Commentary

Giant goodbye means fresh start in S.F.

Originally Published: September 21, 2007
By Mark Kreidler | ESPN.com

This was several months ago, long before Barry Bonds' future with the Giants was officially declared but long after it had been unofficially decided. Seated in his office at AT&T Park, Peter Magowan surveyed a roster in front of him and said, more to himself than anyone else in the room, "The future of our Giants is our young pitching."

In fact, Magowan said, he could envision a 2008 Giants media guide with three faces on the cover: Barry Zito, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum. For the first time in the longest time, Magowan felt free to forecast a future that involved rebuilding the franchise around arms and defense first, with no mention of Bonds at all. No more one-year, win-now, cut-and-paste jobs. The time finally had come to cut the tie.

Right … after … this … home … run.

The messy marriage of convenience between the Giants and Bonds ended Friday with the announcement that the franchise Magowan heads won't offer the all-time home run leader a contract to play in 2008. Bonds sounded a little hurt and not at all surprised, which shows he can both keep score and read between the lines. He was, this season, a gate attraction the Giants could not see profiting some other team, and it was his pursuit of Henry Aaron's record -- and only that -- that kept Bonds around his hometown team for the '07 campaign. With that purpose served, the divorce now commences posthaste.

That's business, on some levels, and so be it. Bonds has suspected for some time that he would want to play a year or two longer than the Giants would want to pay, and he certainly understood that he had to be an almost otherworldly offensive presence to offset his liabilities in the field and on the base paths.

On the more epic scale, though, this has been one of the longest, most drawn-out, most excruciating dissolutions of a relationship in recent sports history. Giants fans began to fall out of sync with Bonds the same way they grew to appreciate him in the first place -- a little at a time, month by month, stroke by stroke, statement by statement -- until there was finally so little left between them that they could barely speak. Only history, really. Only that.

You'll hear a lot in the days to come about how only San Francisco could love Bonds. It is, of course, the most pungent crock. Bonds would have belonged to whatever team claimed him back in December 1992, when Magowan's first significant act after fronting the ownership group that saved the Giants from Tampa-St. Petersburg was to plunk down more than $43 million on the talented, mercurial, ego-driven outfielder who grew up in nearby San Mateo, whose father was Bobby Bonds, who was already a star in his own right. Magowan and the Giants got there first. That's the reality.

Peter Magowan
Jeff Chiu/AP PhotoGiants owner Peter Magowan is eager to build around his stable of young pitchers.

What is true, perhaps, is that Bonds never could have felt for another franchise the way he felt for the Giants. His dad played for the team. He grew up with the Giants, the entity, as a central figure in his life. In many ways, the 1993 season felt like a homecoming, and San Francisco fans rushed to embrace the multitalented player who was helping them win 103 games and transform the future of the club.

You know most of the rest. Bonds' star rose and fell and rose again, a new ballpark was built essentially on his ability to draw at the gate, then came the turn of the century, with its staggering offensive totals and its eventual weight of skepticism, cynicism and outright cries of "cheater!" By Friday, when the Giants made public their decision to go forward without Bonds, the left fielder had become the single most divisive figure in the modern history of baseball -- more celebrated and more reviled than any other player in memory. He had become, for the Giants, an anvil tied around their collective neck, this despite the fact that he continued to deliver offensive numbers other major leaguers simply could not produce.

But, God, the beautiful torture of the relationship. If Giants fans were the most closely aligned with Bonds, they also were the most keenly aware of every fracture in his breastplate. They saw the mind-blowing hits, but they also read -- story by story, day by day -- the entire developing performance-enhancement scandal around Bonds. They had the whole thing laid in front of them, sentence upon sentence, before "Game of Shadows" was even in manuscript form. They saw it all.

And they began to retreat from Bonds, respectfully but steadily.

The stories continued to spill out, about Bonds' toxic relationship with teammates, about the cheating accusations. Bonds still was cheered heartily at AT&T Park, but there was no longer a carryover effect in the community. On some levels, the franchise appeared confused and stymied by Bonds' continued presence in uniform, and even fans who couldn't deny Bonds' offensive prowess wondered about the wisdom of trying to build a team around a guy who no longer could run reliably or field his position with range.

What they didn't know was that Magowan, and GM Brian Sabean, and just about every other higher-up in the Giants organization was asking the same kinds of questions. The corporate waffling over Bonds a year ago was real, and it was well-understood. In the end, the fact that Bonds was going to take down Aaron's record was the ultimate inducement for a new contract; but no one was kidding himself: Even Magowan spent this spring looking forward to 2008 with enthusiasm.

And maybe that's the thing, the difference. Bonds meant so many things to so many people in his Giants tenure that attempting to wrap it up in a single story is right foolish; but if you were to look for the thing that went lacking down the stretch, a thing even the franchise's top operators could detect, it was enthusiasm -- for Bonds and for the franchise. That was what seemed to go missing most often lately.

Now that enthusiasm, slowly being recaptured, centers on the next wave of talent, the Cains and Lincecums. Maybe neither of those players ever will come remotely close to having the impact on a San Francisco summer that Bonds did. Then again, neither of them is Bonds. Just this minute, that'll do.

Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland," published by HarperCollins, is in national release. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, Kreidler can be reached at mark@markkreidler.com.

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