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Saturday, August 23, 2003
Updated: August 29, 12:07 PM ET
Gifted Bonds battled high expectations

By Ray Ratto
Special to ESPN.com

The film clip of Bobby Bonds most people remember is one that shows the incandescent greatness of Willie Mays.

And yet, that clip is the one that explains Bonds' playing career best --- as a superb player both ahead of his time and yet doomed to comparisons he could not win.

The clip is of a young Bonds, playing right field in the wind-blown hellhole that was Candlestick Park. He is running toward the chain-link fence to chase down a flyball when suddenly, from the left of the frame, Mays blurs into view, leaps atop Bonds to make an indescribably delicious catch, and then falls in a tangled heap with his apprentice.

That was a part of Bobby Lee Bonds' career --- playing next to the sun of Willie Mays and yet toiling in his enormous shadow.

If it were only that, though, there wouldn't be much to say in the wake of his death Saturday morning at age 57.

In fact, Bobby Bonds' numbers stand on their own, and had he finished his career the way he started it, as the leadoff hitter he was for the first several years of his career, he quite likely would have been Rickey Henderson.

This is not exaggeration, or a slighting of Henderson, whose place as a first-ballot Hall of Famer is secure.

But Bonds nearly had Henderson's speed. He had Henderson's power, plus a bit. He was a better fielder and had a stronger arm than Henderson. He did 30/30 before 30/30 was popular, and he did it more times than anyone but his son.

But therein lies the paradox of Bobby Lee Bonds. He is the sum both of what he was, and the circumstances that obscured what he was. For anyone younger than 45, he is merely a rumor. He predated the tape-everything-and-save-it-for-posterity era of sports journalism.

For all but the most devoted seamheads, he was a very good outfielder in the most fertile era for outfielders the game has ever known. Mays ... Aaron ... Clemente ... Robinson ... Brock ... Jackson ... Yastrzemski ... Kaline ... Rose ... Stargell ... and those are just the Hall of Famers who were playing outfield during Bobby's peak in the late '60s and early '70s.

For anyone who followed the San Francisco Giants through their long period of unrequited excellence, Bonds was nearly Mays, and nearly Willie McCovey, but never precisely either of them.

And for anyone who follows them now, he is the game's First Father.

You may view this as a series of unfair slights on a man who deserved better, or just bad luck for a man who deserved a more effervescent legacy.

Or maybe you take the broader view and say that whatever others may believe he could have been as a player, he was still very good.

You can't even mark him down for playing the last half of his career with seven different teams (the Yankees, Angels, Rangers, Indians, Cardinals and both Chicagos). Henderson puts the lie to that with his own peripatetic itinerary.

But consider also the players for whom he was traded: Bobby Murcer, Mickey Rivers, Ed Figueroa, Brian Downing, Claudell Washington, Jim Kern, Jerry Mumphrey, John Denny. Not a slouch in the bunch.

It seemed, in fact, that to understand Bobby Bonds the player, you either had to have seen him in his undiluted state before the agendas started creeping in, or you have to live on comparisons that don't properly compensate him.

Follow the trail a little longer, though, and you also see a man who benefited from playing next to Mays and picking McCovey's brain and watching the other greats of his era to learn the job. You see a man whose talents shine out just by looking at the bottom line in his entry in the Baseball Encyclopedia.

What he wasn't was not his to control anyway. He couldn't pick his era, or the technological developments of the day, or the place he batted in the order. He couldn't even pick his team, this being the days before players had been granted the simple right to have a hand in their own destiny.

What he was, however, was more than sufficient. He was a profoundly gifted player, an exemplary talent whose gifts were simply too evident to be obscured by mere circumstance.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com