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Tuesday, May 29, 2007
So just how safe is Barry Bonds?

By Wayne Drehs
ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- Best-selling author Peter Abrahams describes the character with ease -- a man in his late-50s, a throwback of sorts, frustrated by a world of escalating gas prices, scandalous reality television and too many me-first, you-last personalities.

He would have grown up loving baseball, worshiping Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and others. He'd despise what the game has become. He'd look at San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds and cringe at the thought of this sullen, allegedly chemically enhanced antihero smirking his way to one of the most prestigious records in all of sports.

So he'd want to do something about it. Major League Baseball? The Mitchell Investigation? A San Francisco grand jury? An ultra-revealing, best-selling book? They might not be able to stand in the way of the slugger's becoming baseball's all-time home run king. But he could.

"His goal would be to almost religiously sacrifice himself on behalf of the American people to stop this record from happening," said Abrahams, author of "The Fan," the early-1990s book that was the basis for the Robert DeNiro/Wesley Snipes sports movie thriller of the same name. "I'm not sure if that character truly exists. But I can assure you those emotions do."

Robert DeNiro
Actor Robert DeNiro played Gil Renard, an obsessed fan who confronts Bobby Rayburn in the movie "The Fan."
Far-fetched? Maybe. Abrahams works in the world of fiction. But then, maybe not. Barry Bonds is one of the most polarizing figures in American sports history. Everyone has an opinion: love or hate. There's no middle ground. A recent ESPN/ABC Sports poll showed that half the nation is hoping for Bonds to break Hank Aaron's record; the other half hopes he fails. With Bonds now just 10 home runs shy of breaking the record, the spotlight is only going to get brighter, the pressure greater. And with Bonds' precarious position in our society, the question has to be asked: What is the likelihood of a frustrated fan making a crazed attempt to stand between Bonds and his place in history? And what is being done to stop that from happening?

"I am hoping it doesn't happen. I hope to God nothing happens. But as he gets closer to this record, you have to be concerned about his well-being," said Calvin Wardlaw, a retired Atlanta cop who was Aaron's bodyguard during the 1973 and '74 seasons.

"This is our national pastime. It's not like Hank or Barry is at war with something or someone. This is just a game. But when you have a stadium full of people and emotions are running high, you never know. And in my line of work, you fear the unknown."

Death Threats

It's a warm spring afternoon in Southern California -- announcer Vin Scully will later say it's a beautiful night for baseball -- and Bonds is sitting on the bench in the visitors' dugout at Dodger Stadium answering reporters' questions. He appears to be a man without a care, smiling, laughing and stretching out his arms as if to wrap them around the media horde.

When the question turns to how he deals with the callous Dodger faithful, Bonds scoffs. He's there only to talk about his teammates. A few minutes later he opens up a bit, insisting that it isn't hard for him to block out the distractions outside the batter's box because, "I have a job to do. And that's play baseball."

Bonds' tune was different back in spring training when he told KGO radio in San Francisco that an increasing number of death threats on him and his family had made him increasingly uneasy about his place in the public eye. He's refused to discuss the topic since.

"I'm mostly gun-shy of what can happen," Bonds told KGO. "Once this is all over and done, whether I get lucky enough to do it or not, I'll be able to release just a little bit of the anxiety and fear of what can happen.

"You don't want anything to happen to yourself. You don't want anything to happen to your family."

A couple hours after his pregame news conference, when Bonds steps into the batter's box, the mood inside Dodger Stadium instantly changes. Beyond the boos, beyond the chants of "Barry Sucks," "Steroids" and "BALCO" are the personal attacks. One fan spouts disparaging remarks about Bonds' mother. Another does the same about his daughter. And in the left-field corner of Dodger Stadium, 6-year-old Alex Marcum is attending his first Dodger game with his dad. He, too, stands up, cups his hands around his mouth and, undoubtedly urged on by the environment around him, gets into the act.

"Hey Barry," Marcum yells. "Go back to San Francisco, you big wiener."

The kid's remark is innocent, but really, what does it say about Bonds' effect on people?

"He deals with more of that stuff than anyone I've ever been around," says first-year Giants manager Bruce Bochy. "But he's a pro at it. He has this remarkable ability not to let any of this stuff get to him. I'm amazed by it."

Hank Aaron
Hank Aaron played in Milwaukee for the Braves from 1954-1965. Aaron passed Babe Ruth's home run record when he hit No. 715 on April 8, 1974. Aaron holds the mark for most home runs in a career, with 755.
Though Bonds might appear alone in the batter's box or in left field, nothing could be further from the case. On this night in Los Angeles, security is everywhere, keeping an eye on everything.

Bonds' MLB-assigned security liaison stands in an aisle next to the Giants' dugout. In every Bonds' at-bat, the liaison, a former New York cop, stands with his back to the field, keeping a close eye on fans.

In the Dodgers' left field bullpen, two security guards stand by, in plain clothes, leaning on the bullpen door waiting to pounce on any fan looking for his place in history. In seemingly every lower-level aisle throughout the stadium, ushers survey the crowd looking for anything suspicious. And all throughout the stadium, LAPD officers lead teams of bomb sniffing dogs.

"We usually do this for high-profile games," one of the officers says. "And yes, any time Barry Bonds comes to town, it's a high-profile game. You don't want to be the city where something went wrong."

Layers of Security

Wardlaw, the man who protected Aaron, has a vivid memory of the day he thought he had failed. It happened during spring training in 1974, when a fan opened a gate and walked onto the field, approaching Aaron, with something in his hand.

"He was this Cuban guy and he kept saying, 'Hank, Hank,'" Wardlaw recalled. "My first thought was he had some sort of a weapon. I thought for sure this was it.

"But then I got up close and realized it was a pen. He wanted an autograph. But he got a lot closer than I would have liked."

Barry Bonds
A poll found 75 percent of blacks want Barry Bonds to break Hank Aaron's record, compared to 28 percent of whites.
While few people saw that close call, millions watched on April 8, 1974, when Aaron circled the bases after hitting his record-breaking 715th home run and a pair of college-aged kids ran onto the field to join him. Wardlaw, distracted by a giant hug Aaron's wife, Billye, was giving him at the time, didn't see the two men until they were next to Aaron.

"It was my fault," Wardlaw said. "My gut feeling was that they weren't threatening. But I still wish that had not happened. Over the years, a lot of guys have asked, 'Why didn't you shoot at them?' Well, about the worst thing I could have done is miss them with a .38 and shoot Hank. You're talking about going down in infamy. You're talking about taking one of the greatest moments in our sports history and turning it into a fiasco. And that's the last thing I wanted to do."

Wardlaw protected Aaron for the rest of that season, following the slugger home and watching his garage door close, just as he had before Aaron hit 715. When the two went out for dinner, Wardlaw said he would always sit with his back to the door. And everywhere he went, Wardlaw carried his binocular case, which housed his .38.

With Bonds, Major League Baseball is tight-lipped about the precautions put in place to protect the game's biggest star. MLB declined to comment for this story. But Wardlaw insists that unlike his one-man crew, the security around Bonds is undoubtedly a network of uniformed and plain clothes personnel scattered throughout each stadium the Giants visit.

"There's a team of people, guaranteed," Wardlaw said. "And the entire network is based on communication. Walkie talkies, cell phones, everybody doing everything they can to stay in communication. And I'm sure there is local law enforcement involved in every city. If the public is wondering about Bonds' safety, you know Major League Baseball, the FBI and everybody else is two steps ahead of them."

Though he declined a request for an interview at a recent Giants game, Bonds' MLB-assigned security liaison is part of the team that protects Bonds at each away stadium. At home games, responsibility for protecting Bonds falls to the Giants.

This doesn't include Bonds' own personal security detail, which he has declined to talk about in the past but hinted is prevalent.

The extra security isn't unprecedented. MLB assigned security agents to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa during their 1998 chase of Roger Maris' home run mark. They did the same for Cal Ripken Jr. as he approached Lou Gehrig's consecutive games streak in 1995.

In the wake of steroid allegations, Bonds' situation is altogether different.

In April 2006, police arrested a fan in San Diego after he tossed a toy syringe at Bonds as the left fielder was coming off the field between innings. And in Phoenix, police charged another fan with disorderly conduct when he tossed a toothpaste-like tube toward Bonds that was labeled, "TO: BARRY BONDS. THE CREAM. FROM: VICTOR CONTE," in a reference to Bonds' grand jury testimony in the BALCO investigation.

Then last month in Statesboro, Ga., police say 21-year-old William Benjamin Smith broke into his neighbors' home and threatened to kill them while yelling, "Barry Bonds doesn't deserve to be the home run king."

"Baseball players are more vulnerable than any other athlete in any other American game," said Dr. Jerry Lewis, a professor at Kent State University and author of "Fan Violence: An American Social Problem."

"The closer he gets," Lewis said, "the more he becomes a legitimate target."

Christian End, a Xavier University expert on sport fan behavior, agrees. But End thinks the likelihood of someone running onto the field to attack Bonds is small. There have been only four similar incidents in more than a decade in baseball. In 1995, a fan charged Cubs reliever Randy Myers after he gave up a two-run homer in the heat of the pennant race. Four years later in Milwaukee, a fan attacked Houston Astros right fielder Bill Spiers, leaving him bruised and bloodied. And in two separate incidents in 2002 and 2003, Chicago White Sox fans ran onto the field, attacking Kansas City Royals first base coach Tom Gamboa and umpire Laz Diaz, respectively.

"Is Barry Bonds more likely to be attacked than, say, if it was Ken Griffey Jr. chasing Hank Aaron's record? Of course," End said. "But I wouldn't go betting your house on it. There's a history of people who have been hated in sports. And there isn't really a big precedent of them being attacked because of it.

"When you think about how many games are played each year versus how many incidents happen, it's a very, very small amount. But the media never treats it that way."

Life imitating art

In the movie version of Peter Abrahams' book, "The Fan," Bobby Rayburn is a spoiled, egotistical San Francisco Giants outfielder who is struggling mightily in his first season after signing a multimillion-dollar free agent contract. Knife salesman Gil Renard, recently divorced, worships Rayburn. But Renard's obsession becomes deadly when Rayburn slips into the biggest slump of his career and Renard becomes convinced that he cares more about the slump than the outfielder does.

In the end, Renard confronts Rayburn at his home, kills one of his teammates, kidnaps his son and even makes his way to the field -- posing as an umpire -- where he holds Rayburn's ultimate fate in his hands.

So, as it pertains to Bonds, could life horrifically imitate art? Nobody knows.

"You get those crazy assassin types who are out there in the woodwork and are magnetized to someone like Barry Bonds," Abrahams said. "Then there are the baseball purists who want to protect the records like a bible. Those people are annoyed, too. Whether or not that type of guy is going to pull out a .357, well, it doesn't exactly fit the profile."

Wardlaw is just as skeptical.

"Anybody with enough determination one way or another can attempt to try something," the former Atlanta cop said. "But that doesn't mean we're going to let them get away with it."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.