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Tuesday, September 4, 2001
Updated: September 6, 2:27 PM ET
ESPN The Magazine: BFD

By by Tim Keown

Barry Feels Determined to bring the Giants a championship -- and that's all.

You don't have it. You don't have what Barry Bonds has, but he doesn't judge you for it. No offense. We all have our unique talents and God loves each one of us and all that. But Bonds knows you would trade everything for what he has. He can see it in your eyes, and you can see it in his. He can't hide it. Of all his faults -- the epic, the legendary and the merely perceived -- this may be the biggest: He just can't hide it. It comes across in the way he walks and the way he talks and the way he doesn't do exactly what you expect him to do.

Like right now, for instance. He is sitting in front of his locker in the far corner of the visitors' clubhouse in Montreal's Olympic Stadium. The topic, of course, is home runs. It is not his favorite topic, despite its contextual relevance. The man is hitting them at an amphetamine pace, as fast or faster than anyone in history.

Mark McGwire and the possibility of 71 continue to Doppler their way into his field of vision, even as he swears he doesn't want to see either. It is not a priority, he says over and over. He is asked to provide some perspective on one of the home runs, his 54th of the season, a no-doubt shot off Atlanta's Jason Marquis. The homer was of no particular historical interest, and it wasn't the longest or the fastest or the most important. It didn't even land in the water. But since history is an accumulation of details, this home run said something about him as a hitter, and what a pitcher can and can't do when Bonds steps into the box. It came on a 2-2 fastball, thrown chest-high and inside at 94 mph. It was a safe pitch -- ball three, a busted-bat grounder to the right side, a pop behind short -- and yet he spun on it and hit it out, like a man trying to shoo a bee from his face.

Bonds is leaning back on a plastic chair. He is wearing jeans, a short-sleeved shirt and black leather slip-ons. The stubble of his shaved head shows a hairline in premature retreat. His hands are folded in his lap. The pose is vaguely priest-like, and he smiles and shakes his head slowly -- a preemptive, friendly admonition -- when he is asked to take us through the sequence leading up to the homer off Marquis.

"It's called talent," Bonds says. He laughs -- it's a giggle, really -- and puts his hands behind his head. "I just have it. I can't explain it. You either have it or you don't, and I do. People always think there's an answer to everything, but there isn't. 'How can you do that?' I don't know. I just can. All these questions. When people see something they've never seen before, the first thing they say is, 'How did you do that?' The next thing is, 'Can you teach me?' The answer is no, because you don't have it."

Is this arrogance or truth? Is it annoying or refreshing? Is it possible that it is all of those things? He laughs a little more and raises his eyebrows. He awaits the response. He knows the facts are not in dispute, but he also knows he has not given the standard canned response. He says what others think, and he has paid a price for it. We like our heroes humble, heavy on the aw-shucks and light on the hard truth. In Bonds, we have a man who will not fashion himself into the image of what we want him to be. Sorry, he won't drink the Kool-Aid. He says, "Man, I just wish I was getting paid for all these interviews I've been giving." This is a man who spreads discomfort like an airborne virus, and you get the feeling he enjoys the process.

One of his most famous fans, his godfather, Willie Mays, says, "Sometimes he says things before he thinks and that's why I'm here -- to remind him that other people have feelings too. I'm glad all you guys are starting to understand Barry, because sometimes he's a hard guy to understand. Sometimes he thinks the world owes him a living, but he's learning. He's getting there."

You come to Bonds holding a mirror. You want to hold that mirror up to him in such a way that everybody can see what you see. Difficult, tortured, perceptive, supremely talented -- all of it. But you find that Bonds is holding his own mirror, forcing us to watch ourselves watch him. He turns his answers into questions, dispensing the discomfort where he sees fit. He wants to know: What do you see when you see him?

Scattered about Olympic Stadium, the world's largest commode, the fans who attended the three-game series between the Giants and the Expos booed angrily every time an Expos pitcher had the temerity to throw Bonds a pitch out of the strike zone. They got louder with every ball and nearly came unglued when he walked. This is not an isolated incident. In Atlanta he received a standing ovation for a three-homer game in the middle of a six-homer weekend. In Arizona -- hated divisional rival Arizona -- they booed when manager Bob Brenly decided to walk Bonds intentionally with a left-handed pitcher on the mound.

After 16 years of excellence, are these boos and cheers the sounds of acceptance? There has always been something naggingly sad about Bonds' career, something to do with him being a solo artist amid our most chummy of team sports. But as he passes icon after icon on the all-time home run list -- Williams, McCovey, Foxx, Mantle, Schmidt -- and puts himself within reach of 70, one of the sport's most cherished marks, is he sensing a belated aura of appreciation?

"People use the word 'love' all the time, but tell me -- what is it you love?" he asks. "Do you love Mark McGwire, or do you love that he hit 70 home runs? I hear the people cheering for me now, and it's nice. But do you love Barry Bonds, or do you love that he hits a lot of home runs?"

For more than an hour on a Wednesday afternoon, Bonds sits at the corner locker and answers questions. He is engaging and thoughtful and perceptive. He is never rude, short or condescending. The back-and-forth of a Bonds interview is not for the timid. It's verbal racquetball -- you know the questions are going to bounce back at you; it just takes time to read the angles. And the tough part is this: If you write nice things about him, you're perceived to be an apologist. If you simply rehash all the old stories about the difficult nature of his personality, you're just piling on. Emotions on both sides have eroded the middle ground.

At one point a clubhouse kid approaches to ask Bonds a question. Barry waves him away and the kid persists, quickly asking if he can put his father on Barry's pass list. "Yeah, go ahead," Bonds says curtly. When the kid walks away, Bonds says, "Before you write that I shunned a clubhouse kid, understand that that kid's my ex-brother-in-law. We're friends."

In his 70-home run season of 1998, McGwire gradually grew into the public's view of him. It took time, but he became big and lovable and sympathetic. He said and did all the right things. He cried at the movies. He stayed true to his teammates. He flew his son in to be the bat boy, giving birth to a nationwide litter of Rockwellian photographs in magazines and newspapers.

Bonds says, "Mark McGwire was saying the exact same things I'm saying. Unless I misunderstood everything I read, he said the same things about the team coming first and the record not being his focus. So you have to ask yourself: Is there a double standard?"

So what might that standard be based upon? Race? Attitude? Perception?

"I'm asking you," he says. "You have to answer that."

McGwire and Sammy Sosa were somehow viewed as coast-to-coast therapists, healing the national wounds caused by Bill Clinton and Ken Starr. Asked why he didn't walk McGwire in the final weeks of the 1998 season, Reds manager Jack McKeon said, "I've been getting all these calls on my voice mail wanting me to heal the country. So we pitched to him."

It's a tough act to follow. What national wounds can Bonds heal? Gary Condit? Another month in Crawford? And the record that he is approaching but not chasing (chasing connotes a choice) hasn't had time to crystallize into something hallowed or profound. At the time, 70 seemed stratospheric, an animated-adventure version of the record. Maybe the public isn't ready for its awe to wear off this soon. "This is only three years later," Bonds says. "It's not the same."

Sammy is back, though, turning a record-breaking August into a familiar showdown, with him pushing another frontrunner down the stretch. For the creatively challenged, it's an irresistible temptation -- Bad Barry vs. Smiling Sammy. On Aug. 23, the day after Sosa hit three homers to move within five of Bonds (54-49), Reuters moved a story that began, "The stage is now set for a melodrama over the remainder of the season, complete with an irresistibly smiling hero chasing a glowering stock villain."

So like him or hate him, but at least understand Bonds when he says he believes his image is out of his hands. He has been generally cooperative with the media this season. Saddled with a well-earned reputation for postseason failure, Bonds has helped his team to an inordinate degree, not just with home runs, but with important home runs. Of his first 57 homers, 29 either tied a game or gave the Giants a lead. Of Sosa's first 53, just 17 either tied a game or gave the Cubs the lead. Of Luis Gonzalez's first 51, only 16 did the same for the Diamondbacks.

"Everyone says it, but what he's done has amazed us all," says Giants first baseman J.T. Snow. Or as Bonds says, "Sometimes I even surprise my own damn self."

He wasn't supposed to be able to keep up the home run pace amid the media onslaught, and yet he has. And through it, the Giants have remained close in the National League West while keeping their options open in the wild-card race. The only Bonds-related controversy, incidentally, was created by a teammate, reigning MVP Jeff Kent, who chose August of a pennant race to air his negative thoughts about Bonds' team spirit to Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly. Bonds' response? He defended Kent, giving him an out by assuming he was taken out of context. (The irony of that episode rests with the accuser. Giants players have long considered Kent as remote and aloof as Bonds, but with a better concept of public relations.)

Asked if he believed jealousy was a factor, Bonds said, "There's probably jealousy everywhere. Do I know who might be jealous? Yes. Am I going to point people out by name and make an issue out of it? No. Do I really care? No."

There might not be adoration inside the clubhouse, but there is respect outside it. If predictions of a walk-filled September come true, Bonds has a slight chance of sauntering his way past Babe Ruth's single-season walk record of 170. Bonds, to be sure, will take a walk. "If pitching around me gives them a better chance of winning," Bonds says, "then they're doing their job. If I took walking personally, I'd have been a wreck a long time ago."

Put it this way: How many lefthanded hitters does Randy Johnson pitch around? How about one: Bonds, whom Johnson walked on four pitches in the first inning of an Aug. 28 game, just because first base was open. He proceeded to strike out Kent on three pitches, then Andres Galarraga on three more.

"Everybody's talking about whether he's going to get the pitches to get the record," says Giants manager Dusty Baker. "They're careful with him, but he's getting something. He wouldn't have this many homers if he wasn't getting pitches to hit."

Part of that is attributable to the baseball genius of Bonds. At 37, he has managed to remain in his prime physically while getting the intellectual benefits of age. He can work a pitcher like nobody else, from either end of the count. There are times, especially against a young pitcher, when he will intentionally get behind in the count. You got me, Bonds' body language says, when in reality it's the other way around. "The pitchers get to 1-2 or 2-2 and you can almost see them start thinking," says Snow. "They're going, 'Hey, I'm not going to walk this guy. I can get him. I'm going to strike out Barry Bonds.' Well, no, they're not. It gets into their heads, they make a mistake and it's gone."

(Legend has it that Mays would occasionally allow a pitcher to get him out in a bases-empty, two-out situation early in a game. Filled with the confidence of previous success, the pitcher would invariably return to the same out pitch late in the game, and Willie would whale one.)

And on the other end? "He's the quickest to a 2-0 count that I've ever seen," says Expos manager Jeff Torborg. "He always seems to get himself in a hitter's count."

What looks easy often isn't. But before the word "pace" became permanently attached to his name, before it came to be treated as a physical presence, an absolute, as definite and predictable as a printed tide table or a school lunch menu, Bonds had to climb inside his own head and do a little housekeeping. This took place in a batting cage inside Miller Park in Milwaukee, on a Friday night, April 13, when Bonds was in an early-season 1-for-21 slump that nobody but he and a few others will ever remember.

It sounds like the standard athlete-reaches-bottom-before-epiphany boilerplate, but he wasn't sure he'd ever tunnel out of the slump. He stood in the batting cage raging at himself, hitting a few pitches and then stopping to rage all over again. At one point he stopped to phone his father, Bobby, who remains the last word on his son's swing. (Barry often calls his dad from the clubhouse, during games, when he needs advice on his swing.)

The therapy/BP session lasted about 45 minutes. Afterward, he seemed to remember who he was. He hit a homer off Jamey Wright that night, another the next day and another the day after that. Over the next five weeks, starting with that night in the batting cage, Bonds hit 22 home runs, a streak unprecedented in big league history.

"I had to bring the game back to me," he says. "I had to bring the fight back. I was thinking about a lot of things I shouldn't have been thinking about, and I needed to get back to the game."

Bonds won't elaborate on the thoughts that distracted his mind from the game, but he says it has nothing to do with playing in the last year of his contract. He does, however, say you could draw a nice, neat line between that night in Milwaukee and whatever he accomplishes by the end of this season. Does that line run from self-doubt to history?

"Nobody understands: I don't want to hit 70 home runs," he says. "It's not something I'm striving for. It's not that important to me, because I don't need it. I need to win. I need to win, man. I've had numbers, but I've never won a World Series. That's what's perfect: winning."

How about both? How about winning and hitting 71? Would that be better than perfect?

He shrugs. He unfolds his hands and flashes the ceiling his palms. He says, "If that's your idea of a perfect world."

Would it be his?

"I don't know," Bonds says. "I'm asking you."

But this time, deflection by interrogation doesn't work. He wants to win, sure, but he also wants 71.

Much as he might pretend otherwise, he just can't hide it.

This article appears in the September 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine.