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Thursday, May 25, 2006
San Francisco's Bonds

By Brian Murphy
Special to Page 2

Bonds squad
San Francisco has taken Barry in as part of the family since 1993.
OK. Take a deep breath. This one is complicated.

I am here to try to explain to a nation of Bonds Haters why the city of San Francisco, this progressive-voting, forward-thinking, hybrid-driving region, a Bay Area that likes to think of itself as sophisticated, intelligent and -- yes, let's say it -- above all other cities in America is unabashedly and unashamedly and embarrassingly still in love with Barry Bonds.

I am here to explain the standing ovations. The "Bar-ry!" chants. The talk show callers who say there's still no proof Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs. That's love.

OK. Deep breath.

As I said, this one is complicated.

As with all complicated issues, it is important to know one's history.

The history here goes back to the summer of 1992, when the San Francisco Giants were terrible. They played in a terrible ballpark, a windswept open-air toilet bowl known as Candlestick Park, where the gale was so fierce and unbearable, you'd swear it was the flatulence of the baseball gods -- except the winds were too cold to believe that.

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In this terrible park played a terrible team, a '92 Giants team en route to a 72-90 season that was known for two things:
1. Ninety losses.
2. It would be the last Giants season in San Francisco.

It was a tough time. The Giants might have been terrible, and Candlestick might have been a sewer with seats, but the Giants were our terrible team, and Candlestick was our sewer with seats.

But without a new stadium on the horizon, word was that frustrated owner Bob Lurie had agreed to sell the team to a group of investors in Florida. The Giants, the franchise of McGraw, Mathewson and the Polo Grounds; of Mays, McCovey and San Francisco … would be shipped off to a hermetically sealed dome of death in St. Petersburg, Fla.

It was beyond horrific. One of America's great and bustling cities, San Francisco, was giving a treasured National League franchise to a place where the average resident lived at Del Boca Vista and ate dinner at 4 p.m.

Fast-forward to the happy ending -- Peter Magowan, Larry Baer and other heavy-hitting investors flew to New York, persuaded NL owners to sell to them and keep the Giants in San Francisco, then announced their presence with panache.

They immediately signed free-agent Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Barry Bonds for the princely sum of $42 million over seven years.

Giants fans knew Bonds as the moody brooder who got shouted down by Jim Leyland in spring training, and as the guy who couldn't throw out Sid Bream from second base in the 1992 NLCS. Giants fans also knew him in more profound ways: As the son of Bobby Bonds. As the godson of Willie Mays. As a kid who went to high school in the Bay Area. And, as the 1990 and 1992 NL MVP, the player who just might be the symbol of hope for a new era -- new ownership, new star player, new life.

Barry even said all the right things. He talked about playing in Mays' locker as a kid. He talked about how playing in San Francisco meant everything to him. He talked about Giants tradition, about his dad and about winning a World Series for the city of San Francisco.

Considering the 90-loss season and the specter of the St. Petersburg Giants, Barry Bonds actually represented genuine, black-and-orange hope.

More history: Opening Day, 1993. The Grateful Dead sang the national anthem. (RIP, Jerry.) Bonds made his debut in the home whites. He was listed at 228 pounds, but he looked to be a fit 205, about 6 percent body fat, all quick bat and loud contact. His first at-bat at Candlestick as a Giant? Home run.

Remember, this is years before BALCO. Victor Conte was an unknown, somewhere playing bass guitar alone in his bedroom wearing only his underwear, for all we knew. What we did know: Barry had gone deep for the Giants. Barry said he loved the Giants. Barry came from a Giants lineage. It was all so glowing, we even forgave the fact that he once brought Michael Bolton to an on-field MVP award ceremony at the 'Stick.

See, 1993 figures large in the relationship between Barry and Giants fans. The Giants were magic that year. They won 103 games. They were eliminated on the season's final day by the Atlanta Braves, those thieving bastards who traded for Fred McGriff before the deadline and won their 104th game on their 162nd try.

Barry's 1993 line went like this: 159 games played, 129 runs scored, 46 home runs, 123 RBI, 126 walks, .336 batting average, .458 on-base percentage, .677 slugging percentage.

Again: Conte, playing bass guitar somewhere in his underwear. Bonds, BALCO-free, winning his third MVP award.

From that point on, it was going to be pretty tough to dislodge Barry Bonds from the heart of the Giants fan.

And so it went through the 1990s. Barry would blow off the media, and when he didn't blow off the media, he often would treat them like something on the bottom of his shoe. Giants fans would conveniently overlook these behavioral oddities because not only did Bonds produce like no Giant since Mays but he also earned his big money, not just with numbers but by playing game after game after game. You'd never think to say it -- because he sometimes didn't run out pop-ups, and his body language at times was more A.J. Soprano than Charlie Hustle -- but Barry Bonds was proving himself a gamer.

In 1994, the strike year, he played 112 of 115 games. He hit 37 homers and stole 29 bases.

In 1995, he played 144 games, hit 33 homers and stole 31 bases.

In 1996, he played 158 games, hit 42 homers, drove in 129 and stole 40.

In 1997, he played 159 games, hit 40, drove in 101 and stole 37. He also helped the Giants win their first NL West title in eight years.

In 1998, he played 156 games, hit 37 homers, drove in 122 and stole 28.

You can imagine the political capital Bonds had built up with Giants fans. Here was our generation's Mays. Here was the player we would tell our children to watch hit. Here was a grouchy SOB, yes, but here was the best player in the game.

And that, according to "Game of Shadows," is when it all changed.

In 1998, when Barry hit 37, Mark McGwire hit 70.

It seems obvious now to all but the truest of believers that Barry Bonds then began using performance-enhancing drugs, as evidenced not only by his dramatic physical changes at age 35 but also by his dramatic increase in production at age 35.

By the time Barry hit 73 home runs in 2001, we were all too blindly in love to know better.

Not only had Bonds led the Giants to a 100-win season and another NL West title in 2000, he had done so at the impossibly beautiful new ballpark, Pacific Bell Park, a fable of a yard with McCovey Cove and views of the Bay Bridge and brick walls and garlic fries and our very own, modern-day Babe Ruth. It was the "House that Barry Built," and we were all grateful tenants, happily paying the rent with unconditional love.

Jeff Kent won the MVP award in 2000, but Kent didn't get it the way Barry got it. While Barry kept saying he wanted to win a World Series for Giants fans in San Francisco -- "my hometown," as Barry always pointed out -- Kent was the one who ripped the Giants' new home uniforms on Opening Night at Pac Bell, oozing disdain when he uttered his infamous "french vanilla" description of the Giants' cream-colored home gamers. Worse, he dared describe Pac Bell Park as a place with flaws. He pointed out its shortcomings, how it wasn't a hitter's park, how it was still cold … when all any San Franciscan and any Giants fan wanted to hear was how pretty it was and how lucky we were to have it.

See, I told you, this is complicated stuff. It involves the ego of the native Northern Californians, and a regional pride that likes to be fed with compliments. Northern Californians and San Franciscans are proud in a provincial way, sometimes to our own detriment. Kent never got that, or maybe he did get it and he wanted to be the needle in our pride balloon.

Barry, on the other hand, got it. He fed our egos. He not only didn't rip Pac Bell Park but turned it into the site of his signature blasts. He made his house our home. He essentially invented McCovey Cove, and Splash Hits, for all America's "SportsCenter" watchers to see. You don't think we knew that every time Barry hit one at home, America saw the highlight of the packed house, the quirky right-field wall, the standing-room-only crowd on the arcade wall, the only-in-San Francisco sight of horsehide splashing in Bay? We knew you all saw it, and we hoped you all thought: "Wow, that is a special scene. America's most beautiful city, celebrating baseball's best player, in a style perfect for that magical confluence of latitude and longitude."

By the time the 2002 Giants won the National League pennant for only the third time in San Francisco history, and by the time they came within six outs of the first franchise World Series since the New York Giants won the 1954 Series, Barry wasn't just the best we had ever seen. He was Paul Bunyan. He hit a home run in his first Series at-bat, stirring memories of 1993 and the Grateful Dead and the nearly done St. Petersburg Giants. He hit a home run off Troy Percival that so moved Tim Salmon that Fox's national TV cameras caught him mouthing the words: "That's the longest home run I've ever seen."

Barry was our superstar. He was untouchable. He was the greatest hitter since Ruth, and he was a Giant, in San Francisco, in his "hometown," as he liked to remind us.

We liked to hear it, too.


And now, here we are, 2 1/2 years removed from his grand jury testimony, when he reportedly said he thought it was flaxseed oil, and all the other silly half-truths and evasive answers that look so sad and silly next to the Everestian pile of evidence compiled by federal investigators and told to the public by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams.

So, what are we supposed to do now? We proud San Franciscans, we sophisticated thinkers who so easily let our sense be blinded by our desire to bask in our very local kid's glow.

Bonds fans
Juiced (or not), he's OUR Barry.
OK. Deep breath. It really is complicated.

Yes, if the allegations prove true, he cheated -- not just by using federally banned drugs but by knowingly altering the game's landscape with drugs that changed the game like no other. He assaulted a sacred record book that had knowable points of reference and tainted it with the unknowable.

And here's the complicated part, the part where rationalization meets logic and puts it in a pretzel hold: Hundreds cheated. Pitchers he hit homers off cheated. If you judge a player by his era, if you judge Ruth by the pre-integration era, you can judge Bonds by the Juiced Era, right? He's still the best of them all, right? Caminiti, Canseco, McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro, Giambi -- they're all suspect, aren't they? So are so many others. Besides, don't you remember 1993? That first at-bat? How natural he was? How natural his talent has always been? How pure it has always been? Don't you?

Now, if anything, San Franciscans and Giant fans have been pushed into a corner. Now, the 2006 season has produced the sight of our man Bonds going to San Diego and having a syringe tossed at him; going to L.A. and being vilified like Saddam Hussein; going to Philly and being mocked and taunted and baited. Not just fans, either. He goes to Houston and is treated like a dart board by a journeyman reliever named Russ Springer, who takes five pitches to finally drill Bonds and gets a standing ovation from bloodthirsty Astros fans, groupthink at its worst.

Here is where it gets personal. Here is where the emotion kicks in. Here is where even Giants fans who were disillusioned by the evidence against Bonds begin to feel a sense of clan and rise up. It's as old as family itself.

WE can think what we want about Bonds. WE can be disappointed by his guilt. YOU, on the other hand, don't understand the history, the journey, the ride we've been on. YOU don't remember the 90 losses in 1992, the potential St. Petersburg Giants. YOU weren't there that day when Pacific Bell Park opened, and the Giants had the prettiest park in the land, the House that Barry Built. It's family. WE can talk about our family, judge our family. YOU, on the other hand, are an outsider. You are not family. You are not to judge.

That's how it goes in our minds. The history is too deep to simplify this. The passion is too real to stuff this in the "He Cheated, So Screw Him" file. Like most relationships in sports between athlete and fan, the relationship between San Franciscans and Barry Bonds is built mostly on fable and willful suspension of disbelief. But somewhere in the fable and the willful suspension is something real, and it's something worth defending. As in most families, it's made partly of secrets, partly of lies. It's family. It's baseball. It's hard, is what it is.

Like I said, it's complicated.

E-mail Brian Murphy at page2murphy@yahoo.com.