IT HAS BEEN quite a while since the popular notion of spring training as a carefree, optimistic time has applied to the San Francisco Giants. During the last few years of the Barry Bonds era, the only rebirth the Giants experienced each spring was the revival of their slugger's steroid-related drama. Last February, Bonds arrived in camp and immediately faced questions about being investigated for perjury in his 2003 grand jury testimony about performance-enhancing drugs. Two years ago spring training coincided with the publication of Game of Shadows, the book that brought to light evidence of his suspected juicing. The camp before that featured Bonds's memorable diatribe against the media ("You wanted me to jump off a bridge; I finally did," he said) with his teenage son, Nikolai, looking on forlornly at his side.
This is an article from the March 10, 2008 issue
But this spring, with the team having parted company with its lightning rod of a leftfielder, the mood at the Giants' camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., is so upbeat it makes Oprah's Big Give look like a downer. "This isn't to put the blame on Barry, but things are very comfortable and relaxed this year," pitcher Barry Zito says. "People are working hard, but there's a lot of laughter going on too." Life after Bonds—whom the Giants declined to re-sign after last season, when they lost 91 games and finished last in the NL West—is all about team bowling outings (the brainchild of new centerfielder Aaron Rowand) and Guitar Hero video game tournaments (hosted by Zito), the kind of chemistry-building events that rarely took place while their surly superstar was around.
After years of a king-and-the-commoners atmosphere, the Giants are determined to create a new egalitarianism, so much so that at first none of the players wanted to take over Bonds's four-locker stretch of real estate in the Scottsdale Stadium clubhouse. There was talk of giving the space to longtime equipment manager Mike Murphy before Zito stepped forward to take over part of the area and invited fellow starter Matt Cain to share it with him. "I think the feeling is that no one player should own Barry's space," says shortstop Omar Vizquel. "That's not how we're doing things anymore."
It's not that the Giants are celebrating the 43-year-old Bonds's departure; they preface most of their comments about the team's lighter mood with some version of, "Nothing against Barry, but...." It's more that they're thrilled at not being asked their reaction to every twist of Bonds's legal situation, and they feel liberated from the scrutiny he attracted. The hordes of out-of-town reporters who once hung around hoping to get more than a withering glare from Bonds are gone. "When you walk in the clubhouse," says infielder Kevin Frandsen, "it's nice to actually be able to walk in the clubhouse."
Only one bit of unpleasantness from the Bonds era remains—the possibility that owner Peter Magowan and general manager Brian Sabean will face discipline from commissioner Bud Selig based on the Mitchell Report accusation that they failed to act on warnings that Bonds's trainer, Greg Anderson, was discussing steroids with Giants players. Magowan said last week that he and Sabean had met with Selig, but neither the executives nor the commissioner's office would comment on what, if any, action will be taken against them.
Magowan didn't reveal the meeting with Selig until after the fact, probably because he didn't want to dampen the high spirits in Scottsdale. It remains to be seen whether this era of good feeling will survive long losing streaks, of which there may be many for a club whose lineup lacks both star and long-ball power. But that's where that springtime optimism kicks in. The Giants believe that hustle, scrappiness and a team-first attitude can help compensate for the absence of a middle-of-the-lineup slugger. Upon their arrival in Scottsdale, every player received a T-shirt with a gray, black and white camouflage pattern and the words warrior spirit and find the swagger printed on the back, a reference to manager Bruce Bochy's comment near the end of last season about the club's lacking those qualities. The buzzword around camp is "gamers," as in, hard-nosed players who are willing to do anything, including crash into walls (Rowand's specialty) in order to win. "That's how we see ourselves," Rowand says. "Everybody shares the responsibility equally. This isn't my team or Zito's team or Omar's team or anybody else's. This clubhouse doesn't belong to any one guy."
Bonds, meanwhile, is still looking for another clubhouse to call his own. Aside from his prickly personality and advanced age, he remains under indictment on perjury and obstruction charges—last week his much-discussed grand jury testimony was unsealed—and any team that signs him runs the risk of losing him because of his legal issues. Many team executives declined to even comment to SI on Bonds's chances of catching on with a new club, much less express interest in him. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has said that when he suggested that Bonds might be a good fit for his team, the team's owners and general manager John Mozeliak quickly shot the idea down. The only other team to talk openly about acquiring Bonds is the Tampa Bay Rays, whose manager, Joe Maddon, said last week that there has been some "minor discussion" about him among team officials. But Andrew Friedman, the Rays' vice president of baseball operations, later called it a "nonstory."
Any team that does develop a serious interest in Bonds would be wise to consider all the good vibrations coming out of the Giants' camp now that he's gone. It's hard to imagine that Bonds's presence could do more for a new club than his absence has done for his old one.
ONLY AT SI.COM
Your one stop for offbeat humor and the wackiest sports stories and links, including Hot Clicks and the Daily List, is SI.com/extramustard.