Bonds on the loose: Slugger gears up for special season

Reprinted with permission from Baseball Weekly.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - A fly ball sails to left field and the outfielder makes a glove-hand snatch of the ball, finishing his catch with a long sweep of both arms, like a bird spreading his wings. Later, the player rockets a towering 440-foot home run over the right-field wall, nearly hitting a bus parked outside. He walks seven steps, watching the ball sail into the cloudy Arizona sky, then claps his hands before breaking into a slow home-run trot.

All that, just for a blast against one of his own teammates in an intrasquad game. ''That must have been Barry Bonds,'' says an elderly fan watching the home run. That was Barry Bonds. Part theater, all performance. A player who gives no quarter to any opponent, any teammate . . . or himself. How else can you explain what Bonds did this offseason?

BARRY BONDS CAN BE RUDE and intimidating, or he can flash a million-dollar smile and thoughtfully answer questions in a gentle, soft-spoken manner - if you wait until he's ready. You've got to play by his rules.

''Barry's Barry,'' says San Francisco Giants manager Dusty Baker.

Bonds grew up in major league clubhouses, playing in godfather Willie Mays' locker when he was just 4. Today, Bonds has Mays' cubicle at 3Com Park. ''Barry might make two or three mistakes over the course of the year,'' Mays says one bright day at Scottsdale Stadium before a Cactus League game, ''and that's when I talk to him. Other than that, he knows what he's supposed to do.''

Yet even Mays recognizes that his godson has an attitude. A TV crew asks Mays to intercede for them in getting Bonds to answer questions about a new stadium in San Francisco. "Not Barry - Barry's in his own (bleeping) world,'' Mays says.

Players from Mays' era didn't wear dangling gold earrings, so it's probably hard for the Hall of Famer to relate. Yet, Bonds, to his credit, was in the clubhouse doing a radio interview.

Bonds justifies his arrogance with his numbers. He's only the sixth player in major league history to hit 250 homers and steal 300 bases in his career. And he's only 31. The others were Mays, Bonds' father Bobby, Joe Morgan, Andre Dawson and Vada Pinson.

Heading into this season, Bonds is just eight home runs shy of 300. Perhaps more significantly, he's more physically and mentally sound than in any other year.

In an offseason in which much of the world anointed Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. as the game's top player, Barry Bonds gathered himself to make this a special season.

He devoted himself to a masochistic offseason workout regimen, increasing his strength and stamina: He doesn't want a late summer slowdown. He's resolved his personal life: A much-publicized divorce is finalized. And he's aware of his image: He doesn't want to spoil any chance he might have of winning a fourth Most Valuable Player award.

This spring, he acts more weary of the clubhouse buffet platters of cold cuts than routine questions from the media. ''You can't get under my skin no more,'' Bonds says to the small crowd of reporters in the clubhouse. ''My life is a lot different and better now.''

But some things never change, completely. After the intrasquad game in which he homered, a reporter asks if the blast was significant. Bonds responds no, saying the game was for the pitchers. The reporter presses, trying for a better quote. Bonds has nothing more to say. End of story.

After all, this home run doesn't count toward his career stats.

Baker, however, says Bonds is trying to work on his image.

''He's made a conscientious effort - I've seen him signing autographs more this spring,'' Baker says. ''Sometimes Barry is tough to deal with, but most of the times he's a gentleman. He ain't phony or fake about anything.''

Says San Diego's Tony Gwynn: ''I think what happened to Albert Belle last year (surliness probably cost Belle the MVP award) made him realize that sometimes you have to open up and let people get close.

''He fights the media off, and he does it with players in the league, too.''

During last year's All-Star Game in Texas, which was Bonds' fifth such appearance, Gwynn, Ozzie Smith and Bobby Bonilla tried to assure Bonds it was OK to talk to the press, who were more focused on Hideo Nomo than the Giants' outfielder.

''We were telling him, 'Man, you've just got to loosen up, you've got to relax and be yourself. Let them see what you're all about,' '' Gwynn says. ''I said, 'Here's an opportunity for you to let these people get close, but will you do that? No.' And he said, 'You're right - I won't.' I know what's going on up there (in Bonds' head) and I can be a little more sympathetic than most people. I still say he's the best player in our league, without a question.''

BONDS HITS, HE HITS WITH POWER, he drives in runs, he plays a great left field - with the exception of one play last June - and he's a great baserunner. Bonds does all these things well and does them consistently well. He's won three MVPs. He wants a fourth. He's put together three 30-30 seasons. He wants more. Maybe 50-50?

''No, I don't think so,'' Bonds says, smiling at the possibility. ''I'm not that strong.''

Yet his workout regimen, supervised by personal trainer Raymond Farriss, who also trains former NFL running back Roger Craig and all-world wide receiver Jerry Rice, suggests he might be.

In four months, Bonds lowered his body fat to 8% from 12%, and is bench-pressing 315 pounds, up from 230. There were sprints to be run, and run, and run. He looks more muscular, more defined, more powerful. His biceps stretch his jersey's sleeves to the limit.

''I thought I was in great shape the way I worked out before because I was putting up the numbers I did,'' Bonds says in the clubhouse, ''but I was out of shape. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it and I'm happy with the results, but it doesn't guarantee success. I don't care how many weights you lift - you can lift until you're blue in the face - it doesn't guarantee success.

''I don't put a whole lot of emphasis on my training program. I don't say that it's going to win me an MVP.''

What will win it for him? Bonds' numbers are becoming routine for him. He hit .294, with 33 homers, 31 stolen bases and 104 RBI in '95, which would be career years for most players. That was in a shortened 144-game season.

''I'm like Tony Gwynn now,'' Bonds says, laughing again. ''If he hits .340, it's like, 'So? That's Tony.' If Barry Bonds hits 30 home runs and steals 30 bases, it's 'So? That's Barry.' It's harder for people to recognize it now because if somebody has one good year out of his career, it overshadows what I do consistently.

''Don't get me wrong - I'm happy for him. But sometimes you feel like a boxer should be knocked out before he's punched out.''

''The years he didn't win the MVP,'' Gwynn says, ''if I had those years, I'd probably win it. That's the hole you dig for yourself. If you're more consistent than anybody in the National League and you do the same thing for five years, sometime around the third year, there's no glamour to it. He's just doing what he should be doing.

''It's going to take an ungodly year,'' Gwynn says. ''In Barry Bonds' case, it might take 50-50 for him to be an MVP again. That, and the fact that he could do that and his team would probably have to win, too.''

It would be feasible - maybe - if Bonds didn't draw 100-plus walks, which he has done four of the last five seasons.

''If I ever did try to do that,'' Bonds says of a prospective 50-50, ''I'd hit about .220. You'd have to be willing to give up something for it and I'm not willing to give up anything. I like the 30-30 and hitting .300 and driving in 100 and scoring 100. To me, that's as complete as you can be.''

It puts him in select company. Only 14 players in the majors have reached the 30-30 mark, doing so 24 times. Bonds, who put together such stellar seasons in 1990 and '92 for Pittsburgh, is the first 30-30 player for the Giants since his father Bobby in 1973. The senior Bonds is the only ballplayer ever to have five 30-30 seasons. Imagine if Bonds plays at this pace five more seasons until he's 36; he could have 440 homers and nearly 500 stolen bases. That's more impressive than one 50-50 season.

WHAT MAKES BARRY BONDS so good are his baseball smarts, partly inherited from his dad and partly developed through hard work. ''He sees things quicker than any other player except Hank Aaron,'' Baker says. ''He sees a pitcher flaring his glove on a changeup and he'll come back to the dugout and say, 'Did you see that?' Other guys don't see that until the sixth inning, if they see it at all. And once you can see it, you'll always be able to see it.''

''I just know the game well, I guess,'' Bonds says with genuine modesty. ''I don't try to evaluate every little thing that other people are doing. I just try to keep myself mechanically sound and if they make a mistake and put it within that square, then if I'm mechanically sound, it doesn't really make a difference what they throw.''

Last year, Bonds produced an RBI every 4.9 at-bats, sixth best in the National League. He batted .325 in the clutch. Over the last five seasons, only one player equaled Bonds in hitting in late innings or close games - Seattle's Edgar Martinez. But when you throw in hitting with runners in scoring position during that time, Bonds stands alone and unequaled.

''He's probably more comfortable in those (clutch) situations than he is with nobody on in the first inning,'' says teammate Matt Williams. ''Playing against him and playing with him for the last couple of years, nothing he does surprises me. The more you see, you just accept that he's a special player.''

''I think it's just that I don't like to lose,'' Bonds says. ''I want to be up in that (clutch) situation to have a shot at it, but I don't have dreams about the World Series or having the bases loaded or nothing like that. My dreams are 9-0 and we're winning in the World Series rather than having a situation where there's a noose around my neck. I try to look at things a little easier than stressful.''

He is special.

''It's like in hockey in an overtime game, you anticipate Gretzky will score,'' Baker says. ''In basketball, you know Michael Jordan is going to take the shot. In football, you know Jerry Rice is going to catch the pass. That's the real superstar - when everyone knows he's going to get the ball and he still scores or makes the play.''

And Barry Bonds is a superstar?

''Correct,'' Baker said.

The first player ever to win three MVPs in four seasons, Bonds might be able to fine-tune his physique, but his image is another thing. He's had to take a back seat to Ken Griffey Jr., who is more personable - Junior is certainly more visible in his endorsements. But they play different positions in different leagues and have different styles. Will Griffey ever be the basestealer Bonds is? Bonds might not have Junior's smile, but he has the numbers to back up his boasts and it doesn't matter to him what anyone says.

''I feel the press puts a stamp on certain players and once they stamp you as a 'bad person,' then that's what they feed on and there's nothing you can do about it,'' Bonds says. ''I know in my heart the type of ballplayer I am and the type of person I am.

''Every time they say, 'Well, people say,' everyone knows it's just, 'The press says.' I mean, be honest - they didn't do a survey, they didn't really ask anybody.

''As many people as they say don't like you, I have that many people who do like me, so I don't worry about it.''

It's probably about 50-50.

By Carrie Muskat, Baseball Weekly


© 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998 Jason Prothero