Inner focus drives Bonds

In winning his fourth straight MVP award, Barry Bonds had a remarkable year and put aside tremendous scrutiny.

Originally Published: November 15, 2004
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

How does he do it?

How does Barry Bonds shut it all out and play?

How can this man possibly do the things he does with the BALCO tornado forever darkening his skies? With a league full of managers who would rather get fired than pitch to him? With that soundtrack of boos and wisecracks that follow him through every baseball town in America?

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

It can't be as easy as he makes it look. We know that.

We also know, of course, that Bonds brings most of this upon himself.

He could care less whether anybody in the seats likes him or roots for him. He's a proud graduate of the Albert Belle School of Media Relations. And nobody outside the Bonds family believes the BALCO mess is just an anti-Barry Justice Department conspiracy.

But from innings one through nine, it doesn't seem to matter who or what makes Barry's world so troubled.

From innings one through nine, from Opening Day until whenever they send him home, he lowers the shades, locks in and continues to dominate his sport the way nobody has since Babe Ruth.

"I don't know what it is," Bonds said Monday, during a conference call with the national media. "A light switch turns on in me when the season starts. I can go through spring training in half-mode or whatever. But as soon as the season starts, I change. I can't understand it. I won't understand it. And there's really no answer for it."

If there was an answer for it, obviously, he'd bottle it, sell it and write a best-seller about it. Instead, he answers without words. He answers by putting up one incomprehensible season after another.

On Monday, he won another MVP award. Stop us if you've heard that someplace before.

He now has won four of these awards in a row. Nobody else has ever won that many in a career.

He now has won seven MVP's altogether. Only one player in any professional sport has ever won more -- some guy named Wayne Gretzky (with nine), in a sport that used to be known as hockey.

Think about this a second. Seven MVP awards: That's more than Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Ted Williams put together.

Seven MVP awards: Over the last four decades, Oakland is the only team that has won that many.

Seven MVP awards, just since 1990: In that same time, all the other players in the National League have only combined to win eight.

And of all Bonds' MVP seasons, this one might have been his greatest.

Maybe he didn't hit 73 homers. But he did become the oldest batting champ in history -- and joined Ted Williams as the only men to win a batting title in the season they turned 40. And that's just the beginning. Ruminate on all this other stuff he did:

  • Barry's .609 on-base percentage was the highest of all time. To put that in perspective, only one other current National Leaguer -- Todd Helton -- has ever had a season within 150 points of that.

  • Bonds reached base 376 times. Only the Babe ever beat that.

  • Barry had an .812 slugging percentage. Just Ruth -- and Bonds himself -- have topped that.

  • He had his eighth 40-homer season. Only the Bambino ever had more.

  • He won his second batting title since turning 38. Which would be one more than all the other players in history combined.

  • He was the first man ever to pile up at least a 140-point lead in slugging and on-base percentage in the same year.

  • He scored 129 runs. In the modern, post-1900 history of the National League, no one else his age had ever even scored 100.

  • He was the oldest man in history to hit 45 home runs.

  • He was the third to drive in 100 runs in a season in which he didn't even get 400 at-bats.

    And then there were all those walks. ...

    This man walked 232 times. The American League leader, Eric Chavez, didn't even walk 100 times.

    And there were those 120 intentional walks. No team was within 50 of that.

    I don't know what it is. A light switch turns on in me when the season starts. I can go through spring training in half-mode or whatever. But as soon as the season starts, I change. I can't understand it. I won't understand it. And there's really no answer for it.
    Barry Bonds

    He had more multi-walk games (76) than anyone else in his league had multi-hit games.

    He was intentionally walked four times in four different games.

    Among people not named Barry Bonds, no one was intentionally walked more than the Phillies' Jim Thome. He merely trailed Barry by (gulp) 95.

    But the most mind-boggling Bonds factoid of the year was this:

    He walked so much that even if he'd gotten no hits all year, he still would have had a higher on-base percentage than the guy who led the league in hits, Juan Pierre.

    Had he not spent his season pretty much living on base, does anyone think the Giants would have come within five runs of leading the league in runs scored? Does anyone think they would have stayed in the playoff race until the final day of the season?

    We remind you. No other regular on this team hit .300. No one else hit half as many homers as Bonds did. No one else drove in 100. No one had an on-base percentage within 240 points of Barry's. And yet, we repeat: This team just missed leading the league in runs scored.

    Which kind of explains why Adrian Beltre, Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen aren't clearing space in their memorabilia room for that MVP trophy at the moment.

    What it doesn't explain, though, is how Barry does what he does.

    "He's at another level of talent," his GM, Brian Sabean, once said of him. "I've never seen anybody have that day-in, day-out level of concentration."

    To those who just have to watch -- from the club seats, from the other side of the TV screen, even from those kayaks floating in the Cove -- it's easy to take that concentration level for granted.

    But think about doing this day after day, at-bat after at-bat, for 19 seasons.

    Think about doing it with all those subplots swirling around you every day.

    Think about doing it when you're 40 years old, and you're always on base, and there's hardly enough time to gulp down a Gatorade before you're back on base or grabbing a glove.

    Even Bonds admitted Monday he can't do this much longer.

    "I'm getting older," he said. "My attention span probably isn't going to be the same. These clubs are wearing me down (with their walks). Some of them are doing it tactically and smart. It's hard. It's a really hard job to do. I don't wish it on anybody to do that. You don't want to be on your feet constantly for 140 games. ... You have to be a very disciplined player to do that."

    OK, lovable he isn't. But disciplined he is. Of course, he'd better be.

    The BALCO storm is only going to get bigger and breezier. The questions from his media buddies are only going to get stickier and stickier. His adoring public is only going to get rougher and tougher.

    Which means he'll probably only win about three more of these MVP's before he heads home for good.

    "If things bothered me," Bonds said this spring, during one of those post-BALCO media inquisitions he loves so much, "I would have quit a long time ago."

    Yeah, if things bothered him, Albert Pujols might already be a two-time MVP. But he's not.

    If things bothered him, Bonds' team probably would have gotten eliminated around Labor Day weekend. But it didn't.

    If things bothered him, Hank Aaron wouldn't have to start worrying about losing his home run throne until A-Rod started knocking on his door. But now Hank's worries are scheduled to begin any month now.

    Yes, if things bothered him, we wouldn't be writing any of this. So let him enjoy these days of peace, love and understanding, because they won't last forever.

    For Barry, there will be messier days ahead. There will be days when the stories won't be this complimentary. But until that time arrives, he can keep on laughing when we ask: How does he do this?

    And then he can just go out and do it some more.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

    Jayson Stark | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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