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Pushing 70?
ESPN The Magazine

Was he right or wrong? What do you think?

Was Barry Bonds right this spring when he looked into an ESPN camera and said that on the day he's inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, he's going to stand at the podium in Cooperstown and say to the fans, "Thank you, but you missed the show."

Or was he wrong?

Does the man have a persecution complex? Or has his career truly been tarnished by members of the press who've made the fans focus more on the things he doesn't do -- like run out every ground ball like a kid just up from Fresno, or answer their questions enthusiastically -- than on the things he does, like put up numbers that already place him among history's greatest all-around players?

Is Bonds right when he says he'll continue his melancholy induction speech by saying, "It is very unfortunate that you did not have the opportunity to enjoy my playing and my performance, which is what baseball is all about and what the game is about, while you instead emphasized other people's opinions or perceptions of me"?

Or is he wrong? What do you think?

And, since we're asking the questions here, is it possible that now, before our very eyes, as we've watched Bonds bust out of the gates with two months that have him on this mad 90-home run pace, we are also noticing signs of a turnaround? Or is it even possible that Bonds has misjudged the power of the press entirely? That the average person in the stands could not care less about what he's said or hasn't said in a brilliant 16-year career?

"No," Bonds says softly, leaning back in the black leather lounge chair in front of his three-locker spread in the Giants clubhouse at Pac Bell Park. "I think the fans only believe what they read. If you have a good relationship with the media, they'll write nice things about you and the public will admire you. But if you're your own person, and you just want to go to work and don't want that light in your face all the time, then they'll write that you're standoffish or arrogant. Do they really know you? No. But they think they do through what they've read. I know how I'm perceived."

But wasn't that a standing ovation we saw after he blasted his third home run in a game in Atlanta, No.20 for the year, on May 19? It was. And wasn't that booing we heard in Arizona three days later when the Diamondbacks walked him intentionally -- with a lefthander on the mound -- to pitch to Jeff Kent -- a righthanded hitter who just happens to be last year's MVP -- in the third inning of a game on May 22? Yes again. And aren't those the types of fan responses that say, "We are here to see you do great things"? The type of cross-over-the-lines admiration saved only for the likes of McGwire and Sosa?

The answer is yes. And Bonds admits, "It was surprising. It was nice."

So, it appears America may have room in its heart for Barry Bonds after all. Now, the question is, does Barry Bonds have room in his heart for America? Is he ready to be loved? We may soon find out because just about everyone you ask thinks Bonds' incredible start is also a sign. They believe it's now Bonds' turn to chase history. Not history as in "moving past legends like Ted Williams, Willie McCovey, Jimmie Foxx and Mickey Mantle on the all-time home run list" history. Surpassing the greats is going to be a flash on the ticker, we're sorry to say. No, we're talking history as in "running out of the house in your underwear every morning to check the box score" history. We're talking "ignoring the wife and kids on a Saturday afternoon while you follow the GameCast" history. We're talking 70-plus-home runs history.

A National League advance scout who watched Bonds hit six home runs in three days in Atlanta said, "It wasn't even like watching big league games. It was like watching the six-foot kid in Little League, knowing if he put the bat on the ball, it was gone."

That weekend, the scouts also started talking about Bonds hitting 70-plus home runs this year. "Everyone knows it's his contract year, that he's hired Scott Boras for a reason, and that Barry motivates Barry," the scout continued. "He's capable of hitting 75 out of spite, because he believes he hasn't gotten his due. That selfishness could help him. But you do wonder if he's capable of embracing the whole thing the way Mark and Sammy did in '98, accepting that he has to talk about it with the press, signing balls and bats for everyone, all that stuff. Mark had a little trial-and-error, but became a master of taking care of a story that was all about him in a way that didn't offend his teammates. Same with Sammy. Maybe Barry can learn from them, or maybe Barry can do it his own way. But I think an injury is the only thing that will keep him from giving it a run."

Make no mistake, Barry will do it his own way, which includes channeling all interview requests through a personal publicist who works for a company called Kent Collectibles and, basically, doing everything he can to keep the press at a distance. "I don't care for the attention all that much," Bonds explains. "I think the more attention that gets drawn to me, the further I push myself away. Baseball is something I do well, but not something I enjoy talking about that much. I mean, Mark McGwire said it himself, over and over: this is a team sport. And the media and public accepted it. Now, I just hope they do the same thing for me. As time goes on, maybe we'll get to see if there's a double standard."

Though his recollection of McGwire's media burden may be way off base, Bonds' testy reluctance to broach the subject of 70 sounds a lot like what McGwire was saying about 61 in the first half of '98. "You can do anything," Bonds said after hitting No.23, "but to talk about it on May 21 is ridiculous. You can get hit by a truck tomorrow and then what? 'Well, he was on his way but, damn, he got hit by a truck.' You guys need to do something else besides hyping up something that isn't even there."

Of course, it's not easy to ignore the topic when the ranks of "you guys" includes, among others:

Luis Gonzalez: "Without a doubt Bonds can do it. He's got a short, consistent swing, he can hit the ball out to all fields, he doesn't get himself out by swinging at bad balls. I wouldn't be surprised at all if he did it."

Brian Jordan: "Unless you walk him every time up, he's going to have a chance."

Dusty Baker: "The scary thing is that right now, the best is still ahead. Bonds is a second-half home run hitter, which most guys are. The pitchers begin to lose a little velocity in the second half and their ball doesn't sink or move as much, their breaking balls aren't as sharp. Historically, Barry's strong in August and September when the pitchers start to wilt a little bit. Who knows? The whole thing boils down to his health."

Enter Bonds to once again sober everyone up. "I'm going to enjoy the ride as long as I can, but it's still going to end up like it always has. I've had hot streaks before, and I've never hit 50 in a season." (He's come close: He had 49 last year, 37 when the strike hit after 112 games in '94 and 34 in '99 when injuries limited him to 102 games.)

Yet even Bonds admits something is different this year. "There are some things I can't understand right now," he says. "The balls that used to go off the wall are just flying out. I've tried to figure it out, and I can't do it. So I stopped thinking about it. I can't answer that question. I don't understand it either. Call God and ask Him."

Matt Williams, who is not God, but played with Bonds from '93 to '96, thinks he knows what's different. "Well, to begin with, he's huge, bigger than I ever remember him being, and that's made him a different player. He's given up some of his speed for power. This is not the wiry, quick player who played with the Pirates and then with me in San Francisco. He's not real concerned with 30-30 anymore, so he's pumped himself up as much as any player in the game. He hit a home run off Curt Schilling [measured at 442 feet only because a cement wall stopped it from going another 100 feet or more] that was like no ball I've ever seen Barry hit. It was a McGwire shot."

Indeed, Bonds does appear to have taken his weight training and diet to a different level -- he is listed at 228 pounds, 20 pounds heavier than he was five years ago -- but he says he's actually cut down his heavy lifting and worked more on flexibility the last two off-seasons after missing 60 games in 1999 with elbow, groin and knee injuries.

"I don't know about that," says the NL scout now. "I was blown away in spring training when I saw him. His body's been transformed. His back looks twice as wide as it used to be. He's got a barrel chest, a tight end's neck. He also looks a lot heavier in the face. At 36 going on 37 in July, he looks an awful lot different than he looked at 30."

With age, Bonds has not only increased his body mass but, according to Baker, his brain power. "He's playing with underclassmen now," Baker says. "You get to his age, and if your body can still perform, you're like a senior playing with freshmen and sophomores. Through experience, process of elimination, he knows what guys throw him and when. Hank Aaron told me that. You get to a point in your career where the guesswork becomes easier because you've seen everything so many times. Well, Barry's at that point."

Bonds' trademark style of hitting remains constant. He stands right on top of the plate and may be the only power hitter in modern history who chokes up one or two inches from the knob. "He told me he chokes up," says teammate J.T. Snow, "because when he was a kid hanging around his dad at the ballpark, he played with big bats, where he had no choice but to choke up. It felt good to him and he was successful, so he never changed." Most hitters would not dare stand so close to the plate for fear of getting busted inside repeatedly, but because Bonds' hips and hands are impossibly quick, he can turn around on anyone's fastball. And the ball on the outer half of the plate is still a ball he's capable of pulling. So there is not a lot of the plate's width left for the pitcher to exploit.

When Bonds makes contact, he almost always puts the ball in the air. "When you think that we've added four more home run parks to the league since McGwire hit 70 in '98 -- Houston, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and San Francisco -- his ability to elevate the ball is really scary," says the scout. Of his first 47 hits, Bonds had 26 homers and only 11 singles. In the history of baseball, the only man to finish a season with more home runs than singles is McGwire, who's done it three times. So remote are the chances that Bonds will hit the ball on the ground, some National League teams have started playing the third baseman up the middle, the shortstop to the right of second base, and the second baseman in short rightfield. The play is very similar to the famous Ted Williams shift. After Arizona second baseman Jay Bell swiped a sure hit from Bonds, catching a scorching line drive in short right, D-Backs manager Bob Brenly did not gloat. "Right now, with the way Barry's swinging, that shift doesn't do a whole lot," Brenly says. "We'd love for him to bunt for a sure hit, but we know he's going to try to hit over it."

During his stretch of nine home runs in six games, from May 17 to 22, the NL scout observed, "He never checks a swing, which shows his pitch recognition is unbelievable. And he's got the best understanding of the strike zone in the game. Basically, he's seeing the pitch and taking it for a ball or putting a great swing on it. To me, his swing looks the same as ever, but the strength and pitch recognition are just on a different level."

On a different level pretty much describes Bonds' status in the game right now. Though it seems at every point in his career, some other player, be it Jose Canseco or Ken Griffey Jr. or McGwire, has worn the "best home run hitter in the game" tag, here is Bonds, seemingly outlasting them all, rising to the top, poised to chase history all summer long. Can he hit 70? All we know for sure is it's a show we're not going to miss. The bigger question for Barry Bonds may be, is he ready to be loved.

"We all want to be loved," he says.

This time, he's right.

This article appears in the June 11 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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