Barry Bonds is having a hard time shaking a cold. In the corner of the visiting dugout Sunday morning, Bonds is cool enough to jam his hands into the pocket of his Miami Marlins hoodie. He still has an edge to him, but his bite is curtailed a bit by sniffles.
Bonds, 51, moved back into baseball this offseason when Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria called and asked if he would come to Miami to be the hitting coach. Bonds had worked with some players in the offseason. It stirred something in him that perhaps was unexpected. So, he, and his cold, were with the Marlins in Washington over the weekend.
“The same thing my dad did,” Bonds said. “My godfather did it. Why not? I could sit at home and come once a week and say, ‘Hi,’ and walk away. But, I don’t know. I wanted to get in the trenches just to see what it’s like. If I love it, I’m going to do it for a while. If I don’t, then I can do something else. I have that choice, which is great. But, I actually love it.”
His hiring brought curiosity around the league. Bonds was never known as a people person, and baseball folks wondered how his staggering ability to hit — even with the doubt around how he achieved some of his stratospheric numbers — would translate to other people. Nationals manager Dusty Baker has known Bonds since he was a baby. He coached him from 1993 through 2002 in San Francisco.
“One of the best ballplayers of all-time,” Baker said. “Highly intelligent man. Great vision. Better with kids than adults. What you see is what you get.”
In Bonds’ fourth season, his walks and strikeouts evened at 93. He was 24 years old. He hit just .248, but the leveling of those categories was a forerunner of what was to come. Bonds absorbed the fear of opponents with patience. He began to take walks at a staggering rate, showing a plate discipline that may have been his greatest power. He led the National League in walks 12 times after that, including two ludicrous seasons in which he walked 198 times and 232 times, respectively.
“I was used to it,” Bonds said. “It’s like getting up and putting on your drawers. You just get used to it after a while. You don’t want to wear no drawers, you don’t wear no drawers. I got used to it.”
It wasn’t simple. No one grows up dreaming of arriving in the major leagues and walking all the time. Bonds said his father, Bobby, and godfather, Willie Mays, helped teach him the necessary discipline.
“It’s hard when you’re a 22-year-old kid or 23-year-old kid who wants to swing a baseball bat,” Bonds said. “It was easier when I was 35, 40. Gave me a rest. But, when you’re 27 years old, that’s crazy. That’s asinine. That’s hard to say, ‘Don’t play. Just go run the bases.’ That’s harder to do.”
NL MVP Bryce Harper swallowed the acceptance of walking last season. As a 22-year-old, Harper almost evened his strikeout and walks. He walked 124 times and struck out 131 in 2015. Just four games into this season, he’s walked five times and struck out none.
Last Thursday at the Nationals’ home opener, in front of Bonds, Harper was presented with a series of congratulatory hardware for his MVP season. First, the MVP plaque. Then, a Silver Slugger Award. Lastly, a key to the city.
Bonds, who played for 22 years, giggled a bit when told that Harper’s numbers from last season were being compared to his own. He referred to Harper as a “beast,” preached about the importance of longevity, then explained with hearty self-assurance that it’s too soon to be comparing the two.
“He ain’t compared to me yet,” Bonds said. “He’s got a long way to go to get comparison to me. He ain’t even close to me. But, he’s one hell of a ball player. I watch him and admire him. I look at him and I’m in awe because you don’t see that often. It’s like I saw [Giancarlo] Stanton take swings … for my eyes to get real big and go, ‘Wow,’ you’ve got to be something special. I see that in them. I see him, I see it in Stanton. I see it in a lot of players.
“But, it’s longevity where I’m going to be over-wowed. Short-term don’t do much for me. That longevity is where it’s going to be. When I see these guys, seven, eight, 10 years down the road, 12 years down the road, still doing what they’re doing, then you’re going to hear the real wow. Right now, I’m impressed. I ain’t in the wow category yet. I’m impressed. Like when people said when I was coming up: ‘I’m impressed, Barry, but you ain’t in the wow category yet.’ I’m very impressed.”
Multiple injuries last season provided a rotating lineup around Harper. There was no standard “protection,” as the saying goes in baseball. The person who hit behind Harper changed wildly. The Nationals pivoted between Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, Anthony Rendon, Yunel Escobar, Clint Robinson and Jayson Werth. Zimmerman was predominantly behind Harper. He hit .249 only because of an August when he hit .277 then a blistering September, when Zimmerman hit .462. To Bonds, the concern about protection is poppycock.
“When you’re good, you’re good,” Bonds said. “You don’t need nobody behind you. I’d rather have a potential good hitter that can be a better hitter, hitting in front of me. Then make the tag team even better. But, Bryce is never going to need anybody behind him. If he wants to be impatient, and swing at everything, it’s just going to make it worse on him, but if he’s patient … I proved that. He’s a great hitter. He don’t need no one behind him.”
At NatsFest in the winter, Harper began to vocalize his admiration for Bonds. He said then Bonds was the best to play, then repeated it on Sunday. Harper knew Bonds had won seven MVP trophies. He mentioned that Bonds is a member of the 500 home run and 500 stolen base club. He’s its only inhabitant.
“Can go on and on about how good he was,” Harper said. “That’s somebody that you look up to, definitely.”
Bonds said the youth of the Marlins is engaging to him. His philosophy as a hitting coach is something along the lines of letting a player be himself, and realizing that not everyone is “going to be the great Michael Jordan.” He talked about being intrigued by players’ backgrounds, even their families. Bonds said, “The great ones are going to be great no matter what.” His goal for the rest is to improve them by 30 percent.
He hopped down. Bonds needed a drink after talking so much with that cold. In a final swing from the past, he told the two reporters they were lucky he wasn’t playing anymore. Then, he wouldn’t have talked at all.