Commentary

Giants thriving in post-Barry Bonds era

Defending champs a fun-loving team that as recently as 2007 was mired in negativity

Originally Published: March 15, 2011
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Barry Bonds helped the San Francisco Giants win the World Series last season. And he could help them win it again this season.

How? Because he's not a Giant anymore.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cain and Tim Lincecum
Jake Roth/US PresswireFor a variety of reasons, the Giants are doing a lot of smiling these days.

When Bonds and his toxic presence was finally removed by the hazmat people after the 2007 season, the Giants began to win more games. Not a lot at first, but enough to realize that Bonds' forced departure was like an emergency tracheotomy on the franchise's windpipe. The Giants could finally breathe again.

Bonds wasn't just a dark cloud in the clubhouse; he was an entire storm system of scowls and controversy. Everything centered on him, his history of alleged steroid use and, in that 2007 season, his joyless pursuit of Hank Aaron's all-time home run record. It was Bonds' team and Bonds' rules. His depressing aura was stretched tightly across the Giants like Saran Wrap.

"When I came up, there was a different dynamic to the team,'' said two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, whose first year in the big leagues was Bonds' last. "Obviously, it was headed by Barry Bonds and all, and a lot of older veterans, for that matter. But I think, in the last two years, it's kind of transitioned out of that. It's given all the younger guys a chance to be themselves, thinking that they're just not in their lockers staring at the wall or sitting at the table not talking. They feel like they can engage in the conversations with all the older guys and feel like they can hang with them … and not feel like they're in a cage or in an eggshell.''

Lincecum isn't saying that Bonds' exit is partly why the Giants are world champions today; I am. But he is saying team chemistry matters in ways that can't be quantified from reading a box score. After all, it's hard to win games when you're dragging around a cinder block or two of Bonds-related drama.

Bonds hit lots of home runs (thank you, flaxseed oil!), but nobody ever voted him teammate of the year. He represented the Giants' old guard -- and the old guard won just 71 games and finished last in the NL West in Bonds' final season in the majors.

In 2008, their first season without Bonds since he joined the franchise 15 years earlier, the Giants won 72 games and finished fourth in the division. In 2009, they won 88 games and finished third. A season ago, they won the division on the final day to squeeze into the playoffs, then overpowered the Atlanta Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies and eventually the Texas Rangers. They did it with power pitching, timely hitting and a cool, carefree clubhouse vibe that never would have been possible in the Barry era.

"It's a different clubhouse feel than I've ever had,'' said Lincecum, comparing it to a high school or college mentality. "Everybody can talk s--- and take it, as well.''

I recently walked into the Giants' clubhouse at Scottsdale Stadium at exactly 8 a.m. By 9:20, I had seen:

• Postseason hero Cody Ross happily tell a reporter that he can't walk down a San Francisco block without being recognized.

"And that's a good thing,'' the Giants outfielder said. "That's what you want. That's what you dream of as a kid.''

Just then, a teammate walked by and, without breaking stride, began singing, in a surprisingly decent Steven Tyler imitation, "Dream on … Dream on …''

Cody Ross Normally in any clubhouse you have at least that one selfish bad apple on each team. And everyone knows who it is. It's not like that on this team.

-- Giants outfielder Cody Ross

• Veteran outfielder Pat Burrell work almost the entire room, cracking wise with a dozen teammates as he collected money in an old bank pouch.

• Reliever Brian Wilson, who showed up at the first day of camp in a cop car, search the entire clubhouse for a blank USA Today crossword puzzle.

• Younger and older players squeezed around a table playing cards and dominoes.

• Bonds' godfather, Willie Mays, a frequent visitor, hanging out in the clubhouse.

• A reporter approach veteran first baseman Aubrey Huff.

"What do you want?!'' Huff said.

"I'm very fragile right now,'' the reporter said. "Please don't yell at me.''

"OK, buddy,'' said Huff, smiling, his bluff called. "Whatya need?''

Later, Huff snuck behind a Giants beat reporter and playfully smacked the notebook out of his hand.

"Yard sale!'' Huff said.

The reporter rolled his eyes.

And Huff was the same guy who walked in wearing a grungy peach-colored T-shirt and a pair of red-and-white-striped shorts so hideous that you wouldn't wear the outfit to clean your basement crawl space. Not that he cared.

"We're definitely a group of different birds off the field,'' starter Matt Cain said. "Once we all put uniforms on in the clubhouse, we're all the same somehow. That's what's great about all these guys. They all want to find a way to win, and it doesn't matter who gets the credit.''

"Yeah,'' said Ross, glancing around the clubhouse, "we're an uptight group. We don't have much fun.''

Fun is partly why the Giants won their first World Series since 1954. And fun is partly why they could repeat.

"Normally in any clubhouse you have at least that one selfish bad apple on each team,'' Ross said. "And everyone knows who it is. It's not like that on this team.''

[+] EnlargeBarry Bonds
Phil Carter/US PresswireThe atmosphere around the Giants has changed dramatically since Barry Bonds last played for the team in 2007.

So, how do you explain the powers of team chemistry? Like this, said Ross: "We don't get even close to where we got without it.''

It's easier to have a good time when the Giants' starting rotation includes Lincecum and Cain. Abe Lincoln-bearded Wilson ("I don't know if anybody's like that guy,'' starter Madison Bumgarner said) provides comfort and tattoos in the ninth inning. And even with the departures of Juan Uribe and World Series MVP Edgar Renteria, the Giants' offense, Huff said, is "hands down a better lineup than we had in last year's spring training.''

Only two teams since 1979 (the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays) have won consecutive World Series. The Giants think they can become the third.

"Absolutely,'' Huff said.

"There's an air of confidence that blankets the facility, I'd say,'' second baseman Mark DeRosa said. "Definitely the expectations are different -- in a great way. And the confidence level is up. These guys have performed on the biggest stage and performed well. It's got to help.''

Bonds recently appeared in a San Francisco federal court and pleaded not guilty to four counts of lying to a grand jury and one count of obstruction of justice. More than three years have passed since his last game as a Giant, and the dark cloud still exists.

Just not in the Giants' clubhouse anymore.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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