Bonds most comfortable on the field

Originally Published: September 17, 2004
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Now, of course, the question jumps right off the page: Is it possible for a player to continue to excel while plying his trade directly in front of a sign that compares him with the immortals of his industry?

The answer is: Yes -- for Barry Bonds.

Barry Bonds
Barry Bonds is next in line to break the home run record.

Which is to say, he probably already can't remember the sign.

To the list of superlatives that naturally accrue when a hitter in baseball does something monumental -- and Bonds' reaching 700 career home runs on Friday night at SBC Park in San Francisco unquestionably qualifies, no matter how obvious it had become that the man would get there sooner or later -- we can safely append one: Focus.

It is possible, that is, that Bonds took only the briefest look at the banner unveiled along the left-field fence after his homer off San Diego's Jake Peavy landed not too far away, just beyond a beer sign and a relatively modest 392 feet from home plate.

The sign says this: "A Giant Among Legends." It shows these people: Bonds, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron.

And it probably meant something deep and poignant to Bonds -- for about five seconds. After which, the man flipped the switch once again. He is, in the end, a baseball player.

"You can't put it into words to be in a class with those two great players, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth," Bonds later said of the only other members of the 700 club in Major League history. "It's just unbelievable."

Except, of course, that Bonds believes it. He made it real. The one thing you can be absolutely certain of, when it comes to Bonds, is that the man is incapable of surprising himself with what he does on a baseball diamond -- with the possible exception of staying healthy long enough to do it.

So he won't be surprised when he overtakes Ruth's 714 total. There will be no shock when Bonds encroaches on Aaron's turf, 755, and either decides to purposely pull up short (in honor of Hank) or blow past Aaron and put the new record as far out there as humanly possible (in honor of, well, himself).

Bonds won't be shocked, because this is what he does. He blocks out the world and gets inside his own head and focuses on baseball and doesn't let go, and it is one of the reasons why he's great, and it is at least a dozen of the reasons why he is at times so remote as to be inscrutable to a public that, all things being equal, probably wouldn't mind adoring him a little bit.

The back story of Bonds' latest historic threshold crossing is the way in which that focus has been tested en route. He dealt throughout 2003 with his father Bobby's diminishing health and then his death. He came into the 2004 season under the dark cloud of the BALCO scandal and its implication of him as a steroid-fueled cheater.

Under those conditions, he delivered two of his finest seasons as a pro, which for Bonds is going a ways. But that's the thing, of course: The ballpark is the place to be, for a person who seemingly can't feel comfortable anywhere else.

Home run No. 700 wasn't a Bonds classic. Peavy, who's got a great fastball and a difficult changeup, hit Bonds with a pitch in the first inning and then surprised him by starting him off with a fat curve in the third. Bonds figured he wouldn't get another such hittable pitch, but when Peavy offered it on the next throw, Bonds was ready.

The ball sailed out to left rather than its usual resting spot either in the right-field bleachers or the watery beyonds of McCovey Cove. Not that anyone cared; Bonds had again delivered for the home crowd, just as he did for home runs No. 500 and 600 and 660 and 661 (surpassing Mays) and, in 2001, in-season homers 71, 72 and 73.

He delivered in San Francisco, in the Bay Area in which Bonds was raised but with which he shares such a complicated relationship. Too remote over the years to ever be fully embraced, Bonds instead exists around here as a sort of ongoing cultural fascination, your more up-to-date version of a San Francisco landmark.

His work over the past five years has been enough to cause people to temporarily forget that he began his pro career in Pittsburgh and that he was a bona fide star player before the Giants lured him as a free agent before the 1993 season. Now, for a whole generation of fans, Bonds belongs to San Francisco alone -- or at least San Francisco can claim as much of Bonds as anyone could ever expect to know.

The man didn't fully let go on Friday -- and maybe, having passed through so many milestone moments over the past few years, he no longer can. As the ball disappeared into a human scrum beyond the left-field wall and the fireworks and confetti fired off, Bonds circled the bases almost expressionlessly and took a single, quick curtain call for the sellout crowd.

Bonds later explained that he didn't want the game delayed for too long, what with the Giants sending out talented but young pitcher Noah Lowry to face the Padres and Bonds fearing the delay would mess with Lowry's head.

"I didn't want him to lose his momentum," Bonds said.

At the moment of baseball history, in other words, Barry Bonds continued to rivet his attention on the baseball game. You can say it's the one place in which the man feels at home.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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