Commentary

Bonds, Giants leave each other behind

Updated: October 1, 2007, 2:10 PM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- In a cramped Dodger Stadium clubhouse, hidden from both the cheers and the boos, a fading slugger watched the world continue to turn without him. For years, he and two dozen other men walked out of the tunnel and onto the field. Now, on a Friday afternoon, they prepared to walk out and leave him behind.

"What time we gotta be out there?" Barry Bonds asked.

He corrected himself.

"What time they gotta be out there?"

Barry Bonds
Phil Carter/US PresswireBarry Bonds shakes hands with Dave Roberts and other Giants teammates during his final home game in San Francisco.

Bonds played his last game as a San Francisco Giant on Wednesday. He left the field at San Francisco's AT&T Park amid adoration. He cleaned out his locker. But his time with the team wasn't over. He still had three more games, a weekend with a foot in his old world and the other tentatively in his new one, a world that is anything but certain. He says he will play again next season. His teammates aren't sure.

"I don't know," says Rich Aurilia. "I really don't think he knows. A lot of it depends on who'd take a chance on him coming aboard."

"I don't know," says Omar Vizquel. "It's gonna be hard to come back with a team where he's not gonna feel loved."

With so much change and uncertainty in the air, the past week has been one of goodbyes -- some welcome, others not. On Wednesday night, when all the work was done, many media and team staffers who dealt with Bonds every day had a celebration, closing down a bar across from the stadium. They were finally rid of him, and the drinks came fast and strong. His teammates said goodbye, too. Aurilia pulled him aside and said, simply, "It was an honor to play with you."

And Bonds, losing the clubhouse, and the city, where he felt loved, knew that he was leaving something irreplaceable behind, too. There were so many things he wanted to say to the guys, who dealt with his mood swings, with his sullenness and with his generosity, who saw their world invaded by reporters for three seasons and by a cloud of negativity. They'd seen the ovations and grand jury investigations, the records and the asterisks. So before he played his final game in San Francisco on Wednesday, he called the team together. The coaches left the room, and Barry Bonds spoke.

"Don't feel sorry for me," he said.

*****

Before the first game of the Giants-Dodgers series began, Bonds eyed a photographer who'd been snapping pictures.

"Let me see it," he said curtly, almost growling.

There's always gonna be a shadow of a doubt. But everybody in this world must know the truth. That's what's gonna be held over his head until we eventually find out what the heck happened with this grand jury and BALCO and how he held it in and fought it off. His trainer's in jail. There are so many questions.

--Giants pitcher Steve Kline

The photographer paused. Bonds' voice softened.

"I'm not gonna erase it," he said.

Instead, he looked at all the photos. This might be the last time he'd wear a Giants uniform, and he soaked it in. As he sat there in the dugout, Dodgers coach Rick Honeycutt approached. Twenty-one years ago, on May 31, 1986, Bonds got his first big league hit off Honeycutt. Bonds remembered the day.

Honeycutt laughed.

"Everybody keeps reminding me about that," he said.

The young man who got that hit was just beginning his journey. He'd already built a reputation -- outstanding but self-centered. By the time he arrived in San Francisco a decade and a half ago, that reputation was cemented. In the 15 years that followed, he hit home runs more often than they'd ever been hit. He also alienated his teammates, sitting in a corner of the locker room, watching his own television, skipping team photos, bringing his own staff instead of using the support group the rest of the team used.

"That's Barry," then-second baseman Jeff Kent told Sports Illustrated. "He doesn't answer questions. He pawns everybody off on us, so we have to do his talking for him. But you get used to it. Barry does a lot of questionable things. But you get used to it. Sometimes it rubs the younger guys the wrong way, and sometimes it rubs the veterans the wrong way. You just hope he shows up for the game and performs."

That quote was from 2001. Many things have happened since then. Bonds broke the single-season home run record. He passed Willie Mays, then Babe Ruth, then Hank Aaron. He became the poster boy of baseball's problem with performance-enhancing drugs and continues to face indictment. His personal trainer, one of that armada of staff who catered to his every whim, is in jail for refusing to testify before a grand jury. But something else happened to Bonds along the way. He got old. As he limped to the career home run record, he seemed suddenly very ordinary. "It's like a superhero that loses their powers," pitcher Steve Kline says. "What do you do then?"

Bonds kept chasing the record, surely knowing he'd never be revered for it, and teammates who'd always respected his talent found themselves respecting the man. Bonds, too, seemed different. During this final season, he spent time in Bruce Bochy's office, talking about the future of the team and the game. Bonds even made a confession: Maybe he should have acted a bit differently when he was young and invincible. Yes, there are still people in the clubhouse who cannot stand the slugger. There are those who think he takes his talent for granted. But there are others who have been converted.

Younger players approach him for hitting advice. Pitcher Matt Cain found Bonds a fount of knowledge, and Bonds pulled the young man aside to tell him that one day he would win a Cy Young Award. On Thursday night, a day after his emotional final game in San Francisco, Bonds showed up at a local concert to hear Aurilia's wife sing.

"When you hit this point," Aurilia says, "you know it's not gonna last forever. You go back and think, maybe if I could have done this a little different, things would have been different. I think he realizes that now. He was a great guy to be around this year. He opened up. He was more public this year as far as going to dinner on the road and going to charity events that guys on the team are holding."

Nothing lasts forever. Not a player's time with one team, and not a final season. Soon, Bonds finished with the photographs. A group of fans by the visitor's dugout called out to him as he stood to leave. When he got to the tunnel entrance, one of them said, "Thank you, Barry." Bonds limped down the concrete stairs, slowly and gingerly, taking the turn into darkness, disappearing from view.

*****

His teammates remained. They had a game to play and were already thinking about life after Barry. The clubhouse will be a more relaxed place next year. The stress level?

"Way down," Vizquel says.

That brings relief. Kline said the team felt it was held hostage to the record chase at times, though that came from the outside and not from Bonds himself. The constant tension has left the Giants weary and, for some, unappreciated.

"You have to be careful what you say," Vizquel says. "You don't want to hurt the moment. You don't want to hurt your teammates. You don't want to hurt Barry. You have got to be real political about it. It's tiring."

There's another part of them that is sad to see him go. They watched him, while facing serious legal issues, get three good pitches a week and hit two out of the park. "That's one of the things I admire about the guy," Vizquel says. "He had all that power mentally to deal with all these [jerks]. You see it on TV. You see it in the paper. You see it in magazines. You see it in books."

Despite the respect, no one seems to really understand him. Vizquel has played three seasons with Bonds. They've never had a real conversation. As much of a mystery as Bonds is to the public, he's more so to the people who are around him everyday. With Bonds leaving the Giants, everyone's favorite game goes with him: Which Barry will show up to work?

"We were just hoping that he's in a good mood when he comes to the ballpark," Kline says.

Alas, this isn't a movie and there were no magic answers in the final three days. There was laughter and a few stories and hugs. But there were no answers. In the end, for those who spent their lives around Barry Bonds, it is the questions that remain. He left the Giants as he arrived: an enigma.

Barry Bonds
Phil Carter/US PresswireBarry Bonds did more watching than playing during the final week of the season, and didn't stick around for his team's final game in Los Angeles.

"There's always gonna be a shadow of a doubt," Kline says. "But everybody in this world must know the truth. That's what's gonna be held over his head until we eventually find out what the heck happened with this grand jury and BALCO and how he held it in and fought it off. His trainer's in jail. There are so many questions."

*****

The last morning of Barry Bonds' 5,410 days with the Giants, his locker sat empty. Few things look as lonely as an empty stall in a clubhouse; normally, they buzz with signs of a life in progress: supplements, photos of families for the married guys and pinups for the single ones, Copenhagen, crayon drawings, remote-control cars, bottles of wine, shirts, hats, belts, gloves, sunglasses, FedEx envelopes, all manner of freebies the players lug all over the country. Bonds' locker was stark naked. Even the nameplate was gone. It stood out.

Laughter bounced off the walls. Players made plans to keep in touch. Kline clowned around. Many others sat on couches watching baseball on TV. Soon, Bonds slipped into the room. Few people seemed to notice. He walked past Dave Roberts' locker. Bonds pretended to wrestle him, cracking, "I can do whatever I want now." There were no sentimentalities. Just the jokes of men not sure how to say goodbye.

Then, as Bonds walked away, Roberts stopped him.

"Hey, man," he said.

Bonds turned around. Roberts stood. The two men hugged, and they each thanked each other. The moment didn't last long. There's no crying in baseball.

Bonds' videographer and publicist and security guy joined him in the clubhouse. The clock on the wall passed noon. His career with the Giants was down to minutes. Bonds checked the time.

"We got an hour," Bonds said.

Finally, the players readied themselves to take the field. Bonds sat on a table near what used to be his locker, and he laughed. A few of the guys watched him. Bonds nodded toward the silver holder that once read, "Bonds. 25."

"I am gone," he says. "I'm not staying for the game."

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.