It is warm, way toowarm for spring in San Francisco. At seven in the evening in May, it's70-something and sunny, like some Al Gore nightmare come to life. People arriveat AT&T Park suspicious of the weather, in jeans and a sweatshirt, fleeceand khakis, as if this were the old Candlestick and winter might descend in amoment.
But it does not. The sun lingers, making the giant catcher's mitt in theleftfield stands glow orange, and the young women who were brave enough to weartube tops giggle and smile and raise their arms in little woo-hoo motionsduring player introductions, the better to catch the attention of young men.And when the Giants' cleanup hitter comes to the plate in the second inning,their woo-hoo is more pronounced, their wriggle more wriggly. "Leading off,number 25," says the P.A. announcer, her voice rising dramatically, "... leftfielder ... Baaa-reee Bonds!"
And here he comes,swaggering to the plate, thick arms encased in plastic armor, a familiargrimace creasing his wide face. Even at 42, he has remarkable presence, one ofthose athletes whose mere physicality is awesome to behold, especially oncehe's into his batting stance, all coiled power, the bat flicking above hishead, a fuse sizzling. Every pitch is dramatic, infused with promise.
It is impossiblenot to watch, but not as impossible as it once was. Three, four years ago, timestopped when Bonds stepped to the plate. Now it just slows. Some still cheer,of course. In the centerfield bleachers two scruffy men in Giants jerseys standand holler, their drooping guts rolling as they turn side to side. They wavetheir arms and roar, fueled by $8 beers and God knows what else."Baaa-reee! Baaa-reee!"
Their enthusiasm isnot contagious, though, not even to the guy in the leftfield bleachers whowears the replica jersey that reads bonds above the number 756. To thoseoutside the Bay Area this may be hard to believe. Why wouldn't they be goingnuts? Having played in only 144 games and hit just 31 home runs over the lasttwo seasons, Bonds was expected to back into this record, maybe by Labor Day,muddling along as a glory-seeking baseball invalid. But instead, this? Two homeruns a week, sometimes three. Monster blasts. Pitchers avoiding him, like inthe old days. The familiar lethal swing. Gaudy statistics--11 homers at week'send, 745 for his career. At this rate he'll top Hank Aaron's 755 in mid-June.At this rate he'll be the most feared hitter in all of baseball again. Maybe healready is.
May 20, 2007
But in SanFrancisco they are accustomed to his excellence. So the hype comes fromelsewhere, imported from faraway studios where broadcasters rant breathlessly.Here, they are patient. There are so many Bonds swings, and have been so manyover the last 15 years, that an early-inning at bat in May does not meritmania. Real passion? That can be found on the lower level of AT&T Park, ata concourse food stand, where a TV is showing the Golden State Warriorsbattling the Utah Jazz in the second round of the NBA playoffs. Around the set,fluttering moths to the digital flame, stand two dozen men. Men who've paid 40,50 dollars to go to a Giants game but now, even when Bonds is batting, standand scream at a TV. This is Warriors country--at least for the moment. At leastuntil Bonds gets closer to the record.
Down on the field,Bonds takes a mighty cut and sends the ball screaming toward rightfield. Atthis, a split-second charge goes through the ballpark, the masses roused astens of thousands appraise the ball's arc and make an instantaneouscalculation: Does it have the distance, could it be number 744? And for amoment they are brought together again, the residents of this city, as they arefour times most days (except for day games after night games, of course), bythis middle-aged man with the gimpy knees and the sweet stroke. For better orworse, as San Franciscans their identities are now intertwined in small butpowerful ways with Bonds's. And just as he is seen in so many guises--Hero,Cheater, Record Breaker, Egotist, All-Star, Villain--so are they. On thesurface they are i-bankers sipping Sierra Nevadas and hipsters with ironicT-shirts and little boys eating big hot dogs, but each is also something else:Defender, Enabler, Critic, Rationalizer, Cynic, Don't-Give-a-Rat's-Ass-er.
To the nation, theyare a unified whole: Bonds fans in the Bay Area. While the rest of the countryis divided on his pursuit of Aaron--52% don't want him to break the record,according to an ESPN/ABC poll last week--it is assumed that in San Franciscothey blindly follow their hero, despite the revelations from the BALCOinvestigation about his alleged steroid use. That is, when they aren't lightingup enormous medically sanctioned blunts or proposing to their gay partners.
The reality, ofcourse, is much more complex. This is a city where, as San Francisco Chronicleeditor Phil Bronstein says, "everybody has at least two opinions on anysubject and states them strongly." It's a place where a tourist attractionlike the Beat Museum, devoted to Kerouac and Ginsberg, is on the same block asthe Garden of Eden, a flesh emporium devoted to movements more gyrating thanliterary. The city is a place where outsiders go to become insiders, wheredissent is often the consensus, where everyone is afforded a second chance."It's a little like Australia as a penal colony," says Bronstein."People came here to be different, to try new things, and so there is atolerance for that sort of thing, and there ought to be."
It is not, by anylogical stretch, a natural fit for a man like Bonds, a sullen athletic marvelwho seems better suited to a city of artifice and bigness, perhaps Dallas,where everyone's got a little silicone in them and it ain't how you do it solong as the result is grand and gargantuan. And even if his blasts do not yetgenerate fervor--as evidenced by a Redwood City tech company that started atext-messaging game based on guessing when Bonds would hit home runs, thenrealized the response would be greater if users could guess when Barry might beindicted--the hyperbole is growing. Already the national media descends. TheGiants provide a sign-up sheet, asking outlets at which home run they will jointhe chase. Last week ESPN's Pedro Gomez and his merry band of camera totersarrived, and as of Sunday 142 outlets had signed on, with homer number 753being the most popular starting point.
Care or don't care,it will be hard for those who live here to escape the discussion. And as thespotlight focuses on Bonds, first locally, away from the Warriors, and thennationally, the Bay Area and its residents, leaders, athletes and thinkers willbe questioned, excoriated and commended, sometimes all at once. And those wholive and work here will, each in his or her own way, try to make sense of thecommotion. To hear their voices is to begin to understand the tangledrelationship they have with Bonds.
The old-schoolmanager knows enough to stick to discussing only what his star does on thefield. After 12 years with the Padres, Bruce Bochy joined the Giants this year,and now he manages, rather than curses, Bonds. Far be it from him to passjudgment on the slugger's past when it's not in his job description to do so."This guy, he's so much better than the rest," Bochy says before agame, looking out at his players. As for Aaron's record, Bochy cares about itonly as a means to an end. "Right now our focus has been on trying to winball games. And they go hand in hand, hitting home runs and winning ballgames."
The rival baseballman watches from across the Bay, glad that Bonds is not his problem. But DavidForst, the Athletics' assistant general manager, also sort of wishes he were.Oakland looked at Bonds "briefly" in the off-season, Forst says, butnever moved on signing him as a free agent. Now? Now the story no one's talkingabout is that Bonds was the best signing of the winter. Besides his 11 homers,he was hitting .307 with a .512 OBP through Sunday and might be the NationalLeague MVP were the voting held today. "The strict baseball analysis getsoverlooked 99% of the time with this guy because of all the other issues,"says Forst. "But if you look at him on the field, he's swinging the batlike he was three, four years ago. It would have been hard to imagine at thispoint in his career that he'd have a 1.300 OPS. It's hard to argue with thesigning as a baseball decision."
Of course, itwasn't just a baseball decision. The veteran beat writer heard the arguments inDecember after Bonds signed. Fans wrote in to his paper's blog, decrying the$15.8 million, one-year deal, angry that the team was getting older when, asone poster put it, "the money we pay Barry can be better spent on theGiants' future."
"I think theGiants underestimate their fans, that if Barry weren't here, they wouldn't comeout," says the beat guy. "That's part of why [the team was] so excitedabout Lincecum." That would be 22-year-old pitching phenom TimLincecum--nicknamed the Franchise--whose debut two weeks ago was heralded byfevered discussion on talk radio and banner headlines in the papers. "Thefeeling [around San Francisco]," the reporter says, "is that the restof the country believes Giants fans think [Bonds] didn't take steroids. It'snot true, but there's this idea that the people in the Bay Area arerubes."
The old-timebarkeep is sick of it. "People here don't give a s--- about Bonds and hisrecord," says Bobby McCambridge, slapping the bar at Moose's in NorthBeach, just off Washington Square Park. "Who cares? I'd rather watch mygrandchildren play than that a------." McCambridge has worked at Moose'ssince the bar opened in 1992, and he's served politicians, athletes, actors,tourists, you name it. His undershirt's visible underneath his button-down, aswhite as the 65-year-old's hair. "I came to this city in April 1958. Youknow who else came to the city in April 1958?" he asks as he delivers aGuinness. "The Giants! I haven't done s--- since then, and neither havethey."
The Giantsexecutive has spent much of the decade defending his franchise. His answers areat the ready, rehearsed, and he makes a point to stress what the Giants haveaccomplished since 1958. "We take our tradition very seriously here,"says executive vice-president Larry Baer. He rattles off Hall of Famers (Mays,McCovey, Marichal) and pennants won. With tradition, argues Baer, comes a senseof family, and Bonds, who arrived in 1993, not long after the franchise hadflirted with a move to St. Petersburg, is part of that family. "Here's aguy who cried at his press conference when he first got here, who took us tothe World Series [in 2002], and has he ever, ever been critical of thefranchise or said he didn't want to be a Giant?" This loyalty, Baerbelieves, overshadows all else. "If your child has a problem withsomething, you don't disown him, you don't throw him in the garbage," saysBaer. "You hope he can do better or reform. If he's in trouble, quoteunquote, a Giants fan who sees the loyalty, the performance, being part of thefamily, he's not going to say, 'Just throw him out on his ass.' Some do, butothers say, 'He's Barry, but he's our Barry.'"
This is the feelingin Lot A outside the ballpark, where a half-dozen or so union boys from theSFPUC Sewer Department are tailgating. Three of them wear Bonds jerseys,another two are proud to own them. They gather around the back of a truck,eating carnitas, chicken tacos and guacamole while drinking Coronas anddefending their guy. They love Bonds. Because he grew up nearby in San Carlos,because he took the Giants to the World Series, because of his production,because as Latinos they can understand the persecution he receives and becausethey consider him family. "We're of the opinion that if he was juiced, sowas the pitching," says Hector Duran, eyes hidden behind reflectivesunglasses and hair swept back in a long black ponytail that splits the N inBONDS on the back of his jersey. "Every time someone sees my jersey theysay, 'He's juiced, he's juiced.' It's sad because he's never testedpositive."
That argumentcauses Lance Williams, the veteran Chronicle reporter, to shake his head at hisdesk in the newsroom. "The whole thing about BALCO is, you take this stuffbecause they can't test for it," he says. "But you don't want to gettoo serious about arguing with people." If anyone knows the tenor of SanFrancisco fans, it's Williams. He and another Chronicle reporter, MarkFainaru-Wada, wrote Game of Shadows. They're the duo who broke the news ofBonds's connection to the BALCO case, who faced 18 months in prison forrefusing to reveal the source of the leaked grand jury testimony they reported.Over the last three years they've received a flood of e-mails from Giants fans,few of them complimentary. "At the beginning of this, when Mark and I wouldpop a story, the e-mail from Giants fans would be, 'You're lying, you're makingit up,' and it was in very forceful, fanlike hyperbole," Williams says."Over the course of the story, and especially after the grand jury stuff,it changed. And now it's, 'We don't care. Sure he did it, but everybody did. Idon't care, give it a break, move on.'"
Williams is a thin,calm man, and he talks of the experience in a detached manner. To him, this isanthropology. After all, he grew up in Cincinnati. "When Pete Rose got introuble," says Williams, "the entire rest of the country knew exactlywhat had happened, right? But you talk to people in Cincinnati--and my familyall lived there--who were completely sane, rational people on any othersubject, and they'd look at you and say, 'Pete couldn't have done it.' Becauseit was Pete. That's how it is with Barry and the fans. It's beyond rationalityfor many people."
Rationality? MikeKrukow, the former All-Star pitcher and now a Giants broadcaster, bristles atthe notion. He remembers Bonds when Barry was a little kid in the clubhouse,following around his father, Bobby. Krukow has seen how hard Bonds has worked,seen how the media has treated him. And he's pissed. "The press has had ahard-on for this guy since early on," says Krukow before a recent game."He got labeled, he did a lot to feed the fire, but with all that's beenwritten the last 10 years, the smear campaign on this kid is justridiculous." Krukow shakes his head. "I've stopped talking about itbecause I get so riled up. Especially all the hypocritical bulls--- fromplayers of my generation, when they talk about Bonds and what he's done or notdone." Asked what he means about "hypocritical" players, Krukowcatches himself. "I've said too much already."
The sports-radiohosts have also said too much. They feel talked out. Lucky for them, callersthese days don't want to talk about Bonds. "Unless we bring up Bonds,"says Tom Tolbert, the T in the top-rated Razor and Mr. T afternoon show on KNBR680, "no one talks about it." KNBR is the flagship station of theGiants, which means Tolbert and partner Ralph Barbieri host a segment withGiants G.M. Brian Sabean every Thursday. They know where their bread isbuttered. "When it was BALCO, it was all we talked about, it seemed, forweeks on end," says Tolbert during a commercial break.
Barbieri takes offhis earpiece and chimes in. "Of course the Chronicle coverage was a littleskewed on that one. Anything related to BALCO--front page, above the Iraqwar!"
Tolbert chuckles."You find yourself saying, 'What can I say that I haven't already said?'I'm sure we'll get into it again when we hit 755, 756."
"Yeah, or whenthe grand jury decides what they're going to do five years from now," saysBarbieri, referring to speculation that an ongoing investigation of Bonds mayyet bring charges against him.
Judging by thecallers to KNBR of late, there is only one topic of discussion anyway, and ithas to do with the basketball team across the water. Linden from Dublin askingabout Baron Davis's last shot, Jay in Daly City wondering about an AndrisBiedrins matchup. Barbieri says he hasn't seen this kind of excitement over aBay Area team since the 49ers' early Super Bowls. His partner agrees. "Iknew we had good basketball fans in the Bay Area," says Tolbert, who was aWarriors forward from 1989 to '92, "but I didn't know it was likethis."
The Giantsoutfielder, who went to college in Santa Clara, has an explanation for theBonds fatigue. "With Barry it's like, Oh, well, another home run," saysRandy Winn, seated at his locker. "I'm kind of kidding, but I'm not. It'sbeen 15 years of Barry hitting home runs here." When Bonds approached BabeRuth's mark of 714 last year, Winn says it didn't start to get really hairyuntil around 713. But this year? "It's been like this all season--"Winnpoints around a nearly media-free locker room--"fairly tame." Hepauses. "But it's not 755 yet."
The loquaciousformer mayor can tell you why it's quiet. Willie Brown will be the first totell you many things, such as who was mayor when the Giants ballpark was built(Willie Brown!), and when the Giants last made the World Series (Willieagain!), and when Bonds hit 73 home runs (that'd be Brown too). He's friendswith Bonds. Brown says the two attend dinner parties together, that Barry askedhim to go jogging, if you can believe that. Yes, Brown understands SanFrancisco and Barry, and he's capable of defending the slugger and needling thecurrent mayor, Gavin Newsom, in one breath: "There has not been anyturn-off of fans to Barry Bonds because that's nothing here, where they don'teven get turned off when politicians end up in rehab."
And Brown knows whypeople are not excited yet. "He's competing against himself," theformer mayor says. "We in this area don't find 11 home runs in two monthsto be really significant. We San Franciscans are going to be proud of therecord, but we were far more riveted on his 73 home runs than we are on his 756home runs." That said, Brown emphasizes, he will be there for 755 and 756.He has worked out a deal with the Giants where he has two guaranteed seats atevery ballpark in which the Giants play on the road from here on out. "I'llsee you in Boston, when they play the Red Sox, and I just hope that CurtSchilling is on the mound and has to pitch to Barry!" Brown cackles. "Iwant Barry not to hit a home run but to hit the ball so hard that Schillingcan't get out of the way."
By that point, bythe time Bonds goes to Boston in mid-June, the hype will be bubbling over. Itwill be all Barry all the time, in part because of Schilling's ill-conceivedcomments (a soliloquy last week on Boston radio in which the Boston pitcherimplied that Bonds was a tax cheat, a bad father and a bad person). Some, likeGordon Wright, a father in the Marin suburb of Fairfax, detest the coverage."I resent the hell out of SportsCenter for running a highlight ofBonds--every time--in their coverage of the Giants," says Wright viae-mail. "They do so whether or not he goes yard or goes 1 for 4 with a walkand a single. Why are we leading with this man on a day when Barry Zito isstarting and snapping off hellacious deuces?"
But Wright knowsthe answer. It's part of the big show, and it is a show. For most, the coverageof the home run chase will be reality TV at its best, more honest than Bonds onBonds, more crass than American Idol, the perfect media storm: race, money,drugs and sports all rolled into one neat 42-year-old package. The Frenchphilosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote of the hyperreality created by coverage ofcoverage. From his grave, he would chuckle at this scene.
Others might findthat the coverage changes their minds. Such is the case with Eric Quandt, apublic defender who grew up and still resides in San Francisco, played collegebaseball 10 years ago and has lived and died with the Giants. He thinks hemight see a new Barry this year. "When I first read some of the [BALCO]stories, I wanted him to retire," says Quandt. "But I've eased up abit. I like his approach this season. I watch him step on home plate after hishome runs, and he turns and runs into the dugout without pointing up to anyonein the sky. As a public defender I believe strongly in redemption, and Ibelieve he, like everyone else, should be afforded that opportunity. And withSchilling's recent statements, I find myself wanting to stand up and protectone of my own against the scurrilous accusations." Quandt was at a Giantsgame last week and saw Bonds hit number 745 off the Mets' Tom Glavine. It madehim remember what drew him to Bonds in the first place. "As a baseballpurist, you have no choice but to marvel at his swing, his ability to outthinkHall of Fame pitchers. You also have the choice not to place him on amoralistic pedestal simply because he knows how to hit a baseball."
For some, thatchoice is simple, as is the case with the 11- and 12-year-old Little Leaguersin Albany, a 15-minute drive from San Francisco. It's a Saturday afternoon, andthe preteen Giants are warming up for a game, a dozen boys in replica Giantshats and jerseys fielding grounders (sometimes) and firing them back to theircoach. They are not of one mind about Bonds. Some, like 11-year-old Joe Franco,believe Bonds cheated by using steroids and shouldn't break Hank Aaron's recordbecause, you see, Hank didn't cheat. Twelve-year-old Clayton Langbein, on theother hand, believes Bonds didn't take steroids on purpose, that maybe hisagent put them in his drink. "It would make sense because his agent gets 10percent," explains Langbein. Others, such as Michael Ravin, a freckled,11-year-old infielder, aren't sure about the truth. "If he wascheating," Ravin says, "they should ban him and all his statisticsshould be erased. It would be like he never played."
On two things,however, the boys are (mostly) united: They would never wear a Bonds jersey (inpart because most are A's fans), and they think it would be cool if he brokethe record because, well, nothing beats a spectacle. "It will be a funthing for the Bay Area," says one of the boys. "It will beawesome!" says another. "I just hope he hits it in the water."Eleven-year-old Carl Jacobs sums it up. "It's good for the fans," hesays, cradling his glove. "Fans come to watch the games. They don't come towatch the critics."
These are voicesfrom a younger generation, though. The older one doesn't forgive as easily, andat times it weeps for the dilution of history. For decades Ed Moose ranrestaurants in San Francisco and has been called "maybe the onlyrestaurateur to outshine the legendary Toots Shor." Now 77 and recentlyretired, he is saddened. Moose grew up in St. Louis working as a runner forBranch Rickey, then was an usher at Cardinals games; he remains close with StanMusial. He remembers the way the game used to be played. "The change inbaseball, where the home run is so terribly important now, has hurt thegame," he says. Many of the Giants used to come into his old place,Washington Square Grill in North Beach, and McCovey in particular was aregular. Barry was going to come in once, Moose says, but Bonds's lawyer gotworried because Bonds didn't know anybody at the bar. "He was very carefulabout where he went," says Moose. "I don't know of any bars that hewent to, in fact. The other players, it's a great life going out. But I don'tknow if Bonds wanted it."
And what of theman himself? How does he feel about all this? His p.r. rep will tell you howmany letters he receives, how Giants fans uniformly love Bonds, but she ismomentarily flummoxed when asked whether Bonds has a fan club. "Not as faras we know," says Rachael Vizcarra by phone. "But we get hundreds ofletters, and lots are from kids." She doesn't want to share theseletters--privacy issues, you understand--but she assures you that they areheartwarming. In fact, she says, she's tearing up now just talking aboutthem.
For his part,Bonds is not likely to talk about the letters, or much else. He talks to thepress on the first day of road trips and that's it. Other times he'll talk tobeat writers he knows, but often about nonbaseball matters. One writer spent 20minutes talking to Bonds recently. "He didn't answer any of my questions,but he wanted to talk about poker," says the writer. Bonds, it turns out,is a huge poker guy. "And once Barry starts blabbing, you can't get awayfrom him."
One should neverrely on reputation, though, so an interview is attempted. When approached,Bonds is fiddling with a cellphone. To his left, his personal flat-screen TV istuned to a baseball game. After three questions go unheeded, Bonds finallylooks up, annoyed. "Are you trying to do an interview?" he says.
Slowly, though,Bonds warms up. He does not answer baseball questions, other than ingeneralities such as, "I don't like to count my chickens before theyhatch" and, with regard to the Bay Area's interest in the chase,"Everybody likes sports." When the idea of taping a Warriors game onTiVo is brought up, he is at first scornful, then moderately interested."You can watch a whole game in 45 minutes?" he asks. More interestingto him, however, is his cellphone, and he describes the problems he's havingwith it. He seems to find comfort in the mundane substance of theconversation.
Such moments maybe rare. A half hour earlier, as he prepared for batting practice, Bonds sat inthe dugout, alone. Looking closely, you noticed something: Around Bonds and onthe field, every one of his teammates was involved with another human being,whether it was fielding balls, taking swings, joking around or chatting with areporter. Above Bonds, in the stands, fans stood together and talked, holdingbeers. But there in the dugout was Barry, a human island. He'd already shooedaway the visiting New York media (he would not be talking today), so he fiddledwith his bats, then sat on the dugout railing, staring at the field. Finally,he walked over to the TV camera in the Giants dugout and swiveled it back andforth, using the controls to zoom in on things. Eventually he tilted it upwardand slowly scanned, then zoomed. Looking in the viewfinder after his departure,it became clear that Bonds had focused on the walkway in right centerfield,near the food court. It's where the pretty girls often walk by. For once, hewas the one looking and judging from afar.
The time had comefor Bonds to hit, so he strode to the plate and assumed that familiar stance,body coiled, bat wagging. Three pitches in, he stepped, swiveled and sent aball roaring into the San Francisco evening, out and up into the rightfieldstands. He watched it for a second, tracing its flight. And in that moment, ifperhaps only in that moment and others like it, he was able to connect withthis city and its people.
From behind him inthe stands, a single voice could be heard.
"Baaa-reee!" the voice cheered. "Baaa-reee!"
Track Barry Bonds's march to the home run record, one picture at a time.
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The old-school manager knows enough to stick todiscussing only what his star does on the field. "This guy, he's so muchbetter than the rest," says Bochy.
"People here don't give a s--- about Bonds and hisrecord," says the barkeep, McCambridge. "I'd rather watch mygrandchildren play than that a------."
"If he was cheating," says 11-year-old MichaelRavin, "they should ban him and all of his statistics should beerased."
"With all that's been written the last 10years," says Krukow, the Giants' radio and TV color man, "the smear jobon this kid is just ridiculous."
"There's no turnoff of fans to Barry Bonds,"says Brown, the former mayor.
"Here, they don't even get turned off whenpoliticians end up in rehab."
The pitching debut of Lincecum (below, left) and the Warriors' surprisingplayoff success have been hotter topics than Bonds in the BayArea.
Bonds's bomb against Glavine on May 8 left him 11 shy of breaking Aaron'srecord.
Even in the dugout, the image of Bonds is that of a human island.
An unguarded moment captures Bonds in a flattering light.
Bonds can be gregarious with reporters, but only on his terms.
The faithful will become more frenzied as Bonds gets closer to Aaron'smark.