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Barry Bonds, rookie hitting coach, preaches selflessness to Marlins

JUPITER, Fla. -- The national media wave that greeted Barry Bonds at the start of spring training has moved on to more compelling and provocative storylines in Florida and Arizona. It's hard to dwell on the education of a 51-year-old hitting coach when Drake LaRoche-related hot takes, Pablo Sandoval waistline updates and the Los Angeles Dodgers' pitching injury ramifications are being dispensed on the hour.

Once Bonds settled into his new role as the Miami Marlins' hitting coach and the focus shifted elsewhere, the inevitable questions confronted him: Could he buck conventional wisdom and show a common touch in imparting wisdom to hitters who possess less impressive gifts than he once displayed? Would he be willing to put in the requisite time and effort to succeed? And what would be the central, overriding theme he would try to convey to Miami's hitters?

A couple of trips around the league will tell if Bonds has the drive to last more than a year or two as nurturer-in-chief for Miami's position players. George Brett, Jeff Bagwell and Dante Bichette are among the accomplished players who gave the hitting coach job a whirl and found it was more demanding, time-consuming and thankless than they ever imagined.

But the message Bonds is delivering is eminently clear: It's all about keeping individual achievements in their proper place and emphasizing selflessness for the sake of the greater good.

Based on the observations of Marlins people who've watched Bonds in action this spring, the seven-time MVP has spent a lot more time studying, observing and building relationships than pontificating. When Bonds does lay out his big-picture goals for the team, he sounds an awful lot like Kansas City Royals hitting coach Dale Sveum.

"Have team at-bats. That's his big thing. Don't waste at-bats. Understand you don't have to be the hero, and the guy behind you can pick you up," said Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon, the 2015 National League batting champion.

If that refrain sounds familiar, it mirrors the mantra that helped carry the Royals through some tense October moments on their way to the 2015 World Series championship. Frank Menechino, who works alongside Bonds as Miami's assistant hitting coach, even invokes Sveum's "keep the line moving" slogan.

"As Barry says, 'We have to become one unit,'" Menechino said. "We have to have team-first at-bats. We have to know our role and do our role. Every day it's a new puzzle. Where are you fitting in on the team? It might be a walk. It might be a jam-shot ground ball to get a guy over. Pass the baton. Keep the line moving. If you don't get it done and they walk you, you have to have confidence in the guy behind you. If we can become one unit and play as one unit, we can live with the results."

The Marlins have a lot of offensive potential, with a lineup that includes Giancarlo Stanton, the sweet-swinging Christian Yelich, Gordon, veteran Martin Prado and the talented-if-enigmatic Marcell Ozuna. But they ranked 29th in the majors with 613 runs and 26th with a .694 OPS in 2015, and five weeks after hiring Don Mattingly as their new manager, they took the bold step of hauling Bonds out of retirement and asking him to share the copious knowledge stored in that big baseball brain of his.

So far, so dull. Bonds inadvertently made news in camp recently when he reportedly won a back-field home run derby at Roger Dean Stadium, but subsequent examination revealed the feel-good narrative was overblown. The competition in question was not a home run derby, and Bonds' participation was not an audition to come back and bat cleanup behind Stanton in the order.

Stylistically, Bonds has been low-key, unassuming and content to blend in with the scenery. Although he's unfailingly cordial with the media, he is usually on his way from the clubhouse to the batting cage (or vice versa) and not an easy man to pin down for interviews. Two reporters who approached him at camp last week got a smile and a wave as he moved from one task to the next.

The hitting coach job continues to evolve, and more teams have found it's a necessity rather than a luxury to have two men to divvy up the workload these days. Along with scouting reports, video and reams of data to digest, hitting instructors spend many hours in the cage with young hitters who can't get enough hacks.

"I feel the younger guys put too much emphasis on quantity swings," said Andre Dawson, a special assistant to Marlins team president David Samson. "You want to have quality swings. When you feel good and get in a good rhythm, get out of [the cage]. When you take too many swings, you get tired and get in bad habits."

The Bonds-Menechino tandem has a bit of an odd-couple feel to it. Bonds was amazingly gifted as a player, and he had the advantage of learning the game from his famous father, Bobby, and even more acclaimed godfather, Willie Mays. He set major league records with 762 home runs and 2,558 walks and continues to be a lightning rod in Hall of Fame voting because of his alleged performance-enhancing drug use.

Menechino, a native of Staten Island, New York, is Bonds' blue-collar complement. He signed with the Chicago White Sox as a 45th-round draft pick in 1993 and batted .240 with 36 homers over seven seasons with Oakland and Toronto. He's squatty, muscular, plainspoken and the embodiment of the self-made player who naturally gravitated to the coaching realm.

Bonds and Menechino spent lots of time on the phone in the offseason going through the Marlins' roster and settling on a shared approach -- even if they have different drills and terminology to drum home the messages. Mattingly said he has been particularly impressed with the "simplicity" of Bonds' teaching style, and Menechino has found that certain core tenets of Bonds' philosophy should apply to all hitters.

"I was shocked, at the point of emphasis, how much he talked about balance, staying short to the ball and all that sort of stuff," Menechino said. "I didn't know he paid that much attention to that."

That revelation jibes with the narrative that accompanied Bonds' stormy tenure in the majors. Yes, Bonds' BALCO ties tarnished his late-career achievements. But even Bonds' harshest critics had to admit his success was more than a product of God-given ability and pharmaceutical help.

"All great hitters work their asses off," Menechino said. "You may not see it. It may look easy when he comes out for batting practice. But all great hitters work. They put in the time in the cage. Good players do it until they get it right once. All-Stars do it until they never get it wrong."

As camp winds to a close, Bonds tends to his fair share of minutiae. An American League scout recently came out for batting practice and saw Bonds painstakingly checking out the green mat that covers the pitching mound and meticulously eyeballing the L-shaped screen that protects the BP pitcher.

"He kept moving the screen and looking at it to make sure everything was perfect," the scout said. "He was almost anal about it."

"All great hitters work their asses off. You may not see it. It may look easy when he comes out for batting practice. But all great hitters work. They put in the time in the cage. Good players do it until they get it right once. All-Stars do it until they never get it wrong."

Frank Menechino, Miami's assistant hitting coach

The Marlins have given Bonds a mixed bag of veterans and young players to tutor. Prado is as low-maintenance a player as you'll find. Yelich and Gordon are building impressive résumés early in their careers. Ozuna and first baseman Justin Bour have power, but need to refine their approaches. And Bonds and Stanton appear to be on the same wavelength as superstar bashers who know what it means to carry a lineup amid massive expectations.

"Barry's very smart," Stanton said. "He's not gonna just come here and give everybody what was successful for him. He's been observing everyone and getting a plan built for everyone. We click a little faster because we're similar in style, but there's still a learning process.

"He'll say some things and they're exactly what I'm thinking, but I had to learn those things by myself over a number of years. Whether he learned them from his dad or other players, I don't know. But it's cool to hear it from someone else's mouth."

If Bonds and Menechino can simply last the 2016 season and be around this time next spring, it will be a departure from the norm for the Marlins. Jim Presley, John Mallee, Eduardo Perez and Tino Martinez all have worked as hitting coaches in Miami since 2010, only to be cast aside during ownership purges. Under Jeffrey Loria's regime, hitting coaches have been every bit as disposable as, well, managers.

Can Bonds, the quintessential diva as a player, bring stability with a focus on team at-bats and an unselfish approach?

"I told him, 'Taking care of yourself was easy. Your challenge now, instead of hitting home runs and hitting .330, is to get five or six guys in the lineup hot at the same time,"' Menechino said. "Our careers are over, but we're competitive people, and our competition now as hitting coaches is to get our players to be the best they can be."

In sleepy Jupiter, Bonds works on forging trust and helping others improve with a minimum of attention. The thrills come vicariously now, one hit, one walk and one productive at-bat at a time.