Bonds, Griffey share All-Star spotlight one last time
SAN FRANCISCO -- Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. have a lot in common, from Gold Gloves to Silver Slugger awards to more than $280 million in accrued professional income. They've been on parallel tracks since childhood, when they learned the fundamentals of the game and the secret of where the bubble gum and sunflower seeds were stashed.
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As remarkably talented sons of former big league ballplayers, they've had targets on their backs from the get-go. But here's one thing they'll never share: A wardrobe consultant.
Bonds showed up at Monday's All-Star press day looking Fortune 500-caliber smooth in a gray three-piece suit. At the opposite end of the Westin ballroom -- and the sartorial spectrum -- Griffey wore a loose-fitting white shirt, jeans and sneakers. Outfits like this usually come with a skateboard and a few pieces of licorice jammed into the pocket.
Each All-Star Game has a natural story line, whether it's the introduction of the home-field advantage ploy, a new steroid bombshell or the explosion in international talent. This year the American League tries to extend a 9-0-1 All-Star Game run, while the National League hopes to assert itself behind Prince Fielder, Jose Reyes and a cadre of young, dynamic talent.
The chances of Bonds and Griffey sharing this stage again aren't great. Bonds didn't sign his $15.8 million contract with San Francisco until February, and he turns 43 in two weeks. While he would like to play another season to reach 3,000 hits, the Giants are a last-place club in need of an overhaul, and they might be ready to cut their ties with Bonds and take a step into the future.
Griffey, at 37, should be around a while longer. But he's appearing in only his second All-Star Game since 2001, so he's making sure to savor the moment.
"I've always had the same approach and respect coming to an All-Star Game," Griffey said Monday. "These things aren't just given to you, so you don't take them for granted. When people punch out your name, they want to see you. It's not owed to me to be here. It's a thank you."
For all the feel-good vibes surrounding Junior in San Francisco, All-Star week is all about Barry. If Giants owner Peter Magowan isn't venting about Bonds' decision to skip the Home Run Derby, commissioner Bud Selig is being quizzed on his travel plans for home run No. 756.
The fans in San Francisco will wrap Bonds in a protective cocoon Tuesday night and through this weekend's series against the Dodgers, at which point he will head to Chicago and Milwaukee with the Giants to experience the phenomenon of reflex-action booing.
When Bonds homers on the road, fans cheer because they know they've just witnessed something special. And if the opposing pitcher walks him, the crowd feels cheated and responds with a round of boos. But the next day, fans wake up with selective amnesia and loathe him anew.
"He's the villain of baseball," Mets closer Billy Wagner said. "His critics are having a field day with him. But when he steps on the field, he's produced. I admire him for being able to go out there on a daily basis with the grind, the media and the criticism. I've told him, 'At not one time in my life have I ever wanted to be Barry Bonds.'"
I've always had the same approach and respect coming to an All-Star Game. When people punch out your name, they want to see you. It's not owed to me to be here. It's a thank you.
-- Ken Griffey Jr.
In the 17 seasons since their first All-Star Game, Bonds and Griffey have survived numerous twists and turns. Griffey made the All-Century team in 1999, but his travails in Cincinnati and seemingly endless run of injuries threatened to send him out on an unsatisfying note.
A late-career resurgence has added a welcome plot twist. Griffey has blown past Reggie Jackson, Rafael Palmeiro, Harmon Killebrew and Mark McGwire on the career home runs list this season and just tied Frank Robinson with No. 586. When he recently returned to Seattle, Mariners fans held a lovefest in his honor.
Now Griffey is warming to the role of elder statesman. He smiled Monday while reflecting on the emergence of Prince Fielder, Cecil's kid, who has grown from a chunky prodigy into an MVP candidate and potential 50-homer man. Not long ago, Prince was an 11-year-old kid having the time of his life during a visit to Junior's house in Seattle.
"[Griffey] was just like me at the time," Prince Fielder said. "He played video games and he played baseball, two of the things I liked, too."
Scratch the surface, and Bonds and Griffey have more similarities than people realize. Griffey, while outwardly joyful, was moody and ultra-sensitive to his press coverage for much of his career. And Bonds, widely regarded as a jerk, has moments when he actually behaves like a human being. He's great with teammates' kids, for example, because they don't have an agenda.
All-Star Game numbers
|* -- selected to four other games, but did not play.|
"With Hank Aaron it was always a racial issue," Young said. "In this case it's the whole 'did he use steroids or not' issue, even though Barry hasn't tested positive and he's never been caught. Personally, I think it's been awesome to watch him. I've thoroughly enjoyed it."
Former Yankees great Goose Gossage, in town for a celebrity softball game Sunday, spoke of a "black cloud" hanging over Bonds' pursuit of Aaron. So much of the anti-Bonds sentiment is linked to BALCO and "Game of Shadows," but Bonds is deluding himself if he fails to realize his wounds are largely self-inflicted.
"Today, with the spotlight and the attention you get, word travels fast and you build a good reputation or not such a good reputation," Gossage said. "That's kind of the category Barry falls in. There's always been a kind of arrogance around him, and even some of his teammates didn't get along with him very well. Everybody knew that."
Through the years, Bonds has used the All-Star Game as a venue to air his gripes and unburden himself. One year he complained about the media's treatment of him and the impact on his endorsement opportunities. Another time, he made some disparaging comments about Babe Ruth.
More than once, Tony Gwynn urged Bonds to reach out a little bit and make his life easier, but Bonds refused to budge. If the public or the press were going to embrace him, he decided it would be on his terms.
"Good, bad or indifferent, Barry puts up this wall with the media," former San Francisco teammate Matt Williams said. "You get him outside it, and he's a completely different person."
For him to take time out of his superstar life and talk to somebody like me and say, 'Hey, I like how you play and compete,' that meant a lot to me. It would be awful hard for me to say anything bad about Barry.
-- Mets closer Billy Wagner, on Barry Bonds
Wagner has seen Bonds beyond that wall. Wagner recalls breaking in with the Houston Astros in 1996 and striking out Bonds on three pitches in their first encounter. Later that season Wagner struggled briefly, and he wondered if he was long for the majors.
During an Astros-Giants series at Candlestick Park, Bonds dropped by the Houston clubhouse, pulled Wagner outside and spent an hour giving him a lecture on baseball and life. Wagner credits the pep talk for restoring his confidence and making him believe in himself. He's been a Bonds fan ever since.
"I've always admired him," Wagner said. "For him to take time out of his superstar life and talk to somebody like me and say, 'Hey, I like how you play and compete,' that meant a lot to me. It would be awful hard for me to say anything bad about Barry."
Perceptions come and go and reputations may or may not be etched in stone, but a superstar aura lasts forever. Bonds and Griffey, linked by a lifetime of expectations and accomplishments, are all dressed up and ready to play ball in San Francisco. Enjoy it while you can.