Bonds' impact could be limited

Barry Bonds is back with the Giants, but is still about as separate as a "teammate" can be. It's no coincidence that Bonds' return to the team coincided with the Giants' trip down Sunset Boulevard, from his Beverly Hills home to Chavez Ravine.

Bonds spent Labor Day weekend at his estate, entertaining friends and family with a holiday cookout, mostly prepared by his chef, but with Barry joining in, as well.

"I like smoking," said Bonds. "I've got a giant smoker and smoke all kinds of meats and chicken."

Bonds' $18-million-dollar-a-year-salary also allows him the luxury of a real stone oven for making pizza, for which he has dough prepared fresh and delivered on pizza days, and then prepared by his 6-year-old daughter Aisha, who sometimes gets a little too generous with the cheese topping, but is otherwise an accomplished pizza chef already.

On Labor Day, Bonds went to work, reuniting with the team that pays him all that money, for its series in Los Angeles. But even though Bonds was in uniform and among his teammates for the first time in three months, he is still decidedly in a world apart. As his teammates stretched, when Bonds was asked why he wasn't joining them, he said matter-of-factly, "Why should I change now? It's not like I ever stretched with them before."

Though Bonds was mixed in with his teammates, including a round of batting practice in the first group, and about 10 minutes half-heartedly shagging fly balls in left field; he clearly travels in his own universe. Never do personal trainers Greg "Sweets" Oliver and Harvey Shields leave his side, and there's a videographer capturing the images for his Web site, as well as Lisa, the woman who manages BarryBonds.com, always near by for support. The Web site has not only been the sole source of information during Bonds' rehab, he's gotten as many as a thousand e-mails to the Web site on a given day, and over four million visitors since it's startup in April, 2004. Visit the site this week, and the first page has a personal message from Bonds about lending support to Hurricane Katrina victims, and a number of relief contact sights listed to make donations.

His interaction with his entourage is constant, with teammates, sporadic. Unlike his last visit to Dodger Stadium in July, when Bonds did his workout on the Dodgers' side of the field, and was gone from the stadium before the first pitch was thrown, Monday he not only emerged from the clubhouse, but spent nearly the entire game in different areas of the dugout, including the top step at times. Occassionaly, he'd even join in team congratulations after a particularly significant play, most notably after Moises Alou made a game-changing, leaping catch of a Jeff Kent rocket to left field. Not only was this a play no one thought Alou was still capable of making, it underscored just what the Giants, and especially their pitchers, will be facing if Bonds decides he's ready to return to the outfield. If Bonds were to attempt to play left field on his frail knees, that line drive would have been a two-run double instead of a crucial out.

Where Bonds would be a particular handicap in the field would be on mere routine plays and throws. Already severely deteriorating defensively from his Gold Glove days before the three most recent knee surgeries, Bonds would likely be even more of a liability in his current state. Frequently during our ESPN broadcast on Monday, Joe Morgan emphasized that Bonds would not come back unless "he can be Barry. He's got too much pride and ego not to be able to perform at a level he's satisfied with." What Bonds showed in his first public workout looks nothing like what we last saw in 2004, and though he hit five balls out in batting practice, it was far from the demonstrations we're used to seeing from one of the most awe-inspiring batting practice practitioners who ever lived.

The media horde, including myself, chronicling and following Bonds' every move has returned too, and so have the endless questions to his teammates on what they think of Barry. It's almost embarrassing to walk up to someone like Ray Durham, who's been so influential in the Giants' recent run of success, and start with Bonds questions instead of talking to him about his late August/early September spurt. But like most of his teammates, Durham was beaming at the prospect of getting Bonds bat back in the lineup.

"It would be so great, Mo [Alou] could go to fourth [in the lineup] behind Bonds now, and I'd slide to fifth or sixth," said Durham. "And with the table-setters we have in front of him now, we'd be scoring a lot more runs. I really do expect him back soon."

Alou relishes the chance to hit behind Bonds, and doing so was the main reason he reunited with his father, Giants' manager Felipe Alou, and was brought to San Francisco. And Randy Winn, acquired before the trade deadline in July, is pumped up to be hitting in the same batting order, and playing beside Bonds in the outfield, even if it means, with Alou shifting to right field, Winn would be asked to cover more territory than any center fielder in baseball.

Bonds has made a living of doing things no one thought possible, as Giants general manager Brian Sabean put it, "If you or I had three operations and an infection on one knee, we're still limping, for a while. But that's how hard [Barry] works out, and wants to come back. He works out for a living."

When I asked with the September roster expansion if Sabean would consider activating Bonds strictly as a pinch-hitter, he said he would. Bonds allowed that he might have to accept a limited role in his return because of his physical condition, and a willingness to do that, and the consensus among the Giants was, even having him to put in the on-deck circle, or looming in the dugout as a late inning pinch-hitter could be very influential, especially on the opposing manager and pitcher. But Bonds also acknowledged, his greatest concern is getting walked. "You stand on that base, go back and forth on foul balls, the pitcher throws over, it wears you out," Bonds said.

Bonds acknowledged the stopping and starting, the adrenaline rushes and inactivity of sitting in the dugout or standing in left field, is something his hardcore workouts really haven't prepared him for. If you watch him hesitatingly go up and down the dugout stairs, or need a folding chair to sit on the top step, you realize this is an aging, aching world class athlete who persevered through six months of rehabbing while his team was playing game after game just to get to this point. Is he coming back to try and put the Giants over the top in this unlikely run at a division title? Hardly.

As the Giants' dugout filled with cameras, microphones and media, I asked Bonds if he'd missed "all this" while he'd been away? He spoke not only of the recent past, but also the not-too-distant furture when he said, "I do well without the game, and I'm good with it. I'll be good without being around the game."

"I'm coming back because the Giants pay me to play," Bonds said. "It doesn't matter where they are in the standings, I'm paid to play." He did admit, of potentially joining them during this hot streak, "I just don't wanna mess this up," he added. But at least on the outside, the organization seems to think he can only enhance their chances. As Bonds himself said, if won't be his leg that keeps him from coming back, it'll be his mind. "My mind changes as each day goes by." If he and his doctors decide it's time to try it, Bonds will then return to his pursuit of changing history.

Gary Miller is a reporter for ESPN's major-league baseball coverage.