bonds would give anything to hear those taunts
again. Instead, the silence is unbearable. He's stuck in the
dugout, nursing an injured elbow, while his teammates play the
Stockton (Calif.) Ports. The injury has robbed him of precious
playing time, and if there's anything Bonds doesn't have a lot
of, it's time.
"I'm virtually a senior citizen on this level, and I know how
teams think," he says. "It all has to click pretty soon, or it's
over. When you own a franchise, and you've got 17-year-olds just
out of high school who could be there [the majors] when they're
21, you don't want to be messing around with an old fogy like me."
That's the frustrating reality Bonds confronts as he makes the
lonely bus rides through the California League. He is the son of
an ultratalented former big leaguer and the brother of one of
the finest players in the game today. But it took him some time
to figure out that superior bloodlines and natural talent mean
nothing if they are not blended with intense devotion and a feel
for the game.
"I could be like Barry and probably do as much as he
could--maybe more--but there's just something missing," he says.
"Barry and my dad talk about it all the time, but you can talk
till you're blue in the face. It ain't going to make you hit a
baseball. I think it's something inside you that you've got to
find on your own."
So Bobby Jr. pushes onward, hoping he can discover what that
"something" is before it's too late. The odyssey has been
agonizing and humbling, with stops in Chandler, Ariz.; Spokane;
Waterloo, Iowa; Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.; Las Vegas;
Springfield, Ill.; and Visalia, Calif., since he signed as the
San Diego Padres' 18th pick of the 1992 draft.
For a long time the strikeouts and the disappointments piled up,
and Bonds considered quitting. He was released by Kansas City
before being picked up last year by the Giants. Now 3Com Park at
Candlestick Point, where his brother shines, is only a short
drive away. But it might as well be on another planet.
"I looked at this year as the year that would make me or break
me," Bonds says. "I was determined to make a difference and
pretty much try to shut everybody up by showing them I can play
this game." And he was showing it--for a while. He got off to a
torrid start in April, hitting .452 in 24 games. It was a
drastic improvement over the previous season, in which he batted
.248 with 11 home runs.
"He was swinging the bat great, and his confidence level was
sky-high," says San Jose manager Frank Cacciatore. "The first
week, we had him hitting in the sixth spot, and he worked his
way up to number 3 in no time." But then Bonds began feeling
twinges in his right elbow. He continued to play, mainly as a
designated hitter, until the pain became unbearable. He went on
the disabled list May 30, had arthroscopic surgery to remove
bone spurs and returned to the lineup on July 22. His stats
through 51 games: .365 with nine doubles, two triples, three
homers, 34 runs scored and 33 RBIs.
"God, this game," Bonds says, shaking his head. "It boosts you
up and then slaps you down. But I'm right back where I left off.
I really wanted to get back in the lineup, and things have just
Bonds wasn't always so intent on making it in baseball. He once
turned his back on the game, and now the game seems to be
exacting penance. Growing up in the Bay Area, he was a very,
very good player. Maybe too good. In youth leagues he exceeded
Barry's feats. His speed and power made jaws drop. But
motivation was a problem. He lost interest and quit baseball at
Bobby Sr., now a special assistant for player personnel in the
Giants system, figures his son was turned off by all the early
expectations. "It was because he was always compared to me and
Barry," says Bobby Sr. "It was always, He can be better than me.
He can be better than Barry. I never pushed him into playing,
though. He went his own way."
Six years ago Barry, playing with Pittsburgh, invited Bobby Jr.
to spring training. "It was like--baseball, oh yeah, I remember
this game," Bobby Jr. says.
"You can lay anything you want in front of somebody, but if they
don't take it, it doesn't matter," Barry says. "I don't take any
credit for bringing him back. He's doing it himself. I can't
swing the bat for him. Maybe it helped to motivate him a little,
once he got to see the reality of it. But the bottom line is,
you've got to love the game. It turned out that he realized he
did--finally, after all those years of not embracing it."
Bobby Jr. returned to California, where he enrolled at Canada
College in Redwood City. He joined the baseball team, and jaws
dropped once again.
"He still has more physical ability than any free agent I've
ever seen," says Larry Harper, a Seattle Mariners scout who
signed Bobby Jr. when Harper was with San Diego. "He's big [6'4"
and 180 pounds], he's faster and stronger than his brother, and
he has a better arm. But you've got to have the instincts to go
along with it. Barry has amazing instincts, but Bobby Jr. never
fully developed his."
While his brother draws paychecks on one of the richest
contracts in sports, Bobby Jr. scrapes by on his Class A salary.
He stays at his parents' home in San Carlos to save on rent and
sends money to his wife, Tracie, a real estate agent in Arizona.
The couple has two young boys--Braxton, 2, and Bobby III, nine
months--and Tracie has a nine-year-old daughter, Katelin, from a
Though Bonds says he gets along with his teammates, he admits to
feeling stung by the cynicism of some people who believe the
only reason he still has a job in pro ball is his name. "It
could be the reason, or it could not," he says. "I have no idea.
Either way, I'm here. I don't want a free ride, and anyone who
thinks I'm getting one can kiss my ass."
Jack Hiatt, director of player development for the Giants,
insists that--if anything--Bobby Jr.'s name has been a
hindrance. "It's not his name that has kept him in the game,"
Hiatt says. "To the contrary, maybe if he didn't have that name,
he'd be in the big leagues. Think about it. He battles the
legends of his father and brother every day, and he's doing it
right on their doorstep. There are the expectations. The
constant catcalls. He's done a great job of handling it, and I'm
proud of him."
Bobby Jr. spent the off-season working out with Barry. He says
it gave him a valuable insight into what it takes to be a major
league star. "He is so disciplined," Bobby Jr. says. "I would
have never thought that my brother worked out as hard as he
does. You figure, 'Hey, it's the off-season. I've got money.
Let's just hang out.' But there he is getting up at 5 a.m. to
run. There he is lifting, hitting every day with that fire in
his eyes. Watching him is an inspiration. I want to copy those
habits and see if they will pay off for me."
But is it too late? Bobby Jr. says his dream is to play in the
majors with his brother. He once made a brief stop at Triple A
(Las Vegas) but has ascended no higher. And he remains a long
shot in an organization crammed with outfield prospects. Still,
expansion is coming, and slots will open up.
"A lot of guys would love to be doing what I do instead of
working at McDonald's or 7-Eleven," he says. "I like playing. I
like coming out here with the guys and talking mess. It's kind
of like being a little kid all over again." Instead of an old
fogy running out of time.
Chuck Barney covers sports for the Contra Costa Times in Walnut