- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- You have to hand it to Barry Bonds. Who could have predicted he would arrive at spring training and do something more eye-catching than last year -- when he showed up in a wig and cocktail dress and impersonated Paula Abdul as part of teammate Omar Vizquel's "Giants Idol" competition?
San Francisco's first full-squad Cactus League workout of 2007 was devoted to getting reacquainted, loose and organized. Pitchers focused on mechanics and building arm strength, while hitters stood in the batter's box and "tracked" pitches -- essentially, just watched balls go by to gauge speed and movement in anticipation of the real thing.
"I take the approach that I'm not even going to swing the bat the first few days," said infielder Rich Aurilia. "One, your timing is way off. Two, the pitchers are ahead of you. Three, you've got screens all around you. And four, you don't want to start camp saying, 'Man, I stink right now.'"
Bonds pretty much stuck with the program through the early rounds of batting practice against Barry Zito and Matt Cain, until he showed about 200 half-bored spectators just why he's Barry Bonds and they're not. With absolutely no warning, Bonds turned on a pitch from Cain and launched it beyond the warning track, over the fence and onto a grassy knoll to the left of the right-field light tower.
If you didn't know better, you would have sworn that a 42-year-old guy just crushed a ball more than 400 feet on one of his first swings of camp.
Bonds jokingly dropped his bat and exited the cage while raising his hands in a mock triumphant pose.
"I'm ready," he said.
And his teammates, so accustomed to watching Bonds make the spectacular seem routine, just shrugged.
"Same Barry, different day," said Giants pitcher Noah Lowry.
Good theater is always part of the equation with Barry Bonds in the Cactus League. Two years ago, when former mistress Kimberly Bell was making his life difficult and the BALCO investigation was picking up steam, he sat at a picnic table with his son, Nikolai, looking and sounding like a beaten man over his unfavorable portrayal in the media.
"You finally got me," he told reporters.
Last spring was a mixed bag. Bonds had a reality show to sell and tried to blend into team camaraderie, but levity took a holiday after "Game of Shadows" hit the bookshelves, and the extent of Bonds' alleged steroid abuse was on display for the world to see.
This year, Bonds is just a few days removed from his one-year, $15.8 million deal with the Giants becoming official. He's at camp with an MLB-issued security specialist and two public relations people by his side, but his contract prohibits longtime ballpark companions Harvey Shields and Greg "Sweets" Oliver from helping him with his stretching and training at the ballpark.
"The healthier and stronger Barry is, the better we're going to be. ... It changes everything."
-- Giants teammate Rich Aurilia
That means somebody else is responsible for lugging around the obligatory gray metal folding chair so that Bonds can rest those middle-aged knees behind the cage.
He's 22 homers short of breaking Hank Aaron's career record of 755, so the rest of the baseball world is obligated to hit "pause" during significant landmarks in Bonds' life. The first workout of spring training, naturally, required Bonds to sit in the home dugout at Scottsdale Stadium and meet the press.
For the most part, Bonds gave bland and congenial answers to questions about baseball and his expectations for 2007. He says he's happy to have speedy leadoff man Dave Roberts at the top of the order, and that he wants desperately to win a World Series. He also feels healthy and ready to go, now that his knees allow him to work more running into his training regimen.
Bonds claims he hasn't given much thought to whether commissioner Bud Selig or Aaron should be in attendance when he hits homer No. 756. And he's undaunted that Carlton Fisk holds the single-season record for a 42-year-old with 18 homers.
Asked what he'll do this season if healthy, Bonds smiled and replied, "I'm capable of doing more than that."
Still, no matter how spry Bonds' knees feel, he can't outrun his historical baggage. When the tough questions started flying Tuesday, the mood of Bonds' news conference went downhill faster than Joe Biden's campaign momentum after he called Barack Obama "clean" and "articulate."
Bonds declined comment on a report that he failed an amphetamine test in 2006 and tried to pin the result on teammate Mark Sweeney. He offered nothing on the status of good friend Greg Anderson, who chose to sit in jail rather than testify against Bonds in a federal government perjury investigation, and he expressed no concerns about where the probe might lead.
When Bonds finally got up and exited the dugout -- having gone from cheerful to testy in a matter of moments -- you half expected a Jerry Springer show to break out.
His teammates, as always, are innocent bystanders in this melodrama, and the cramped feeling in the clubhouse is only part of the equation. There's a school of thought that Bonds' alleged sellout of Sweeney, a universally popular player, will cause a rift in the Giants' clubhouse. But where Bonds is concerned, how could anybody tell? He has maintained enough distance from his teammates through the years, they're always inclined to view him as more of an associate than a friend.
At the same time, Bonds' teammates are in awe of his skill, and they know he must produce for the Giants to make the playoffs. It was noteworthy that Roberts and Aurilia, two offseason acquisitions, got down on one knee beside Bonds' folding chair behind the cage Tuesday and engaged him in conversation.
"The healthier and stronger Barry is, the better we're going to be," said Aurilia, who played previously with Bonds in San Francisco from 1995 through 2003. "If you ask anybody in here, we're a better team with him on the field. It changes the opponents' approach and our approach offensively. It changes everything."
The one true constant is that Bonds' off-field travails won't affect his performance on the field. The emotional distance and aloofness that he's cultivated through the years -- things that make him so easy to dislike -- help contribute to his tunnel vision and transcendence as a player.
Barry Zito, who signed a seven-year, $126 million deal in December, understands that taking some pressure off Bonds is part of his job description. The two stars worked out together over the winter at UCLA, and Zito never sensed that Bonds was concerned that his deal with San Francisco wouldn't be finalized.
Now Zito occupies the locker next to Bonds' in spring training, and he'll do the same at AT&T Park. The two stars posed side by side Tuesday wearing gag T-shirts with the inscription, "Don't Ask Me Ask Barry," and an arrow pointing to the other.
Said Zito, "The masses don't understand how Barry's mind works and he's able to compartmentalize things. He's the same guy every day, regardless. That's what makes him special."
Even as Bonds stiff-arms his teammates with moodiness and self-absorption, they have no choice but to stand by him. While Bonds says he wants to hit 1,000 homers and jokes about playing "until I'm 100," the window of opportunity for him and his aging club is growing short. The question is, how much does he have left?
"We're not just talking about some guy," Lowry said. "If he's healthy and strong and doing what he's done in the years I've seen him, anything is possible."
Both good and bad. That helps define the puzzle that is Barry Bonds.
He didn't dress like Paula Abdul this time, but Barry Bonds' first swing of the spring showed he's ready for a run at Hank Aaron.