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Would You Believe 80? With five homers in his first four games, Giants slugger Barry Bonds seems set to prove that his home run record of a year ago was made to be broken

April 15, 2002
April 15, 2002

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April 15, 2002

Pro Football

Would You Believe 80? With five homers in his first four games, Giants slugger Barry Bonds seems set to prove that his home run record of a year ago was made to be broken

Awestruck opponents and slack-jawed teammates agreed that Barry
Bonds was not, in fact, playing baseball for the San Francisco
Giants last week. Though it appeared that the reigning home run
king had picked up where he had left off last October, by mashing
five home runs in the Giants' first four games, observers tended
to see Bonds excelling at some other game. For instance, San
Francisco first baseman J.T. Snow thought Bonds was "hitting golf
balls," Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Hiram Bocachica felt he was
"playing Nintendo," and San Diego Padres manager Bruce Bochy
fancied him "playing Wiffle ball, with his bat so light in hand."

This is an article from the April 15, 2002 issue Original Layout

So went the search for an apt description for the frightening
ease with which Bonds was dominating play. All the while the
Giants were laying waste to the National League West and through
Sunday were the only undefeated team (6-0) in the majors.

Aside from those big-league-leading five home runs--which could
easily have been eight, after a questionable foul call in Dodger
Stadium on Opening Day and two warning-track fly-outs to Pac Bell
Park's cavernous centerfield--Bonds hit .538, drove in 11 runs,
scored nine and drew seven walks, despite getting a day off on
Sunday when San Francisco ripped San Diego 10-1. By then Bonds's
statistically preposterous 2001 season (73 homers, 137 RBIs, 177
walks, .863 slugging percentage) was beginning to seem less a
fluke than an appetizer.

"I'm shocked, as shocked as anybody," Bonds said last Friday,
after hitting a two-run, game-winning shot off Padres reliever
Alan Embree in the 10th inning of the Giants' home opener. Before
the game Bonds was presented with an unprecedented fourth league
MVP award, as eight past winners--including Ernie Banks, Reggie
Jackson and former Giants greats Willie Mays and Willie
McCovey--encircled him. Bonds's burgeoning legacy was almost
palpable in the air. "Babe Ruth. Ted Williams. Henry Aaron.
Sooner or later they'll have to end that [list] with Barry
Bonds," said Jackson in his speech, as the Pac Bell throng
exulted.

Two days before, Dodgers manager Jim Tracy admitted to having
pondered Bonds's place among baseball's alltime greats during the
middle of a game in which Bonds had his second consecutive
two-homer day against L.A. The understated Bochy was similarly
moved before last Saturday's game. "He's doing things that we've
never seen in our era," Bochy said. "People wonder why anyone
pitches to him, but Barry Bonds is actually being pitched to more
carefully than anyone we've ever witnessed, Mark McGwire and
Sammy Sosa included. Still, every pitch that's even close, he
crushes." Added Padres closer Trevor Hoffman, "The guy's been in
a groove for a year and a half. He sees a strike a game, and he
kills it. It's a joke."

In sending everyone back to their Roget's in search of fresh
superlatives, Bonds was also forcing teams to rewrite the book on
Barry Bonds. Just look at how he foiled Los Angeles's plan to
repeatedly bust him inside. "If you can go inside, you can get
him out," Dodgers catcher Paul Lo Duca said last week. Moreover,
L.A. figured to have a fairly good chance of containing Bonds,
who was 10 for 56 with just two home runs and four RBIs in his
career against the Dodgers' first two starters, Kevin Brown and
Hideo Nomo.

Brown started things off by throwing Bonds three consecutive
inside fastballs over his first two at bats (Bonds popped out to
second base his first time up) before trying to sneak a slider
down and away. Bonds knocked that pitch over the left
centerfield wall. "We had him set up," Lo Duca said later, "but
Brownie hung it over the plate. There's not a lot of margin for
error. He makes you pay." That notion was soon seconded by
lefthander Omar Daal, who relieved Brown in the fifth inning. On
a 1-and-1 count, he delivered a chest-high inside curve, which
Bonds sent soaring into the rarely reached loge level in
rightfield at Dodger Stadium. "It looked like he was waiting for
the inside pitch," said a perplexed Daal. "We have to do
something different, not just go inside. I hope it's not going
to be like that the whole year."

The next day Bonds demonstrated his ability to make
pitch-to-pitch adjustments, something he does, according to
Hoffman, "better than anyone in the league." In his first at bat
Bonds, who'd struck out 10 times in 25 at bats against Nomo,
flailed at a shoulder-high fastball, making the count 1 and 2. Lo
Duca called for another inside fastball, hoping to set up Nomo's
out pitch, the forkball. Bonds never gave them the chance,
sending the fastball 443 feet into the rightfield pavilion. For
good measure Bonds jumped on L.A. reliever Terry Mulholland's
hanging slider three innings later, setting off a barrage of
highlight-show quips about his 324-homer pace. "The best plan of
attack is to do your job before he gets up, so you can pitch
around him," Mulholland said. "It sounds like the easy way out,
but it's a hell of a lot better than a home run."

One reason Bonds is so far ahead of the pitchers is that his
rigorous off-season training program is paying immediate
dividends. Along with his usual regimen of weightlifting and
running, he has developed a drill with his father, Bobby, that
Barry believes allows him to make better use of his superior
eyesight and patience at the plate. Wearing a fielder's glove on
his left hand instead of holding a bat, the lefthanded-hitting
Bonds steps into the batter's box and mimes his swing as his
father pitches to him. When Barry rotates through, he stops upon
squaring to the ball and catches the pitch with his gloved left
hand. He says that allows him to relax while waiting for the
pitch, instead of tensing up, and that makes it possible for him
to see the ball as if it's coming in slow motion.

Has it worked? After giving up Bonds's game-winner last Friday
(on an 0-and-1 breaking ball, up in the strike zone), Embree
said, "Barry squares to the ball better than anyone. He gets the
meat of the bat on everything, and he never misses. When he hit
that ball off me, it was like slow motion for him."

The notion that another season-long media barrage will slow Bonds
doesn't appear likely either. He actually seemed to be enjoying
the spotlight last week. "Just two years ago I was kind of
written off," he said after last Friday's game. "Now I've almost
forgotten what it's like to have a quiet life."

When Giants manager Dusty Baker was asked to assess Bonds's burst
from the gate, he looked as if he had just bitten into a rotten
plum. "Look, I've got to be honest--there is no explanation," he
said, just as a whoop erupted from the gawkers at the batting
cage. Baker paused to watch as a batting-practice pitch hit by
Bonds disappeared over the wall and then just nodded his head
before adding, "There's no way to explain it. No way. This is
something else entirely, something we have to accept. Barry's
really this good."

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO COVER INSET BOOM, BOOM, BOOM... BARRY BOND'S BLISTERING STARTTWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRAD MANGIN Happy days Bonds had plenty to smile about during opening week, including a 10th-inning homer (left) to beat the Padres on Friday.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRAD MANGIN Sky's the limit Bonds was mobbed by teammates after his game-winner against San Diego that helped lift the Giants to a 6-0 start.

No Letting Up

In continuing his record home run pace of 2001, Barry Bonds has
set a standard for fast starts. Here are the sluggers who had the
nine best home run seasons and how each got out of the gate the
next year, with listings of the games in which each hit his first
and fifth homers.

FOLLOWING YEAR
GAME HIT GAME HIT SEASON
PLAYER, TEAM, YEAR HR FIRST HR FIFTH HR TOTAL

Barry Bonds, Giants, 2001 73 1 4 ??
Mark McGwire, Cardinals, 1998 70 1 11 65
Sammy Sosa, Cubs, 1998 66 6 24 63
McGwire, Cardinals, 1999 65 5 19 32
Sosa, Cubs, 2001 64 2 ? ??
Sosa, Cubs, 1999 63 6 18 50
Roger Maris, Yankees, 1961 61 1 21 33
Babe Ruth, Yankees, 1927 60 6 14 54
Ruth, Yankees, 1921 59 36 52 35

SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU