- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

It takes a touch of tragedy sometimes to glimpse the human side of athletes who seem cold, hard and invulnerable.

For Barry Bonds, his reaction to the death of his father has both softened his image and strengthened his reputation as baseball’s most imposing player. Even in grief, he is closing in on another MVP award.

Monster numbers loom in Bonds’ future, one in particular that will last at least a generation or two.

There is the 660 to match his godfather, Willie Mays, for third on the all-time home run list, probably within the coming weeks.

There’s the 714 to catch Babe Ruth, perhaps by next September. And there’s Hank Aaron’s 755, which may arrive the following year.

As august as those figures are, they may be surpassed by other muscle-rippling sluggers sooner than a more personal milestone that Bonds should be able to enjoy well into his gray-haired days.

It’s the number 1,000 — the home run total of a father and son that will be a long, long time breaking.

Bobby had 332 and Barry stood at 653 yesterday when he returned to the lineup after succumbing to exhaustion and spending a night in a Phoenix hospital a week after his father died.

The heart palpitations and the brief scare were gone. He looked relaxed and comfortable, playing cards and chatting with teammates in the clubhouse. The standard mix of boos and applause greeted him when he came to the plate against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Normalcy was back. In the ninth inning, with the bases loaded, Bonds lined a two-run single to lift the San Francisco Giants to a 2-0 victory.

“I don’t like to play overtime,” he said.

At 39, Bonds is as awesome at bat as he has been the last several incredible years. If he won’t approach the 73 homers he hit two years ago or the .370 he batted last year in winning consecutive MVP awards, what he’s done this year while his father was dying may be even more impressive.

That he’s carrying the Giants to a runaway NL West title — he leads the league in homers, on-base percentage and slugging percentage while batting .342 — makes him the favorite to win MVP No. 6.

Albert Pujols may be flirting with a Triple Crown season, but he’s not likely to outpoll Bonds if the Cardinals don’t make the playoffs. Gary Sheffield and Sammy Sosa have credible stats, too, but neither one should dethrone Bonds.

An old baseball trivia question is: Which brothers hold the record for home runs? The answer: the Aarons, Hank and Tommie, the less famous sibling chipping in with 13. The father-and-son duo next best to the Bondses are the Griffeys, far back at 633 — Ken Sr. with 152, Junior with 481.

For a father and son to reach 1,000 homers, it took more than good genes passed on from Bobby to Barry. It took a complicated relationship, sometimes distant and difficult, sometimes close and tender, and a daily dose of batting tips. Always there were the challenges they faced, each in different ways.

Bobby was almost, but not quite, a Hall of Famer, a player weighed down by unrealistic expectations to replace his illustrious teammate, Mays. Barry far exceeded a surprising dearth of expectations to earn a place one day in Cooperstown.

Yet for all the talent and skills Barry inherited or learned from his father, he also picked up the unfortunate trait of unpopularity with a large number of fans.

Barry’s 73-homer year didn’t have any of the sizzle of Mark McGwire’s 70-homer season three years earlier. Even after all that Barry has done on the field since then — his first batting title and his playoff and World Series performances last year, his huge numbers this year — there is still a disconnect between him and most fans outside the Giants’ faithful.

Maybe that’s starting to change.

No one could fail to be impressed this year watching him deal with his father’s yearlong struggle with cancer, returning to the ballpark to hit one dramatic, game-winning homer after another.

No one could mistake the emotion on his face Saturday when he reached with both hands toward the sky after hitting his 40th homer against Randy Johnson in his first game back after his father’s death at 57.

“It’s tough. I lost my coach,” Bonds said.

And if anyone needed reminding that he is more than a robotic slugger with outsized muscles, all they had to do was see Bonds finally yield to the emotions and physical strain that had been building for so long. He felt his heart racing and he became lightheaded.

“After the home run, I couldn’t breathe,” he said.

When Bonds showed up for the game Sunday, looking and feeling exhausted, the Giants’ trainer sent him off for a night in the hospital for monitoring. Bonds argued at the time but acknowledged yesterday that it was the right thing to do.

“I just had problems with my heart and chest,” Bonds said. “I couldn’t get around it. It was just safer for me to go there than to try to play.”

Suddenly, he was no automaton, immune to aging or anxiety, but a man as mortal as the rest of us who did his best to make his old man proud.

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