One of the many nutty things I did on Sept. 11 was get weepy -- twice -- about how the history-changing terror attack would ruin Barry Bonds' history-making 2001 season. Even if he broke Mark McGwire's 1998 home run record, I thought darkly, who would care? With a staggering 63 home runs by Sept. 9, Bonds already was getting far less acclaim than he deserved, because the sports world hadn't figured out how to love the arrogant and awkward but hard-working and hugely talented San Francisco Giants superstar. The shadow of Sept. 11 would only further obscure -- if not obliterate -- Bonds' huge achievement if he passed McGwire's 70 home runs.
But he wouldn't. I was sure of it. Contrary to stereotype, Bonds' problem isn't that he's a callous asshole, but that he's way too sensitive. Sadly, even sheepishly (because I'm a big Bonds defender), I thought to myself: Barry's probably the last person who could play through all this pain and chaos and distraction, and persevere to break the record. I didn't hold it against him -- I grew up loving the New York Mets, then the Chicago Cubs and for the last decade the Giants (who have collectively won exactly two World Series in my lifetime; that's 43 seasons times three teams, for a 127:2 disappointment-exhilaration ratio); I expect to get my heart broken by baseball. Besides, I'm a Bonds fan because of his frailties, not in spite of them.
What does it take to love Barry Bonds? Exactly that: Seeing him as shy and strangely fragile and slightly tortured, rather than as a pampered prima donna. I gave it up to Barry only recently, so I can sympathize a little with his detractors. I know their grievances, and so do you: He's standoffish and not wildly popular with his teammates; he won't run out routine ground balls; he's a jerk to reporters; he's not exactly Mr. October, batting around .200 in the playoffs; he's got that big leather recliner, a huge TV and three lockers in the Giants' clubhouse.
Three things turned me into a diehard Bonds fan: Watching the loving way he treats kids (as opposed to adults, especially sportswriters); watching him play through pain; and finally, Rick Reilly's Sports Illustrated hatchet job last August, in which the Giants' star second baseman, Jeff Kent, blasted Bonds for not being a team player. "On the field, we're fine, but off the field, I don't care about Barry and Barry doesn't care about me. Or anybody else," Kent told Reilly. "Barry does a lot of questionable things ... I was raised to be a team guy, and I am, but Barry's Barry."
The Reilly article forced me to a conclusion I'd been resisting for years: that race plays a small but sorry role in the negative way Bonds gets treated by the media. And no amount of arguing, even with black friends who don't like Bonds, will ever convince me otherwise. Watching the often-sullen Kent get off without a sports-world raspberry for ripping his teammate in the middle of a pennant run -- not to mention the home run chase -- convinced me there's a double standard for black and white prima donnas. (And pardon this digression, but it's hard not to feel vindicated by the recent incident in which Kent claimed he broke his wrist washing his truck, but did it doing wheelies on his motorcycle, a contract no-no. Before the truth came out, "team guy" Kent blasted folks who scoffed at the truck-washing story with a little swipe at his teammates: "People making fun of a guy who washes his own truck, that's sad," Kent told reporters. "I'm not like everybody else. I don't have maids, I don't have car-wash guys. I don't have nannies." Now that it's clear Kent was not just bashing his car-wash visiting, nanny-hiring teammates, but also lying about his injury, I certainly hope Rick Reilly writes about it.)
So yes, I'm a huge Bonds fan -- but even I doubted he'd break McGwire's record after Sept. 11. He'd had a great run until then: He hit a home run on Opening Day, 2001 -- the third straight year he had homered in the season opener -- but with only five home runs to go to join the 500 club, he fell into a slump. He went 0-for-21 on a swing through Los Angeles and San Diego, and told reporters he was having a hard time with the spotlight. "Now I've probably figured out why I don't hit in the playoffs. The spotlight. It's tough," he confessed, with disarming but unnerving honesty (which didn't bode well for his breaking the home-run record). Then the slump ended and the McGwire chase really began: He hit five home runs in five days, including No. 500 on the first game of a home stand April 17. We didn't know it then, but a dazzling history-making season had begun.
Still, he was streaky all year long: Hit in the hand by a pitch in early May, he went into another mini-slump, going about a week without a homer. I got to talk to him in that period, for the first time ever. My secret for keeping my Bonds love alive has been never to talk to him as a reporter. I've criticized sportswriters who repay Bonds' rudeness with nasty coverage, but I worry I'm not a big enough person to handle a Bonds brushoff any better. But that May afternoon I was on the field for another assignment, and Bonds actually struck up a conversation with me, so I asked him about his injured hand. He took off his batting glove to show me how much tape he was wearing on the injured fingers, as if grateful for the attention. Then he shrugged. "I'm always in pain," he told me, and we commiserated about aging, as though my aches and pains mattered as much as his.
This was a humble, friendly Barry I hadn't seen before, but it turned out it wasn't my charm alone -- he actually mellowed in the course of the season. He was chummier with his teammates and nicer to reporters, scheduling press conferences in many cities as the home run chase heated up, which it began to do in late May. He hit a National League record nine home runs in five days, including three against Atlanta May 20, and another two the next day (he'd have 10 multi-home run games in the course of the season, and 17 in May alone). By mid-June, he'd already tied the record for most home runs before the All Star break, with an astonishing 37, though he would only hit two more in the next three weeks, his longest silent stretch of the season.
But it wasn't just home runs. He'd finish the season batting .328, with an astonishing .863 slugging percentage, a .515 on-base percentage, 137 runs batted in and 177 walks. In the midst of the crazy second half, he faced the Rick Reilly story, and the local media firestorm that followed, handling it with newfound grace and equanimity, suggesting it was possible Kent had been misquoted. (He hadn't.) Just as that was dying down -- Bonds hit three home runs at Coors Field in Denver on Sept. 9 to reach 63 -- then came Sept. 11. I was sure the momentum was over. The season was interrupted for a week, and when it resumed, Bonds didn't seem ready to carry on as before. The night the Giants played again, during the pre-game ceremony, he looked stricken, drugged, despairing. He sang "God Bless America" and "The Star Spangled Banner," but he mouthed the words like a hospital patient. He had tears in his eyes. I knew he wouldn't hit No. 64 that night, and he didn't. (Andres Galarraga, though, hit the longest home run in the short history of Pacific Bell Park, the Giants' new downtown stadium, and that made sense: Galarraga, always a baseball mensch, survived cancer two years before, and he has the heart to defeat anything.)
But then Bonds began to rally. He hit No. 64 a couple of days later, then two on Sept. 23, and the chase was back on. Also to my surprise, the nation was paying attention, turning its lonely eyes to Bonds in the post-Sept. 11 chaos. While his pursuit of McGwire's record never reached the front-page fever pitch that Big Mac's did in 1998, the media seemed to like Bonds a little better, too. Maybe the biggest factor in the media turnaround was Houston Astros manager Larry Dierker's refusal to pitch to Bonds in the Astros' early-October four-game series with the Giants. Dierker singlehandedly made Bonds a sympathetic national hero by walking him eight times in 14 plate appearances -- once with the Giants leading 8-1. Even Astros fans booed their manager.
It was during that series the media discovered Bonds had cute daughters (a photo of them holding a sign "Please pitch to our daddy!" ran in hundreds of papers). A lovely wife! An adoring mom! So much of the coverage was condescending and belated, but the love came better late than never.
And finally, so did No. 70. In his last at bat in four games against the Astros -- having seen 64 pitches, of which 51 were balls -- Bonds finally got a fastball from rookie pitcher Wilfredo Rodriguez, and slammed a towering blast into the second deck of soon-to-be-renamed Enron Field. I'll never forget the huge, boyish smile on his face as he ran the bases. I had more unkind thoughts about Rick Reilly when I saw Bonds' teammates pour out of the dugout to mob him at home plate that night. Pitchers ran in from the bullpen, and the adoring Houston crowd demanded three curtain calls.
He came home to San Francisco to break the record one night later, on Oct. 5, and he did it in the first inning, with the Giants already down 5-0 against the Dodgers, and on the brink of elimination from the playoff chase. At 8:15 he slammed a 1-0 Chan Ho Park fastball into history. For a moment, everything seemed possible -- that the Giants could win the game, and the division, that Bonds would get the acclaim he deserved, that we'd all eventually remember 2001 for more than Sept. 11. The Giants even clawed their way back to tie the Dodgers, but they lost 11-10, in another history-maker, the longest nine-inning game in National League history at four hours and 27 minutes. Their season was effectively over. The Arizona Diamondbacks clinched the division, going on to beat the New York Yankees in what may have been the best World Series ever.
But seeing the Giants eliminated the very night Bonds broke the record, I felt the cosmic injustice personally: Why couldn't Barry just have his day? Why did everything have to be bittersweet, if not just plain bitter?
A die-hard crowd of 10,000 stayed for the surreal after-midnight ceremony honoring Bonds, featuring his godfather, Giants legend Willie Mays, and his entire team thronging behind him. Jeff Kent stood beaming in the back row, holding Bonds' toddler daughter Aisha. I found myself thinking that maybe Sept. 11 helped his teammates, and the sports world, appreciate Barry better: He's a guy who comes to work ready to play every day; he plays hurt; he plays sad; he hit No. 67 the day after a close friend died; No. 71 the day of his friend's funeral. That's the kind of heart we all need to go the distance; what it would take to recover from what happened that fall.
It was inspiring; it was also sort of anguished and awful. Midceremony, midspeech, Bonds utterly lost it, a piece of baseball drama you really didn't read about in all its awkward poignancy the next day, because the writers didn't quite know how to deal with it. It was the middle of the night, really, and eerily still, the briny wind off San Francisco Bay that normally whips the flags around in right field having died down. Bonds walked to the podium and soaked up the love from the crowd and his teammates, and then broke down, midspeech, sobbing, not merely teary. It was an amazing, terrifying moment.
"San Francisco, you fans, we've come a long way," Bonds said. "We've had our ups and downs." And then he covered his mouth with his hand and cried. A moved but embarrassed Mays put his arm around him, then motioned team joker and Bonds buddy Shawon Dunston to the podium, to help cover up the rare public show of emotion -- in Mays' world, men didn't cry like that. Dunston, to his credit, didn't change the tone right away. He understood that everyone needed to see, deserved to see, this strange, vulnerable Barry.
I tried to understand the tears. I'm still not sure I do. It felt as if Bonds was acknowledging that he'd finally gotten the love he deserved in San Francisco, partly because he'd finally given it -- but just when it seemed as if it might be too late. His contract was up at the end of the season, and baseball insiders predicted the business-minded Giants management would decide the team couldn't afford him.
"Barry loves you," Dunston told the crowd. And he used the moment to lobby Giants president Peter Magowan to sign his star free agent to a new deal. "He really does want to come back, Peter. What do you think? I'm coming back. Why not Barry?" When Magowan spoke briefly, the crowd went nuts. "Sign him! Sign him!" and "Four more years!" we roared, defiantly, angrily, like crazy vigilantes, and it was a little scary and sort of wonderful. Again I was thinking the worst -- that the budget-conscious team never would sign Bonds again -- but again I would be pleasantly surprised. He got a five-year $90 million deal in the off-season, and he opens the season Tuesday in a Giants uniform, which he says he'll wear until his retirement.
Bonds' return, though, wasn't merely a happy ending. I believed him when he said all season that he wanted to come back to the Giants; I also know he didn't get the megazillion free-agent offers he might have expected, and I can't help but think that's due to the Rick Reilly factor: The fact that he's widely perceived as an arrogant jerk. That the Yankees pursued Oakland slugger Jason Giambi while the Atlanta Braves traded for the Dodgers' Gary Sheffield, and neither big-spending team went after Bonds, had something to do with his age but also with that whiff of the asshole that even his stellar 2001 achievement, and deportment, couldn't dispel.
Still, Bonds was embraced by his teammates, and San Francisco fans, in a way he never had been before, and that helped salve some of the national media's disrespect. The night he hit No. 71, I thought about that conversation I had with him in mid-May, when he told me, "I'm always in pain." Maybe pain and aging and Sept. 11 humbled Barry Bonds, made him better able to deal with mere mortals; maybe it made us better able to deal with him, a flawed and mortal superstar. Maybe history will even show Sept. 11 didn't diminish Bonds' achievement, but enhanced it. The nation got the baseball hero it needed -- thin-skinned and emotional and not entirely hardened for battle, but one who got the job done anyway. Six months later, I'm grateful to get to see him in a Giants uniform again.