Looking back

Originally Published: December 3, 2004
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article appeared in the August 8, 2004 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Like Ted Williams before him, Barry Bonds is feared by pitchers and both loved and hated by fans. In his later years, Williams' life was appraised and reappraised in books and on screen; at that distance, his feats grew larger and his persona became softer. Buster Olney spins ahead to Bonds' 65th birthday, in July 2029, to evaluate his career from a similar perspective.

You had to see Barry Bonds loom over the plate to understand. You had to see the way his concentration stitched his eyebrows into a scowl. As the pitcher toed the rubber, Bonds always took a couple of short chops with a bat that seemed too small for his hands. It looked like he was thinking, What have you got, chump? But that was a long time ago.

Barry Bonds is a little bent now, at 65, but he still comes around for Opening Day and special ceremonies, throwing out the first pitch, moving a little closer to the plate every year to make sure he reaches the catcher. The crowd roars, mostly, and he raises both arms and points to the sky, the same pose he struck after hitting No.700, in the summer he turned 40, at the end of that incredible season. You might not remember what they called the Giants' park in 2004, or the names of the presidential hopefuls, but you can't forget how much Bonds was feared that year. Of his 232 walks, 120 were intentional, breaking the major league record for a full season. Opposing managers dictated strategy as if there were a high degree of probability Bonds would hit a homer in every at-bat. About a quarter of the pitches thrown to him that year were intentional balls. The Orioles intentionally walked him four times in one game. Shortstop Miguel Tejada would make eye contact with Bonds in the on-deck circle and lift four fingers: Yes, we're going to walk you this time, too. And Bonds laughed. He had to laugh at the absurdity of it all.

Sean Casey, the Reds' famously talkative first baseman, asked Bonds as he held him on, "Doesn't this get old after a while?" It did, and so did Barry, but not until he was well past 40.

He was, without apologies to Ted, the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived. He sold more tickets than anybody else, and was booed more, too, because of his edgy personality and because of the BALCO investigation, which, fairly or not, followed him into retirement. It's hard to remember whether there were more walks or subpoenas issued in 2004, more home runs or evidentiary seizures. That was a long time ago.

Barry Bonds
APBonds passed his godfather, Willie Mays, with his 661st career home run in April 2004.

But the fans filled the ballparks to hate him or love him, and sometimes the same fans who booed Bonds as he approached the plate would then boo the nervous pitchers, having paid for the right to see The Villain swing, and their unrest would goad the pitchers into throwing strikes. The Padres' manager, Bruce Bochy, vividly recalled how he could sense the fans getting to his pitchers. "Don't give in to him," he would think to himself. But eventually, one of the kids would throw Bonds a pitch to hit, and he would always swing like he knew what was coming – usually he did – and Lord, you felt sorry for them.

Bonds hit more homers and drove in more runs in other seasons, but he was never better than he was that year, when he passed his godfather, Willie Mays, on the career home run list, and began his final assault on Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron en route to 800. All of his talent and skill and precision and devotion were fully fused into each of his at-bats, each of his swings, at a time when scrutiny of him was never greater.

"Barry Bonds has taken our game past the Tiger Woods level of golf," Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt said back then, referring to the great golfer of the time. "He's actually taken the offensive game to a level no one dreamed of, no one even knew existed. The intimidation factor around Barry Bonds is stronger than any that I know of in the history of sports, Babe Ruth included."

Schmidt had once been feared. He could still remember the first of only two times in his career he was intentionally walked with no one on. He was hot, the little pitcher was a lefty, the opposing manager was Frank Howard and it was a big deal. Said Schmidt: "That happens to Barry every day."

Bonds wasn't the only player of his time to get much bigger physically during his career. So did many of his peers: other MVPs, other All-Stars, other hitters and pitchers. The most pointed questions were about him, though, because he was the best. He was Bonds.

Hitting coach Jeff Pentland would tell other major leaguers, You don't want what Barry has, meaning they weren't equipped for the challenge of greatness. Pentland, who was Bonds' hitting coach at Arizona State and a lifelong friend, was amazed at how well Bonds coped with his own success. In that kind of spotlight, the more you accomplish, the more that's expected of you, the more you have at stake. Even the smallest failures become enormous. Almost anyone would shrivel from that kind of pressure, Pentland believed, once they understood it. Bonds embraced it.

He was obsessed with correcting flaws. A couple of months into his major league career, Bonds phoned Pentland and explained that pitchers were jamming him with fastballs.

"What do I need to do?" Bonds asked. "Barry, you're the smartest player I ever had," Pentland responded. "You'll figure it out."

In time, Bonds moved closer to the plate, shortened his stride – "Just be slow with your feet," he once explained –and became the best hitter of inside fastballs Pentland had ever seen. And the best breaking-ball hitter. And the most disciplined, period.

Swinging a bat is the most basic instinct for ballplayers. They've been doing it since they were toddlers, and after years upon years of backyard games and BP and organized competition, the yearning to swing the bat is ingrained. A player walks past a new box of bats, and invariably he reaches in and pulls one out, hefts it, takes a half-swing, checks out how it feels. It's a blind date with wood, and the ballplayer is looking to hook up. It's what they do. It's who they are.

So other players watched Bonds abstain, refuse to swing at anything out of the strike zone, and they were awestruck. He drew fewer than 100 walks in each of his first five seasons, but late in his career, he was spitting at outside pitches. Bonds wouldn't see a strike for four or five at-bats – hell, for two or three days – and yet, when a pitcher tried enticing him with a fastball just off the corner, he held back. He had the most potent swing in the game, more reason to swing than any of his peers, and yet he had conquered that most basic instinct. He was the pope of plate discipline.

Bonds hit eight homers in eight games back in April of '04, and pitchers all but stopped throwing him anything over the plate. He took 44 of the following 58 pitches. Among his 14 swings, he missed twice, hit three fouls, a lineout, a popout – and a single, double and five homers. After he homered on the last of those 58 pitches, Bonds would not swing again for another 23 pitches, collecting four walks. On the 24th pitch, he ripped a single. And here are the most amazing numbers of all: of the first 1,306 pitches he saw in the summer he turned 40, he swung and missed on 49, and he had 23 homers and 13 doubles. He was almost as likely to hammer an extra-base hit as he was to swing and miss. "He gets walked three times in one night and they throw one pitch over the plate, and he hits it," said Eddie Murray, the Hall of Fame first baseman. "It's awesome to watch." You really had to see it to understand.

When the Giants visited their ancestral home of New York that May, their clubhouse overflowed with reporters asking questions about steroids and BALCO. Bonds was sick, badly congested and unable to play in the first game, so it might have been out of sheer boredom that he summoned the media to his locker. "Am I entertaining you guys, or what?" he said, chuckling, his legs stretched out, feet bumping against the bats in his locker. "I just have fun with you guys. It's entertaining to me."

But eventually, his patience grew thin. When one writer mentioned that everybody wished steroid use in baseball hadn't developed into such an issue, Bonds replied sharply, "I wish my dad didn't drink in his day, but I can't change that. Just because my dad drank and he was an alcoholic, does that mean I was with him? My brother did drugs and is recovering; he's my brother and I love him to death. But am I going out with my brother doing drugs?" He would add that if any reporter had proof that he had done steroids, he or she should come forward with it. "Otherwise," Bonds said serenely, "shut the f-- up."

He walked onto the field to watch BP and was greeted with jeers from a horde of fans behind the visitors' dugout. Two nights later, the same fans would cheer his BP bombs. They hated him that summer, and they loved him. Bonds got one of the loudest ovations during the Home Run Derby in Houston, but when he was introduced before the All-Star Game, he heard plenty of boos.

The Giants were third in the majors in road attendance; everyone wanted to see baseball's one-man circus. Inside the tent, Bonds performed. "When he came back last year after his father died, he hit then," said Giants infielder Edgardo Alfonzo. "This," Alfonzo continued, referring to the BALCO investigation, "won't bother him." You had to see him every day to understand. Everybody has bad days in BP. Bonds never did, carving line drives to left when he wanted, always smashing the ball squarely with his bat, forever precise, his concentration unrivaled. "The great players are able to slow the game down," said A's pitcher Tim Hudson, who allowed six hits in Bonds' first 14 career at-bats against him, including two homers. "He's been able to slow it down a little more than most. He's like the big kid in elementary school who was way better than everybody else."

Virtually all hitters identify pitches by the rotation of the ball after it leaves the pitcher's hand. If they see spin, the ball's face turned into a whirlpool of seams, they know the pitcher has thrown a curve or a slider. Otherwise, it's probably a fastball or a changeup. But Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who studied his rivals, maintained that Bonds could identify pitches before they were released. As a pitcher's hand reached its apex, Gwynn explained, Bonds could detect in an instant whether the pitcher held the ball with his palm and fingers straight up and down (a fastball), or if he gripped it from the side (a breaking ball). A flap of fingers sticking up from behind the ball meant changeup.

In practical terms, this meant Bonds had a huge advantage on other hitters, who had to wait until the ball was four or five feet into its journey toward the plate – an eternity, by comparison. "They always said it looked like he knew a breaking ball was coming," Gwynn said then. "Well, he did."

That wasn't exactly news to his teammate, pitcher Jason Schmidt. When Bonds hit his record 73 homers in 2001, Schmidt said, "They would throw him a breaking ball, and he was like a statue. He wouldn't even move. I've never seen anything like that. He knew it was a ball even before it left the guy's hand. He didn't offer. He didn't check-swing. You don't see hitters do that."

But by the time Bonds turned 40, Schmidt was used to seeing him do the impossible. Somebody broke out a deck of cards in spring training, and Bonds eyeballed the deck as it was shuffled, then predicted the identity of the bottom card. Four times in a row. You had to see it to understand.

Sam Holman lugged a bag of bats over to Bonds in the spring of 1999, bats made out of maple rather than ash. Bonds had heard about Holman and his bats from former teammate Joe Carter, and after Bonds launched homer after homer with the maple in BP, he sat with the former stagehand and asked precise questions about why the bats seemed harder. Holman sent him a dozen bats a week. Bonds would phone whenever he wanted to make tenth-of-an-ounce adjustments.

Bonds had asked for just such an incrementally lighter alteration in the summer of 2001, when he was stalking Mark McGwire's single-season home run record of 70. Holman watched on TV as Bonds bounced a couple of long drives against outfield fences, and knew he'd be getting a call. Sure enough: "Dude, there's something wrong," Bonds said. He and Holman agreed to ratchet up the weight by one-tenth of an ounce, and Bonds blew McGwire away. "Barry and I both know," Holman said, "that the record could be 76 or 77. He did the work for that."

There was much hand-wringing because of how he was pitched around then and afterward, but the choice was always simple: you could pitch to Barry Bonds or you could pitch to somebody else, and you would always pitch to somebody else.

Cy Young won 511 games at the turn of the 20th century, and his portfolio is always framed by the context of his time. He threw in the dead-ball era, a time when catchers stood upright and umpires called rule-book strikes, a time when the baseballs were beaten and used, and many pitchers loaded the ball with spit or mud. But Young won 138 more games than any of his peers. In his day, Babe Ruth sometimes slugged more home runs than entire teams.

Barry Bonds played in an era when many players loaded themselves with performance-enhancing substances, from creatine to steroids to human growth hormone. There was reason to believe many stars used the stuff, hitters and pitchers, benefiting from the accelerated recovery period, the additional strength. And Bonds was far superior to any of them, affecting the game in a way that Ruth or Mays or Aaron never did.

His friends threw Bonds a surprise party in advance of his 40th birthday, and they got him good. Three hundred people, teammates, former teammates and celebrities like Robin Williams, Evander Holyfield and Danny Glover among them, waited at Lucky Strike Lanes, an upscale bowling alley in Hollywood. The signs in the place read, BONDS: Still Bowling Them Over at 40.

Danielle Steel, the novelist and a friend, was the lure, sending a limo to pick up Bonds and his wife. When he came through the door, he was shocked. Taken aback by the crowd, Bonds started retreating out of the room, before finally coming in, all smiles. Everybody sang "Happy Birthday," and Bonds moved through the room, recognizing one person after another from his past, and another, and another. Then he took the microphone. "I cannot thank you enough," he told them, beaming. What fun; what a great night it was for him, in that incredible season, when he was loved and hated. You had to see him to understand. But that was a long time ago.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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