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Monday, February 23, 2004
Bonds' State Of The Me address

By Ray Ratto
Special to ESPN.com

The rules were clear when Barry Bonds sat down that The Topic would not be raised except in the most gingerly fashion. There were four P.R. people, three from the Giants and one of Bonds', there to monitor, and interrupt, if need be.

Barry Bonds walked away from questions about BALCO, his trainer's indictment and his rumored use of steroids.
Which was fine. The 30 or so medioids who bracketed him in the first base dugout at Scottsdale Stadium, the Giants' spring training facility, knew the rules of engagement: BALCO, the 10-ton invisible wolverine, was "a legal question," and therefore to be given no answer, or if an answer, a brief and grudging one.

So it went. Bonds covered a wide variety of subjects, including how hard it was for his mother to convince him to start training again, how hard it was for him to deal with the crushing absence of his father, how he spoke with both his godfather Willie Mays and Hank Aaron about his approach to the home run records still before him, and even how the baseballs were slightly softer in 2003 than in prior years.

He even said, as he has in past years, that he would be willing to be drug tested by baseball officials "every day, if they so choose."

But BALCO, and his as-yet wholly circumstantial role, wasn't dealt with directly. That's why God made federal courts.

What Bonds wanted to make clearest of all was that he wants Aaron's record, a statement he had shied away from in the past.

In short, he said, "I'm going for 'em all. As long as I'm playing, I'm going for 'em all."

Missing in this statement is that he will leave the judgments on the chemical validity of that achievement to everyone else to place against their own personal templates.

Him? He's going with the cold, hard numbers. Anyone who wants to come along is welcome -- at a respectful distance, of course.

Bonds, you see, already has been dealing with this issue for years. It just hadn't reached anyone's grand jury yet, let alone the in-basket of the Attorney General.

But now it's there, front and center, with the midwife being his personal trainer, Greg Anderson, one of the four defendants in the BALCO case.

It is there for Bonds in a way that it isn't for even the other players who testified before the BALCO grand jury, like Jason Giambi or Gary Sheffield. Bonds spent nearly every day of his recent career with Anderson, training to go from a great player to an almost absurdly great player, and in the exciting but legally impermissible world of condemnation by proximity, Bonds has been drawn into the maelstrom more aggressively than anyone else.

He knows this, but he knows there is a public face that must be projected even after all the "That's a legal question" disclaimers are eliminated. He is, for all the criticism he has received over the years, actually quite skilled at presenting a public face -- when he feels like it. His problem is that he doesn't bother to do it very often.

That may explain why both Mays and Aaron tried to impress upon him the need to visibly and consistently enjoy himself as he closes in on the three most important numbers before him -- 661, 715 and 756.

He said he would try to be more accommodating to his public, whether or not that includes using the media as his conduit to that public. But he has said that before, without the burden of BALCO on his shoulder.

Whether that happens remains an open question, dependent upon his mood, the turns of the trial and his success on the field. He is, after all, approaching his 40th birthday, and he made a point of saying how few days he really has left to chase Mays, Ruth and Aaron.

Thus, his State Of The Me address went about the way it was expected to go. A little light, not much heat, and a lot of references to the void left by his late father, Bobby.

BALCO was, for one more day, everyone else's problem. For how much longer, we can only guess.

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