- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Love him or hate him or both, everyone pays attention to Barry Bonds. He always seems to give people what they want. That would include his 706th career home run, his third in three games, which he launched against the Washington Nationals last night.

Bonds’ first road game since returning from a season-long absence because of multiple knee surgeries coincided neatly with the San Francisco Giants making their one and only visit to RFK Stadium. Asked before the trip about hearing a negative crowd reaction on the road, the controversial left fielder crowed, “Bring it on.”

Done. Bonds, cheered lustily at home, was booed when his name was announced during pregame introductions.

He was booed when he came out to the on-deck circle in the first inning and booed again when he came out to lead off the second.

The boos cascaded from the crowd when Bonds dug in at the plate against Nationals starter Livan Hernandez. A guy in the front row to the right of home plate near the Giants’ dugout held up a red paper asterisk, a clear message he believes Bonds’ awesome statistics — among other things he is third in lifetime home runs behind Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth — are tainted because of the well-publicized steroid use rumors.

But some cheered. And those who were letting Bonds have it all night booed when he walked on four pitches with one on and two out in the ninth inning. Because above all, they want to see him swing the bat. The walk was followed by Moises Alou’s three-run homer that led the Giants to a 4-3 win.

The game revealed two truths about Bonds: Even at 41, he usually has a tangible effect on the game, sometimes just by being there. And, regardless of how Bonds is perceived, no one ever looks away.

“He’s something special to watch,” said a Bonds fan, Nationals rookie outfielder Ryan Church.

Bonds popped out his first time up. It is safe to assume the crowd’s derision had nothing to do with it.

“You’re not gonna see him wear earplugs,” Giants owner Peter Magowan said before the game, referring to the disgraced Rafael Palmeiro of the Baltimore Orioles, who flunked a steroid test and heard about it at a high decibel level during games. “Booing brings out the competitive instinct in him.”

Sure enough, in his second at-bat, Bonds crushed a 1-2 fastball from Hernandez. The ball sailed on a majestic arc into the upper deck in right field and almost made it to the yellow seats, one of the few to go that far at homer-unfriendly RFK. True to Magowan’s word, Bonds singled out a heckling fan by putting his finger to his lips after he touched the plate. “I just told him, sit down and enjoy it,” he said.

Bonds, who grounded out his third time up, missed the first 142 games of the season after undergoing three operations to his right knee plus one to his left. The seven-time National League MVP returned nine days ago and has given the Giants, struggling to catch San Diego in the NL West, a taste of what they have missed.

Even Bonds himself, who compares this to going through spring training, said he is surprised by his quick start. “I hope I can hang to it for as long as I can,” he said.

Physically, Bonds resembles the same eye-popping specimen he was before, although he still treats the knee gingerly in the outfield and on the basepaths. He recently said he would lose 20 pounds to reduce the strain on his legs. He was in mostly good humor before the game, but along with his light-up-the-room smile, he also flashed the defiance and defensiveness we have come to know, if not quite love.

Yet at the same time, if it’s possible, Bonds also seemed humbled. After enduring the operations, the rehabilitation and a scary bacterial infection that had him hooked to a portable IV for a week, he is not taking anything for granted.

“At my age, I’m just happy to play,” he said. “At my age, every game is fun. When you’re a young kid, you’re trying to find who you are. When you’re old, you’re just trying to stay in it.”

But the specter of steroids and the BALCO investigation, the charges and suspicions, still linger, even though Bonds says he never has failed a drug test. Congress has had one set of steroid hearings (when Palmeiro infamously wagged his finger and professed never to have touched the stuff), and more are scheduled for next week. Bonds has not been called to testify.

Still, he offered Congress (and anybody else, for that matter) some unsolicited advice.

“I think there are other issues in our country that are a lot more serious,” he said, mentioning the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina. “We have a crisis here. Everyone should start contributing and not point a finger.”

He didn’t explain whether he meant at the relief effort, or himself.

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