The battle inside Barry's head

It hasn't taken long for the bottom to drop out of Barry Bonds' Year of Triumph. The only question confronting us now is the actual depth of "the bottom."

Let's ignore for a moment the mounting legal issues confronting Bonds and get to the stuff you care about, namely: When does he pass Babe Ruth? And then when does he pass Henry Aaron?

By now, Bonds' newest public appearance has been parsed to a thin gray-green, spackle-like paste, all the way down to this potentially important little gem: He is still the only person suggesting that he may not play until midseason, or worse, next season.

Neither the Giants nor any medical person connected to Bonds' case is contradicting the original diagnosis.
In other words, we are still looking at mid-May for his return to active, ball-four-enriched duty.

But as he said, "I'm 40 years old, not 20, 30," and rehab on the athletically elderly is a very inexact science. He might miss his scheduled return for any number of reasons, some of them actually benign. In which case, the Bonds we have come to know and rely upon may be a thing of the past. After all, you never know ... you never, ever know.

This is all worst-case scenario stuff, of course, and as we said, we have only Bonds' word that the worst-case scenario is warranted.

But Bonds gave every outward indication of being a beaten fellow Tuesday, although he aimed his objections toward the media rather than the legal system. He said he was tired, 14 times tired, and plainly disconsolate over his third knee surgery since last October. He looked, well, miserable.

He is athletically mortal now, a realization that must have hit him particularly hard. For the immediate and foreseeable future, he has lost the outlet that was both his identity and refuge, and now he has all the more time to think about his other problems.

And that is no way to spend your rehab.

But let us return to what we can speculate confidently about, namely, his baseball.

The new, physically vulnerable Bonds is no longer a lock to just pick up where he left off last year. History, which he has been laughing at these past four years, suggests loudly that the end does not come gradually, but in one great rush, and with all the extra side dishes on Bonds' plate, that rush may be a headlong one.

In short, what we took as likely (Aaron) is now doubtful, and what we took as a given (Ruth) may be taken away.

True, Bonds needs only 12 homers to pass Ruth, and surely Bonds in even his most parlous state can hit as many home runs this year as Michael Cuddyer or D'Angelo Jimenez. His knees would have to be completely dysfunctional for him not to manage that.

But if this isn't just about his knees, well, anything and everything is in play at that point. You see, the knees aren't what should worry Bonds, but the head. He has been the modern-day Pete Rose in his ability to shut out the world to concentrate on the art of hitting, and he has admitted on more than one occasion that he is a better player when angry.

If that's the case, this could be a phenomenal year indeed.

He didn't look angry on Tuesday, though, but dejected. Not just tired, but sick and tired. For the first time in anyone's memory, he looked unprepared to carry the burdens he has largely assigned himself. Angry hitters can still hit. Tired hitters, well, can't.

Does a smart man bet that Bonds won't reach Ruth at least? Of course not. But a smart man gives the matter more thought than he did three weeks ago, when his news conference was all energy and defiance and don't-tread-on-me.

This news conference was more a statement of resignation, an admission that the burden has finally become too large for his shoulders. He chose the hardest path a celebrity can, the eternally combative one, and now the path has become steep and brambled.

So, yes, we are either at bottom or nearing it. This is not the way anyone thought Barry Bonds might go out, but in this, baseball's Year of the Vengeful Outsiders, anything is possible.

Even Babe Ruth remaining the second-best home run hitter of all-time.

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