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Barry Bonds: Safe at Home

“I’m shocked. That would be the last place I’d think he’d go.”

That was the reaction of Dodger icon Tommy Lasorda in 1993 when the Giants signed Barry Bonds for $43.75 million. But looking back today, was there really anywhere else that was a better fit? Bonds as a Yankee would have meant daily bitter showdowns with the New York media. Bonds as a Dodger would have meant that Bobby Bonds’ son and Willie Mays’ godson would be trying to bring down the Giants. Bonds as a Cub, Cardinal or Tiger might have worn thin, as their front offices and fans might not have tolerated the ego and the entourage. Bonds did seven years in Pittsburgh, but that was a younger version. It’s hard to believe that the later version of Bonds would not have eventually worn out its welcome there. San Francisco, whose tolerance is viewed as a vice or a virtue, depending on one’s point of view, was all in with Bonds from his first game in 1993 to his final at bat in 2007.

Bonds has mostly been in exile from the Giants and the game since then, much of his attention focused on legal battles. The Giants have never fully embraced Bonds since his departure, although that may have been a two-way street. Still, I’m surprised how the Giants seemed to have gone out of their way not to celebrate the man who helped make AT&T Park possible. The mezzanine area on the second level of AT&T is a Giants museum. Giants old and current, and historic artifacts, are displayed throughout. I’ve always found it interesting that the section devoted to Bonds is down a somewhat darkened corridor, not front and center in the main viewing area. The good news is that this icy co-existence between Bonds and Giants might be thawing.

On Monday, Bonds is being welcomed by the Giants as a visiting spring training coach in Scottsdale, Ariz. Bonds’ assignment during his weeklong stay is to work with the hitters. Before he gets to that, however, one can imagine that the Bonds’ circus will have one last performance  as the press arrives to mark the moment. Baseball analysts have speculated on what Bonds will actually tell the hitters. I doubt he will be changing grips or altering swings. He would be most effective talking to them about the philosophy of hitting. One of the best Bonds’ interviews I ever heard came before a Sunday Night TV game in 2004 when he talked ball while sitting in the dugout with ESPN analyst/baseball legend Joe Morgan.

Morgan asked him to talk about the key to consistent hitting and here is what Bonds said: “There can be a situation where a guy hits two home runs in a game, and the next two at bats he looks worse … Well, he’s satisfied with his day, and basically, I’ve never been satisfied with an at bat. You can learn that from great hitters … So I go in there to focus that I’m not going to give up any at bats no matter what.”

Bingo! If Bonds can communicate that type of approach on every at bat to the hitters, his short stay at camp could have lasting results.

It will be interesting to see how this new relationship between Bonds and the Giants works out. Will it be a one-camp stand, or will the love last? Bonds in some ways is the odd-man out among the Giants legends. The fans went wild for Bonds the offensive force. The early years of 2000 were the some of the most magical I’ve ever seen. Yet, the fans’ feeling for fellow superstars Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, for example, goes much deeper than balls that went far off into the night at AT&T. It is unlikely that Bonds will ever have that level of personal warmth and respect that fans have for Mays and McCovey, but he will always draw huge ovations from those who witnessed his extraordinary feats.

Trying to figure out where I stand on Bonds is complex. I think he was one of the purest, most-gifted hitters in the game, and I’m talking on the level of Ted Williams. Like everyone else, I wish the PED era never happened. I loved reading about baseball at a very early age, and especially liked going through all the stats. The PED generation made a mockery of those numbers, and I’ll never forgive them for messing with my game. But then you look at what Bonds was facing by the end of 1999. Bonds was the only player in history at the end of 1998 with 400 homers and 400 stolen bases. But nobody cared. In 1998, Mark McGwire hit 70 homers and Sammy Sosa had 66, and they were saluted as the men who saved baseball after the bad feelings from the 1994 strike that canceled the season. Popeye won Olive Oil’s hand and was the hero by beating Bluto because he ate the spinach. So I can understand why Bonds was tempted to try the spinach himself.

The Bonds return has rekindled the debate about a statue at AT&T. I’m not really struggling with that one. He is one of the all-time S.F. Giants, and he owned that ballpark. I wouldn’t put the statue outside the park, since it would invite vandals. Instead, there might be a nice spot within the park in deep right center up in the arcade area.

Hall of Fame? I don’t think he’ll ever make it. His relationship outside of Northern California is sour, and the scribes will never forgive him for not being nice to them. There is a legitimate case against Bonds gaining entrance, but it wouldn’t be enough to keep me from voting for him if I had a ballot. Bonds was one of the best ballplayers ever, with numbers that were among the best even without chemical assistance.

So welcome back, Barry. I hope Brandon Belt, Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Crawford listen closely when you impart your hitting wisdom on them. And I hope you listen closely when you are around Mays and McCovey for advice on how to really earn the love. You’ll probably never win over the fans elsewhere, but at AT&T, my guess is that however your relationship with the  Giants goes from here, you’ll always be safe at home.

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