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Appreciating Bonds Though obscured by the home run barrage, an older, wiser Barry Bonds is in many ways better than ever

June 05, 2000
June 05, 2000

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June 5, 2000

Appreciating Bonds Though obscured by the home run barrage, an older, wiser Barry Bonds is in many ways better than ever

The chair in front of Barry Bonds's lockers at Pacific Bell Park
is big and black, a $3,000 Sharper Image leather recliner so
large that it appears to block off one side of the San Francisco
Giants' clubhouse. All other members of the team--no matter how
well established--sit in dinky folding metal chairs, the kind
found leaning against the back wall of high school auditoriums.
Sometimes, when San Francisco scribes feel like taking a poke at
Bonds's legendary ego, they will write about his four lockers and
his Moby Dick of a recliner.

This is an article from the June 5, 2000 issue Original Layout

"You know, it's just a massage chair," says Bonds, reclining
three hours before a recent Giants home game, an ice pack on his
neck as he glances at the movie showing on the 32-inch TV on the
floor by his footrest. "Big deal. Junior had one in Seattle and
nobody said anything. I have one and it's in the papers. But you
know what? My teammates don't care. My manager doesn't care. You
know why? Because I have bulging discs in my back. I'd be all
locked up if I sat in those metal chairs all day. I might as well
make sure my back is O.K. so I can perform at my best. Three
years ago, I didn't need a special chair. But you get older.
Things change." He pauses, adjusting the ice pack. "It stinks,
but they do."

Bonds will be 36 in July. He has added an extra helping of
stuffing in the cheeks and jowl since he won two National League
MVP trophies with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1990 and '92 and a
third with the Giants in '93. When he wakes up the morning after
a night game, Bonds's body doesn't scream, Go get 'em! as it once
did, but, Go get Advil! "There was a time I could play, then run
around all night, then rise and play again," he moans. "Not
anymore."

Bonds is not as fast as he was five years ago; a 40-stolen-base
threat has become a 25-stolen-base threat. His left arm, an
assault weapon once banned by the U.S. government, is now,
following a triceps tendon tear that sidelined him for 47 games
last season, just average. Worst of all, inside fastballs
occasionally whoooosh through his swing and into the catcher's
mitt. "He still has bat speed," says Giants lefthander Shawn
Estes, "but five, six years ago he was a lot quicker getting to
the ball inside. He may have to cheat more now."

Like Skip, the hobbled family Lab doomed to be put out of its
misery, nothing in sports is sadder to see than the crumbling
superstar who, decimated by a couple of incisions and a few
misplaced fat cells, has gone from Norm Cash to Casey Candaele,
from Tom Seaver to Craig Swan. And it happens so quickly. Just
scan Total Baseball: In 1982 a 36-year-old Reggie Jackson carried
the California Angels to the American League West title with 39
home runs, 101 RBIs and a .275 average; in '83 those totals fell
to 14, 49 and .194. Barry's father, Bobby, starred as a
33-year-old outfielder with the Cleveland Indians in 1979,
hitting .275 with 25 homers, 85 RBIs and 34 stolen bases; the
next season, with the St. Louis Cardinals, his numbers went into
free fall (.203, 5, 24, 15), and his career was over.

Time--and baseball--can be cruel, but Barry Bonds isn't ready for a
rocker quite yet. Although in the eyes of many he was displaced
as the best player in baseball by Ken Griffey Jr. and was lost in
the hype surrounding the Home Run World of Mark McGwire and Sammy
Sosa, Bonds remains one of the game's best all-around performers.
Through Sunday he was second in the National League in home runs
(19), third in slugging percentage (.785) and tied for third in
runs (46). He also was hitting .313, had 38 RBIs and was tied for
the team lead with five stolen bases. Plus, as his diving,
eighth-inning catch of a Mike Lansing liner in a recent 5-0 win
over the Colorado Rockies showed, Bonds continues to cover a good
deal of ground. "I don't know how he's done it," says his
manager, Dusty Baker, "but I truly believe Barry is a better
overall player now than he's ever been. It's early, but he's an
MVP candidate again. He's gotten older, slower...and tougher."

There is, says Estes, a "pure greatness" to Bonds that allows
him to play by a slightly different set of rules. Before a day
game in that same series with Colorado, as his teammates took 11
a.m. batting practice for a 1:05 start, Bonds--shoes off, arms
folded--snoozed in his comfy chair, waking up just minutes
before one. "He's got his own way of doing things," says second
baseman Jeff Kent. "We don't worry about that as long as he
produces, and, love him or not, Barry usually does."

Opponents are equally generous in their praise. "Where does Barry
Bonds rank for me?" says New York Mets rightfielder Derek Bell.
"Number 1. He's the best. There's more to the game than home
runs. Barry's still out there hitting .300, driving in 100 runs,
stealing bases. It's about putting up all-around numbers. Barry
is the complete package."

"I love Junior and Mac and Sosa, but nobody is better than
Barry," says St. Louis Cardinals utilityman Shawon Dunston, a
former teammate of Bonds's. "He can pick up a team, carry it on
his back and not put it down. He's not going to hit 70 homers,
but he believes he can. That's frightening."

What drives Barry Bonds? In a rare moment of humility, he admits,
almost sheepishly, that he's spurred on by the performance of
younger stars such as New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, 25;
Montreal Expos rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero, 24; and Kansas
City Royals rightfielder Jermaine Dye, 26--players who grew up
watching Bonds. In San Francisco, however, there are many other
theories about what motivates him:

--Bonds, whose 464 home runs through Sunday ranked 21st alltime,
wants to surpass 660, the figure reached by his godfather, Willie
Mays.

Bzzzzzt! Wrong!

--Bonds, the first man ever to have 400 home runs and 400 stolen
bases, wants to be the charter member of the 500-500 club.

Bzzzzzt! Wrong!

--Bonds is annoyed by the attention afforded Griffey, McGwire,
Sosa and anyone else pounding 50-plus home runs.

Bzzzzzt! Wrong!

"I'm always reading about this motivating me and that pushing me,
and it makes me mad," says Bonds. "If I don't reach 660 home
runs, big deal. I'm fine with that. Same with 500-500."

What about 70 dingers in a season?

"Seventy home runs is amazing," he says. "Sixty-five home runs
two years in a row is amazing. But ask McGwire if he would throw
any of those 70 home runs away for a World Series, or if Sosa
would throw any of his 63 home runs away so the Cubs wouldn't be
in last place, and they would.

"Every year I go through a long season and I get close to a
championship, and every year I go home disappointed," says Bonds,
who has been to the postseason four times without reaching the
World Series. "Every year I have to go back to the drawing board
and figure out what am I doing wrong or what are we doing wrong
as a team. We're all going home thinking, I wish I was still
playing. I wish I was in the World Series. I get tired of
wishing. Numbers? Yeah, I like putting up good numbers. But if I
never reach another milestone, and the Giants finally win a World
Series--that's all I could ask for. I'd be complete."

Another reason Bonds seemed to fall off the radar was his surly
personality around the ballpark. For 13-plus years Bonds had an
unmatched record of standing up reporters, of blowing off
autograph seekers, of dogging teammates, of taking every
opportunity to remind everyone that there is only one Barry
Bonds--and you're not him. Over the past year or so, however,
Bonds has become a kinder, gentler superstar, one who laughs and
smiles and--gasp!--occasionally opens up to a reporter, rambling
on about his paper route when he was a teen; his three-story,
12,500-square-foot house; his appearances on Beverly Hills 90210
and Arli$$. ("I am," he says, "a terrible, terrible actor.")

"When Barry lets his guard down," says Rockies catcher Brett
Mayne, a former teammate, "he's a charming guy." On Opening Day
at Pac Bell, Bonds spent nearly 40 minutes before the game
signing autographs. A man who generally shunned endorsements--when
Madison Avenue wasn't shunning him--Bonds has recently become a
pitchman for the 2000 Census, Armour Hot Dogs and a Sega
Dreamcast baseball game. Most shocking to those who know Bonds,
San Francisco's KNBR radio is broadcasting weekly The Barry Bonds
Show, during which listeners can call in and speak to Bonds.
"Sometimes you have an awakening in your life," says Baker.
"Barry seems to be more cognizant of the people around him. I
really think he enjoys having people like him."

Oh, there will be skeptics. There should be. "I think Barry's
making more of an effort to be liked, I really do," says Estes.
"But if it looks like a rat and smells like a rat, it's probably
a rat. At thirtysomething years old, you're never going to change
who you are, deep down. Your true colors are always going to
shine through."

But what if Bonds's true colors have never been revealed? What if
it's taken the gradual winding down of a career, the 6-4-3 double
play of time, to persuade him to drop the armor? "I'm just making
myself a little bit more accessible to the public, as well as the
media," says Bonds, who, angry over a 1993 cover story, refused
to speak to SI for seven years. "I haven't in the past, and it
has affected me," a reference to the paucity of endorsement
deals. "Am I a nicer person? I think that's the wrong statement.
I'm not mean to anybody. I have my moments when I want to do
something and moments I don't want to do something. But that
doesn't make me a bad person."

Maybe so. But as Bonds sells hot dogs and works on his
gladtameetcha smile and recounts his 90210 experience for the
97th time, there is one layer of permafrost--one tiny bit of
aloofness--that he will not alter. As far back as his days with
the Pirates, teammates and coaches have routinely been enraged
by his refusal to offer tips and guidance. Bonds may be one of
the game's keenest observers, but he keeps most of those
observations to himself. "Barry has a great wealth of
knowledge," says Dunston. "He picks up little things a pitcher's
doing, a hitter's doing. But he doesn't feel the need to share
it."

Bonds, still reclining in his chair, ice pack still on his neck,
is asked about this. He adjusts the pack, shifts into a more
comfortable position and thinks for a minute. "If you're the
star, you're supposed to go out of your way for everybody else,"
he says. "But I could tell a guy things that I know, and the
following year he might be on a team I was talking about, and
now he's telling his guys what my tendencies are or what I might
do. How smart would that be?" He grins. "Hey man, I've gotta
keep my edge."

Were it up to Bonds, he would spend all his nonbaseball time at
home in Los Altos Hills, Calif., roaming through his three-story
house, goofing around with his wife, Liz, and his three kids,
Nikolai, 10, Shikari, 9, and Aisha Lynn, 16 months. The cofounder
of Digital Interiors, a San Jose-based company that installs
state-of-the-art technology in homes, Bonds is something of a
techno-geek. He loves fidgeting with the latest gadgets and
doodads, and his house is wired with eight computers and 19
televisions. With the touch of a cellular phone, he can do
everything from adjusting the temperature to closing the garage
to firing up the Jacuzzi. "Really, I'm not that much of a geek,"
he says. "I'm a people person, believe it or not. I'll talk to
anyone."

Anyone?

"Really, anyone. I mean it."

So what if, on The Barry Bonds Show, a listener calls up and, as
sports talk fans are wont to do, shreds Barry Bonds as the
biggest jerk since Steve Martin?

"I'm going to say, Hey buddy, that's your opinion," says Bonds,
"and on some days, you're 100 percent right."

Bonds smiles. And giggles. Getting old isn't so bad after all.

COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CLARKE [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECKCOLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN BONDING Notorious for being surly most of his career, Bonds has tried to knock down that wall this year and reach out to fans.COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN

Multiplicity

When he knocked two balls over the rightfield wall and into
McCovey Cove on May 10, Barry Bonds moved into a tie with Lou
Gehrig and Dave Kingman for 12th place on the alltime list of
multiple home run games. Bonds had seven multiples last season
even though he played in only 102 games, and with the 307-foot
rightfield porch at new Pacific Bell Park, he could ascend the
list quickly.

RANK MULTIPLE HOME RUN GAMES

1. Babe Ruth 72
2. Mark McGwire 64
3. Willie Mays 63
4. Jimmie Foxx 55
5. Frank Robinson 54
6. Eddie Mathews 49
tie Mel Ott 49
8. Harmon Killebrew 46
tie Mickey Mantle 46
10. Willie McCovey 44
tie Mike Schmidt 44
12. Barry Bonds 43
tie Lou Gehrig 43
tie Dave Kingman 43

"I love Junior, Mac and Sosa, BUT NOBODY'S BETTER THAN
BARRY," says Dunston. "He can carry a team on his back."