A strange love

Or: How one Giants fan learned to stop worrying and love Barry Bonds, just in time to appreciate his 500th home run.

By Joan Walsh
Published April 18, 2001 2:50PM (EDT)

If timing is a test of greatness, the way Barry Bonds timed his 500th career home run Tuesday night -- an eighth-inning, game-winning, two-run shot into the waters of McCovey Cove to win the San Francisco Giants' first home game in almost two weeks, against the arch-rival Los Angeles Dodgers -- should shut down what minimal debate may still exist about his greatness.

Since spring training I've assumed this is Bonds' last season in a Giants uniform -- it's hard to imagine this scrappy mid-payroll team paying superstar dollars to a 37-year-old outfielder -- and his likely departure has served to concentrate the mind. I savor every at-bat: the otherworldly glower out at the pitcher, and back at the ump after a bad call; the menacing twitch of the bat over his left shoulder; the blur of his swing, that devastating, gorgeous swing.

I've always liked Bonds, but a couple of years ago I made it a point to love him: I'd hate myself later in life if I'd had the luck to root for a team whose star was the undisputed player of the decade, but I didn't give it up for him because ... well ... you know ... he doesn't run out a lot of ground balls, he's not really a clubhouse "leader," and he's rarely nice to the media. All true, but beside the point. I give it up for Bonds now, every chance I get, and I'm much happier because of it.

But never more than his fourth time up Tuesday night, in front of the largest crowd in the short history of Pacific Bell Park. We've seen a humble, uncertain Barry on the march to become the 17th player in major league history (and the fourth Giant) to hit 500 home runs. He came into the season with 494, and immediately hit one on Opening Day -- the third straight Opening Day he's homered -- but then he fell into a slump.

Bonds has never been Mr. October -- he routinely tanks in the playoffs -- but he's usually dynamite in April and May. After the first three-game homestand, though, he folded, coming within an at-bat of matching the longest slump of his career, going 0-for-21 on a trip through Los Angeles and San Diego. Manager Dusty Baker sat him in a game against the Padres last week, and ever since, Bonds has been on fire. He's hit five home runs in five games, including his historic shot Tuesday night.

Everyone said he wanted to hit No. 500 at home, in front of his friends and family, and his fans. I've watched Barry for a long time, and I could see it going a lot of ways. I thought he'd either hit it in his first at-bat Tuesday night; or not for days, maybe even a week. Bonds himself owned up to "stage fright" over the impending feat, in remarks to the San Francisco Chronicle that were kind of maddening, kind of endearing: "It's hard to explain the feeling that you go through. It's like you never dreamt you'd be in a position to do certain things in your life and your career. You never thought it was possible or reachable. The next thing you find out, you're knocking on the door and you're a little bit nervous. You find you're on center stage. You're out there by yourself alone.

"Now I've probably figured out why I don't hit in the playoffs. The spotlight. It's tough."

Finally, he did it when it counted: His team was down 2-1 in the eighth against the Dodgers. He'd hit a teasingly long fly ball out to the 382-foot sign in left center field the at-bat before. Then, with Rich Aurilia on third, he got a 2-0 slider he could whale on, and everyone knew it was gone from the moment he touched it. I heard local broadcaster Ted Robinson's call later on the radio, and I can't describe it any better: "There it goes! High into the San Francisco night and out into McCovey Cove! History!"

Later several Giants broadcasters would confess to getting choked up over the feat, and they weren't alone: Inside the park, tears were required. Bonds' parents -- former Giants and Yankees slugger Bobby Bonds, and his mother, Pat -- joined him behind home plate, and on a golf cart from the outfield rode the two living Giants who reached 500 -- first baseman Willie McCovey (521) and the incomparable Willie Mays (660), Bonds' godfather, to give him big hugs.

"It couldn't be a better dream come true," Bonds said later. "Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to play with these guys. Now I'm playing left field, my godfather played center field and my father played right field -- so I'm out there with all these ghosts."

And of course, that's why the rest of us were out there, too: Anyone you ever loved who loved baseball was there in spirit. That's why we love the game: More than any sport, it's about time's passing, the cruel march of spring toward winter, and all those cherished ghosts, living and dead. No other game daily measures players against those who came long before, and baseball stars themselves -- for all their failings, their egos, their bloated salaries -- display more reverence toward their forebears than athletes in any other major American sport. Can you imagine a scene like the 1999 All-Star Game, when players mobbed Ted Williams, visibly moved by meeting him, in, say, the NBA?

But ultimately it was a great, moving, historic night because there was Barry, happy at last. He's never done enough to court his fans, and they've repaid him with less love than he deserves. He gets his share of cheers at home games, sure. But Dusty Baker's always gotten more applause during the lineup announcements, and this year National League MVP Jeff Kent has begun to edge him out in popularity.

This was Bonds' night, though. He took the microphone -- the game was delayed about 10 minutes after the home run, which might have been tacky except for the presence of Hall of Famers McCovey and Mays, and except for the fact that it was against the Dodgers -- and kept it short and sweet. "First of all, I've got to thank my parents for having me. I want to thank Willie Mays for being here and Willie McCovey. And most of all, thanks to all of you. I love you, and I'm proud to be in a San Francisco Giant uniform."

Love. From Barry Bonds. This could be the start of something. Maybe he's beaten his fear of the spotlight, heralding great things to come in October. Maybe he'll mellow, finally knowing his fans really, really like him, and become the clubhouse leader his fearsome baseball intelligence suggests he ought to be. Maybe he'll put muscle behind his stated desire to retire in a Giants uniform, and instruct agent Scott Boras to bargain with the Giants, not hold them up.

I miss him already.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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