Spring thaw

FOR THE FIRST time in his baseball career, Barry Bonds is exposed, unprotected by the superior eyesight, massive power and miracle reflexes that simultaneously distanced him from his mortal peers and insulated him from the repercussions of an unceremonious personality.

Now that he is nearly 50 years old, those gifts that made Bonds the towering athlete of his time are long gone, dissolved by age into history, unimportant compared with skills he has always been far less able or willing to master. Relationship-building, listening, communicating and being a member of a group instead of above it were qualities Bonds never felt he needed, once saying that when his playing skills faded, he would too, happily ridding himself of baseball without looking back. Babe Ruth retired and never returned to the Yankees in any capacity. Jackie Robinson retired and never again worked on the field. Neither made the choice himself. The game closed its doors to them.

But Bonds reappeared this spring, invited by the Giants to spend seven days as a spring training instructor. The job has been held by Randy Winn and J.T. Snow and countless other former Giants, but because it was Bonds, it was news, the first sign of thaw between the game and arguably its greatest living player. The frosty nature of his departure and his lack of a proper retirement hovered like both hangover and Excedrin.

He had been gone six complicated years, a time that was more exile than exit. He was convicted of obstruction in the BALCO case and saw other tainted stars readmitted to the game while he paid for his legendary unfriendliness. He took up cycling to satisfy his obsession with exercise.

Bonds admits he doesn't do people well ("I probably like training," he told me, "better than I do talking to people"). Throughout his spring training news conference, he referred to Giants manager Bruce Bochy not by the nickname "Boch" or by "Bruce," but by the awkward "Bochy."

Most ex-players say they miss the camaraderie after retirement. Bonds, never one of the guys, did not. "I was as close a friend as anyone in the game, and I know this: Players that great can't help it," his old Pirates compatriot Bobby Bonilla says. "They put up this wall. To them, showing anything looks like weakness. They can't ever put that wall down, but that man loves this game."

And he is still Barry Bonds, commanding attention, reflection and perspective, iconic by presence, reputation and deed, the only man since Ruth to hold the single-season and career home run records concurrently. He is the defining figure of greatness and the symbol of all that went wrong during a dishonest era of drugs and money. Current Giants players, many of whom became champions without him, revered Bonds, for his feats fueled their childhood imagination.

They loved his return, and so did his public, his city. He belonged.

There was something elegiac yet hopeful about his presence, a tacit admission that he was finally ready to allow the only life he has ever known to embrace him once again. At spring training, Bonds was tough, mellow, confident, defiant without hostility. Yet the Hall of Fame and his place in baseball history were never far from the atmosphere.

"Without a doubt," he said of whether he deserves admission, adding that he had no advice for voters. "I think you guys are all adults."

A massive reconciliation with the steroids era is taking place in baseball. From MLB's perspective, the pitch is perfectly balanced: Players who created great wealth for themselves and even greater wealth for owners are welcomed home, but to remind them that they didn't get away with it completely, they are denied their rightful place of immortality, even as some of their field managers hypocritically enjoy this summer's Hall enshrinement.

Bonds isn't completely back. There's a big difference between a spring training instructor and a member of a big league staff, and maybe he doesn't want a full-time job. Maybe he arrived to force some balance, create closure on better terms or get into the Hall. Or maybe one week in Scottsdale will be remembered as the time the wall lowered just enough for a worthwhile second act to begin.

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