- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — It was just an early exhibition game in Arizona with nothing at stake except a few roster spots, but a regular season-murmur rippled through Scottsdale Stadium, the springtime home of the San Francisco Giants. Whether the crowd numbers 7,000 or 47,000, this happens every time Barry Bonds walks to the plate.

So, too, does what comes next, or variations thereof: “Boo! You [stink]!” And, “You have any steroids with you?” And, in sing-song, “Barry, Barry,” followed by “Steroids, steroids.” As a pitch crosses the plate, instead of calling, “strike!” a fan shouts, “BALCO!” Bonds walked, disappointing those who wanted to see him hit a home run or strike out. Then someone yelled, “Good job, Barry. We support you!” Later, he lined a double to left-center field and the place erupted. When he was removed for a runner, many gave him a standing ovation.

Well, this was a Giants home game. But Major League Baseball has a problem.

Bonds, the 42-year-old Giants left-fielder, needs 22 home runs to surpass Hank Aaron’s career record of 755. He probably will do it this season if he stays healthy, even though no one his age has ever hit more than 18. “I’m capable of doing more than that,” Bonds said in February, drawing no argument.

Here’s the problem: Barry Lamar Bonds is the most controversial, polarizing figure in all of sports. Compared to Bonds, Terrell Owens is a Peace Corps volunteer who reads to the blind and delivers candy to orphans. Mostly adored in his home city, Bonds elsewhere is despised and vilified more than any non-political public figure. Forget the abusive signs and the catcalls; in San Diego, someone threw a needle-less toy syringe on the field. Statistically, he is the best player of his time. And he is seen by many as the poster child for all that is wrong with the modern athlete. He remains the big fish to be reeled in by baseball’s ongoing steroids investigation.

Now he stands within a tape-measure job of the most hallowed, sacred record in all of American organized competition.

Stacked on one side of the ledger are Bonds’ numerous achievements, which include a record seven National League Most Valuable Player awards and 734 home runs. But on the other side are the allegations, many of which are heavily documented, that he not only knowingly and persistently used steroids and/or other performance-enhancing drugs over at least a half-dozen years but also lied about it to a grand jury. In other words, he cheated to get to where he is. Even before all this happened, Bonds already had made enemies for behavior (toward fans, media and teammates) seen as churlish and mean-spirited.

This is awkward. Not all non-Giants fans hate Bonds, and the schizophrenic nature of the impending event matches the hot-cold response Bonds gets from the public, often during the same at-bat. “It’s weird,’ ” Giants relief pitcher Steve Kline said. “They come to boo him, and then they’re happy if he hits a home run.” And when he leaves the on-deck circle, no one looks away.

Baseball’s powers that be likely wish it never came to this. So when Bonds finally smacks No. 756, will there be fireworks or will the whole thing be a dud? Baseball doesn’t know whether to celebrate or castigate. The word “tainted” has been used more than once, or a few hundred times, next to the word “record.” Will Commissioner Bud Selig even be there to honor the event? Will Aaron?

“Tough issue,” an anonymous general manager told ESPN.com earlier this year. “I’m glad I’m not in Selig’s shoes on this one.”

But no matter what kind of ceremony takes place, Selig (who according to a published report has twice confronted Bonds on the steroid issue, only to be told he had nothing to worry about) has an easy out regarding his own appearance. It’s called logistics.

“The commissioner’s not going to ignore it, but in terms of specifics, we don’t know how it will work until after the fact,” said Joe Garagiola Jr., Major League Baseball’s senior vice-president of baseball operations. “I think it’s unrealistic to think he’ll go to a series of games waiting for [Bonds] to hit a home run.”

Well, then, that’s settled. Meanwhile, Bonds, who turns 43 in July, professes indifference as to how the record will be recognized.

“I don’t have an opinion on what they do, because they run their business,” he said in an interview last month. “It’s not my opinion to say, ‘Hey, mommy, you should do this for my birthday.’ What that person chooses to do for an individual is what they should do. It’s not my opinion what they should do.”

As for the Giants, the mantra is that no matter how the Bonds chase, and all it entails, plays out it will not be a distraction. “Nobody’s gonna make a big deal about it,” veteran infielder Rich Aurilia said. “Everybody knows it’s gonna happen. You’ll pretty much know when it gets closer, but I don’t think anyone will let it affect us as a ballclub.”

Another veteran, shortstop Omar Vizquel, said, “It’s gonna be one of the most exciting moments in baseball history. So all eyes are gonna be focused on it, and I hope the team can continue to maintain the focus on the things we need to accomplish on the field.”

He added, “We’ve got to understand that there is a different world around Barry Bonds. Everything the man has been able to do seems to be bigger than anything else. We’ve just got to concentrate on playing baseball and let Barry do the Barry stuff.”

For Bonds, part of the Barry stuff means trying to remain above it all by ignoring it all. Or saying he does. He refuses to comment on the highly publicized BALCO grand jury investigation, during which he said he unwittingly used steroids in the form of the “cream and the clear.” He won’t discuss the book “Game of Shadows” that details and documents his alleged steroid use.

Nor will he talk about the allegations of perjury and income tax evasion, the imprisonment of his former trainer, Greg Anderson, and other forms of evidence being used against him, anecdotal and visual. Never has an athlete’s physical changes over the years, including his head size, been so minutely chronicled.

He has commented, however, on the most recent charges, that he took amphetamines last season which, he reportedly told baseball authorities, he got from teammate Mark Sweeney. Bonds has not confirmed nor denied a positive drug test, but he did explicitly exonerate Sweeney.

Amid all this swirling around him, he began preparing for his 21st big league season with a renewed spring in his step and even, according to veteran Bonds watchers, more of a smile in place of a scowl.

There was some speculation the Giants did not want him back, but he ended up signing, after some snags in the language, a one-year, $16 million contract. He reported to spring training fully recovered, he said, from the knee problems and other injuries that caused him to miss all but 14 games in 2005 and limited his effectiveness during the first half of last season. In 130 games, he hit .270 with 26 home runs and 77 runs batted in.

There was speculation that Giants general manager Brian Sabean did not want Bonds to return but was overruled. Sabean would not comment on that. Instead, he said, “I think the second half of last year proved he’s still got life in his game. At the end of the day, we needed a fourth hitter [Giants manager Bruce Bochy has since moved Bonds to third in the order]. He’s left-handed, and we think he’s gonna be healthier than he was the last couple of years. So we’ll see how it plays out. But we still think he can play and he can be a force in the lineup.”

Bochy, who managed the San Diego Padres for 12 seasons before replacing Felipe Alou with the Giants, said of Bonds, “He’s a very gifted athlete. At his age, to be able to hit the ball, and the way he hits it and as far as he hits it, that’s amazing. No question it gets harder for him. He knows that. But this guy is still an impact player.”

The $16 million notwithstanding, Bonds said he came back “because I like to play baseball.” During his first media session of spring training, Bonds kidded that he would play until he was 100 years old. “You guys get used to me,” he laughed. He talked about his health and his hopes for the Giants’ season, but then the questions turned, as they invariably would.

Asked about the grand jury, he said, “No comments.” Asked about Anderson remaining in jail, he said the same thing. Finally he ended the session. “Thank you very much,” he said. “Let’s talk baseball.”

The importance and enormity of the record are obvious, but Bonds insists he is not dwelling on it. What happens happens. He likens the scenario to when his brother got a car before he did. People asked if he was upset. “I didn’t expect one,” he said. “I’m not gonna sit here and say, ‘God, I think about the record,’ because that’s not me. If I get the record, I’ll tell you I got it. I’ll talk [expletive] once I knock you out, but I’m not gonna talk [expletive] beforehand. I’m just not going to.”

Bonds calls himself an “entertainer” and insists he does not mind the boos, the insults, the signs. In fact, he said, “I love it. I really do. Because you came. Regardless of whether you boo or cheer, you came, and what more can you ask for? You came to the game.”

After he retires (and he has said he might give 2008 a try depending on how this season goes), Bonds said he would like to work with young players. Really.

“When I’m done, I’d rather be around a bunch of college kids or something, teaching them everything I know,” he said. “That would be my idea of baseball.”

Barry Bonds a coach? Hardly.

“I said teach ‘em. I didn’t say coach,” he said. “I don’t want to coach. I said teach. I don’t want to be on a road trip, I don’t want to travel. You want my help, I’d be glad to help.”

With the end of his career approaching, Bonds was asked if he would do anything differently.

“I’d do a lot of things different,” he said. “A lot of things I’m doing now. As you get older, the little things don’t bother you like they did before. I don’t care about a lot of things now. I’d probably be agitated right now, and I don’t even care. It’s the same [expletive] questions. But I’ve got teenagers. I’ve got a daughter. I’ve got a lot of things more important than arguing, trying to get my point across. I don’t have the energy anymore.”

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