- Associated Press - Thursday, October 28, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - The statue out front says Willie. The cove past right field belongs to McCovey.

But the place still feels an awful lot like Barry.

Not in the Giants locker room, where the leather recliner Barry Bonds liked to sit in and watch his own personal big screen TV is gone. Tim Lincecum has the corner spot now, and has plenty of room since the massive ego of baseball’s greatest _ and most suspect _ slugger no longer resides at AT&T Park.

And maybe not over the right field fence, where regulars still paddle their kayaks furiously at even the hint of a long ball splashing near them. The home runs that used to land there with such regularity when Bonds played are now largely a novelty among the current group of small ballers who make up a not-so-fearsome Giants lineup.

But if this isn’t the park Bonds built, it is the park he owned. He played in a World Series here, and he made baseball history here in front of cheering fans who found a way to ignore what seemed obvious.

“This ballpark will always by synonymous with Barry Bonds,” said Barry Zito, who had the locker next to Bonds. “He’s the greatest player ever to play the game.”

Bonds doesn’t play the game anymore, even though he still hasn’t officially retired. Unsigned after his march to break Henry Aaron’s record in 2007, his only real connection with the team he dominated for 15 years has been a few perfunctory appearances at games.

The slugger who nearly carried San Francisco to its first World Series title in 2002 with home runs in the first three games was at Game 1, though in an unofficial capacity. He wasn’t asked to join six Giants greats of the past _ minus Willie Mays, who wasn’t feeling well _ in throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.

It’s not hard to figure out why.

The Giants have a date with destiny. He has one in a federal courtroom.

The stigma of the steroid years refuses to fade, especially for the guy who hit 73 home runs in 2001 while playing in a pitcher-friendly park. Bonds is scheduled to go on trial next March in San Francisco on charges of lying to a grand jury about taking steroids, and prosecutors have put together a list of former players who will testify against him.

Look around AT&T Park and it’s hard to find any evidence the backbone of the franchise for all those years even played here. The huge banners in center field that featured his likeness during the historic home run chase are gone, and there are no “756” signs to mark the historic home run that put him on top the all-time list.

While Mays has a statue outside the main entrance and McCovey has his cove, all Bonds has is a plaque embedded in the sidewalk outside the right field wall where other milestones in Giants’ history are also duly noted.

The team he once played for has changed, too. These Giants are the anti-Barrys, a team of singles hitters who struggle to score more than a few runs a game but somehow have enough faith in each other to have made it to the World Series.

They have guys with cute nicknames like The Freak and Kung Fu Panda. There are no oversized heads, though there is one very bizarre beard.

“I think it’s kind of a lesson in baseball 101, in some cases humility, in that A, we don’t have a superstar and B, we really don’t have a team of stars and C, we’ve got enough talent, whether young or old or experienced with people who have won the World Series, and also depth,” general manager Brian Sabean said recently. “It’s truly a team that knows that on each given day they’ve each got to do their job and somebody will step up and help us win a game. For that very reason the fans are endeared by it.”

Bonds was hardly an endearing figure, his personality often more odorous than the scent of garlic fries that permeate this stadium. He rarely signed autographs and seemed contemptuous of the people who paid his salary.

Still, they hung chickens over the wall in right field every time an opposing pitcher gave him a free pass and cheered wildly when one of his mammoth blasts cleared the walls. The splash count on the right field wall _ _ Bonds has 35 of the 55 balls the team hit there in 10 years _ is still a reminder of the greatness fans witnessed at the plate.

It’s been three years now since Bonds last splashed one in McCovey Cove, three seasons since he launched the home run that passed Henry Aaron. The Giants have moved on, declining to offer Bonds another contract.

He visited the clubhouse Wednesday and talked vaguely of helping to coach the Giants someday. Before that happens, though, there’s the upcoming trial and the possibility Bonds could spend some time in a place other than on a field.

“I have a gift and sooner or later I have to give it away. I have to share it,” Bonds said in a hallway before the game. “Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity here. This is where I want to be when the time is right.”

The time certainly isn’t right now, not with the current team of overachievers that has a chance to give fans something equally special by winning the World Series for the first time since the Giants moved west in 1958.

With Bonds, fans often had to offer an explanation to go along with their cheers. With this group, no explanation needed.

They came from behind Wednesday night to win the opener 11-7, beating a pitcher who had never lost in the postseason. By now the Giants and their fans have to think anything is possible.

Three more wins, and they can cap the most improbable of seasons with a championship trophy.

Three more wins, and the place may not feel so much like Barry anymore.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org

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