- The Washington Times - Friday, June 11, 2004

PHOENIX — This was a long time ago, 1986. Barry Bonds was a hugely talented though somewhat naive rookie with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Lee Mazzilli was a wily, street-smart veteran whose good days had passed.

“That guy was one of my mentors,” Bonds, the San Francisco Giants’ slugging left fielder, said of Mazzilli last week.

But here’s the funny part.

“I’ll never forget this,” Bonds said recently. “He wouldn’t let me have a locker. Him, Rick Rhoden, after I got called up, they made me dress in the middle of the floor. Lee Mazzilli had two lockers. Back then, not everybody had two lockers like they do now. Locker rooms weren’t that big. I had to dress on the floor.

“And then I had to share a locker with a trainer because Lee wouldn’t let me have the locker next to his. That was supposed to be my locker. But he wouldn’t let me have it. That was your whole initiation as a rookie.”

Bonds was smiling throughout the story. He clearly relished the memory, distant though it was. Baseball was harder for him then but more fun than it often seems to be now. The home runs and the walks and the MVP awards were still ahead. So were his contentious, even fractious relationships with managers, teammates and the media; the death of his father, former major leaguer Bobby Bonds, and the recent steroid allegations.

His persona and reputation, along with his monstrous abilities, trail Bonds like one of those banners attached to a small plane. He moves, it moves, and it all comes buzzing into Baltimore tonight. The Giants have three games this weekend against the Orioles and manager Lee Mazzilli.

Now Bonds is the salty vet, 40 next month, the one with his own suite of clubhouse lockers. Mazzilli is the rookie, a first-time manager at the major league level. Bonds, whose only prior Camden Yards appearance was during the 1993 All-Star Game, has been waiting for this. “The best thing about going to Baltimore is I get to see Lee Mazzilli,” he said.

But, wait. Bonds still had more to recount from the old days. This apparently was a very good time in his life.

“You know what? I had to earn my respect with those guys,” he said. “I had to earn my time with them. It was cool. I’ll never forget, we were going to Atlanta. In the minor leagues, you had to get your own luggage and everything. I didn’t know. My dad wouldn’t tell me everything about the big leagues. He said, ‘Son, you’ve got to learn on your own.’

“So they sent me down to baggage claim, and everyone got on the bus and took off. And I had to take a cab.”

Bonds’ smile grew wider.

“They put me through all kinds of things.”

Then, getting serious, Bonds said, “But Lee helped me. The way the guys made me, they were old school like my father was. They helped me learn the game of baseball. They helped me learn that respect level. They said, ‘Son, your time will come when you’re a veteran and you get to make the rules. … But today ain’t the day.’”

And then he laughed.

A few days later, Lee Mazzilli was told of Bonds mentioning some good-natured rookie hazing.

“I don’t remember that,” Mazzilli said. “Does he remember that?”

The conversation with Bonds was repeated.

“Naw,” said Mazzilli. “I did that? No, I would never do that. I’m not that kind of person.”

Mazzilli’s eyes are hidden by dark sunglasses. There is, however, the faintest of smiles.

“He was a very talented kid when he was very young,” Mazzilli said. “And he knew he was gonna be a special player …”

Are you sure you don’t remember?

“That’s a long time ago,” Mazzilli said. “Old age is setting in.”

It is mentioned that Bonds is grateful for the advice and counsel.

“You do that to a degree with all young guys,” Mazzilli said. “What you’re doing is helping yourself, you’re helping the team. When you see someone that has special gifts, that makes it a lot easier to do.”

Bonds, who has won six MVP awards, including the last three, is the first to acknowledge he has been blessed.

“I shouldn’t be playing baseball at this age,” he said, comparing himself to such legends as Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and even Muhammad Ali. “Not every day, not as much. Especially doing what I’m doing. But it’s just genetics and a gift from God.”

Despite a chronically bad back that sometimes forces him to rest, and a steady diet of pitches out of the strike zone, Bonds is batting .369 with 16 home runs. He is drawing walks at a pace that would give him a ridiculous 225, demolishing his record of 198 in 2002. He broke the career record for intentional walks long ago, but it is happening more than ever this season. During one game last month, Bonds was passed four times.

Managers fear him. Opponents and teammates continue to be amazed.

“He does stuff every day where you look at him and go, ‘Wow,’” said Giants outfielder Michael Tucker, a 10-year veteran. “We’re fans. Every time he comes to bat, you’ll see everybody in the dugout stand and watch, just to see what happens. There are a lot of people that are close to him [in talent]: “Junior [Ken Griffey] and Sammy [Sosa] and [Albert] Pujols. A-Rod [Alex Rodriguez], of course. But with Barry, you know on any swing he takes, there’s a 50 percent chance he’s gonna hit it out of the ballpark.”

Last month when the Giants were in New York to play the Mets, Bonds took advantage of the bright lights and big city ambience to take a 45-minute verbal ramble through a variety of subjects. He was vulgar, hostile and funny, sometimes all while expressing the same thought. In other words, Barry as usual.

Addressing several topics, Bonds again denied using steroids, even though his personal trainer, Greg Anderson, has been indicted and published reports said Bonds, along with Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and other athletes, had been supplied steroids or human growth hormones (HGH) by the now-infamous Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO).

Bonds has 674 home runs, but his prodigious output since 2000, including the 73 he hit in 2001, helps fuel steroid suspicions (along with the 40 pounds of muscle he has added since Mazzilli was or wasn’t stealing his locker). He reiterated in New York that catching all-time champion Henry Aaron is not a priority. It has been written that Bonds, who needs 82 to pass Aaron’s 755, might retire after next season.

Recently in Arizona, Bonds said that wasn’t necessarily true. The Giants have an option to pick up his $18million salary in 2006 that can be voided if he doesn’t have enough plate appearances.

“I don’t ever bet the future,” he said. “I’ve said that throughout my whole career. I said there was no guarantee I was gonna be signed [after next year]. Right now I budget my life that next year is my last year.”

Even though he surpassed the 660 homers by his godfather, Willie Mays, this has been an especially challenging time for Bonds. His back hurts. There is the BALCO investigation, accompanied by boos and taunts from fans on the road. Bonds professes to ignore them. But he was shaken by the recent death of the mother of one of his close friends from back in high school. Bonds returned to California for the funeral and missed Thursday’s game against Tampa Bay.

Bonds said his grandmother is in poor health, and he still is dealing with his father’s passing last August. Barry and Bobby had a close and, by all indications, rather complicated relationship.

“It’s been a tough road,” Bonds said. “My father ain’t been gone a year. People think it’s all over with. It’s tough because I never had to play baseball my myself. Willie [Mays] has been my mentor, but I never had to play the game alone before. Never. There were always eyes behind my head. My dad taught me how to hit, taught me how to play.

“We’re playing Arizona now, and my dad would be watching,” Bonds said. “If Randy [Johnson] made one mistake, my dad would call my cell phone and tell me about it, and then I’m gonna get Randy. But now I’ve got to figure it out on my own. Randy’s gonna kick my [butt] tonight.”

Bonds emitted another huge laugh. Then he went 0-for-2 and was hit by a pitch against Johnson.

Bonds frequently brings up his father. Asked how he deals with problems, he said, “My dad used to tell me, ‘Son, if you ain’t man enough to handle bad times, you’re never gonna appreciate the good ones.’ If everything’s gotta be good for you, then you’re missing real life.”

To make things good, Bonds works his tail off. Regardless of the substance suspicions, no one doubts his dedication to the gym, to weightlifting and overall conditioning. It wasn’t always like that, as evidenced by pictures of a relatively skinny Bonds in his youth. But about 15 years ago, he said, a Pirates strength coach prevailed upon him to hit the weights. Before that, Bonds was a self-confessed party boy who lived by the “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” philosophy, he said.

Only ballplayers truly understand how hard it is to play the game and Bonds, his achievements notwithstanding, has never doubted his mortality as an athlete.

“Nobody’s invincible,” he said. “You can get beat any time. I don’t care who … you are.”

Among Bonds’ complexities is the tendency to contradict himself. He talks about how he doesn’t care what people think, then notes that he played in Puerto Rico a few weeks ago with a bad back “because people came out to see me play.” He also visited children in a cancer hospital. Bonds complains that fans’ impressions of him are formed almost exclusively by a negative, dirt-digging media, then acknowledges that “people appreciate me, without a doubt.”

Giants manager Felipe Alou said he has never had a problem with Bonds, although a few former teammates tell a different story. Tucker, who has played for six different teams and seen pretty much everything, said, “He’s gonna tell you what he’s thinking. If you’ve got soft skin, then I wouldn’t go talk to him. If you’re somebody like that, Barry is not the person you should talk to. He might hurt your feelings by telling the truth.”

True enough, Bonds said.

“Ask any one of my friends,” he said, “people I grew up with, they’ll say Barry Bonds is one person that ain’t ever changed since he was in high school. They’ll say, ‘Barry Bonds will tell you [where to go] in high school, he’ll tell you [where to go] now.’

“I mean, there were only two black people in my whole school (Serra High in San Mateo, Calif.). Four Mexicans and two or three black guys. That was it. We had to adjust to everything in our lives. I went to an all-boys Catholic school, which was a great school. I loved that school, and I think it did great for me. There are a whole lot more African-Americans there now. But the whole deal was, you were always on the outside.”

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