Life without Barry Bonds? A treat
These Giants are actually likable! Couldn't say that when Barry Bonds was around
When they crashed into the visitors clubhouse in Atlanta for the obligatory champagne hose-down Monday night, there was no corner of the room considered off limits for the spray. There were no awkward congratulations or off-putting moments; it was all bear hugs and shouting. The Giants, on their way to the NLCS after dispatching the Braves, were generally grateful, genuinely happy, mostly funny and 100 percent solid as a team.
Ladies and gentlemen: Barry Bonds really has left the building.
For the longest time, they've talked in San Francisco about putting the Bonds era behind them, but until the Giants got back into the playoffs and won a series, talk is all it was. The face of this franchise has been so completely shadowed by Bonds that, for most of sporting America, it's still the Barry Show until proven otherwise.
But look around: This team just isn't despicable in the least. It isn't even controversial -- unless you count the part about a $126 million pitcher (Barry Zito) not making the roster for the first round of the playoffs, or perhaps the Giants' general tendency to grind to the very last pitch.
"It can be hard being a fan of this team sometimes," Aubrey Huff said in the aftermath of San Francisco's 3-2 nail-biter over the Braves in the clincher. What Huff meant is that the Giants don't make things easy.
Considering their recent past, that's a wonderful problem to have.
The Giants of 2010 are a remarkably uncomplicated venture. They have the attitude of a skate-park kid in Tim Lincecum; the effervescence of Pablo Sandoval, also known as Kung Fu Panda; the sheer, go-for-it gunslinger mentality of Juan Uribe. The Giants are veteran leadership like Huff and rookie inspiration like Buster Posey.
All in all, not a Bonds in the bunch. And that needed to happen, the sooner the better.
The Bonds years in San Francisco, after all the shouting, became the biggest drag in sports. Mark McGwire might have soiled himself and the game with his steroid use and his evasions in Congress, but at least he was gone from St. Louis before the worst of that came around. The Giants had to deal with the Barry Issue in real time, as the allegations flew and the investigations mounted.
It's difficult to describe now the pall Bonds' presence cast in the Giants clubhouse. Bonds, from the early 2000s on through the fat of the decade, increasingly became more aloof from teammates, more reclusive from the public, more suspicious of the media.
None of it was fatal, of course. The Giants went to the World Series in 2002 with Bonds and Jeff Kent basically at each other's throats much of the season; and, in general, it's silly to argue that team chemistry is everything when the results in all sports leagues constantly kick forth exceptions to that rule.
But Bonds, in his heyday, was such a massive storyline that he simply dwarfed everything else. He was hitting home runs at astounding, cartoonish clips. He was being accused of the most heinous, fantastical things. The feds were after him. He was the face of the so-called steroids era, and with him as the face of the Giants, too, the association was stifling.
And Bonds simply was the dead-wrong guy to be the face of any team. Even in the best of times, he was a guarded soul with a basic mistrust of people and especially of the media, which he clearly felt had done his father, Bobby Bonds, an ongoing disservice through the years.
As the accusations mounted, Bonds continued to bash homers but otherwise withdrew from the whole scene. The Giants, as a franchise, couldn't figure out a path to the future that didn't include him, so they continued to build teams around him even as the formula began failing loudly. The crowds still showed up to watch Barry; but among the faithful, there was a dark tinge to the fanfare. It was as though even the die-hards suspected they were backing the wrong horse.
Fast-forward to 2010, and it's suddenly over. The Giants' front office, having traded out Bonds-era ownership for new faces in the team program, has done a masterful job of establishing an arm's length from Bonds' image. (The slugger was not present for any part of San Francisco's first round of playoff games.) Guys such as Uribe, who nearly falls down taking some of his mammoth hacks at pitches, have put the fun back in the games at AT&T Park.
And the organization's attempt to rebuild itself as a pitching-first model has reaped some unexpected benefits. Lincecum isn't just a two-time Cy Young Award winner; he is a young face to whom a new generation of Giants fans can attach itself as a rooting interest. Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez have captured the fancy of the entire fan base. Closer Brian Wilson is a heart attack in a box, but he, too, is a visible, identifiable part of the San Francisco baseball experience.
Zito could have vented over being left off the divisional roster; instead, he blamed himself for not pitching well enough to crack the rotation. Jose Guillen, known as a volatile player in previous career stops, hasn't complained about being phased out of the playoff lineup. Proud veteran Aaron Rowand took his demotion to backup in classy stride. It's as though no one wants to break up the clubhouse vibe.
It's all critical, and it is all working, and that says nothing about the Giants' chances against loaded Philadelphia in the NLCS beginning Saturday. But in some respects, that is the smaller view. In the big picture, San Francisco already has recorded a victory: Barry Bonds really is history now.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His work, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. His next book, "The Voodoo Wave," will be released in 2011 by W.W. Norton. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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