LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Greatest Slugger of His Time sits at home in California, jobless and teamless.
In a very different world, he would be the hottest free agent of them all at one of baseball's strangest winter meetings of them all -- a session that has practically turned into a bat free zone.
But we don't live in that world. So when the name "Barry Bonds" comes up, the room gets quiet. The atmosphere gets mighty uncomfortable.
If this were a heat of the Olympic 100 meters, you could envision everyone in the field breaking the world record. That's how fast some of these GMs are trying to sprint away from Barry Bonds.
"Barry will play next year," his agent, Jeff Borris, told ESPN.com again this weekend, "unless he gets hit by a bus."
But the question baseball men keep asking is: Where?
The only logical answer continues to be San Francisco. But if you've paid any attention to the players the Giants have chased this winter, could it possibly be more obvious that The Greatest Slugger of His Time isn't the No. 1 item on their grocery list?
They threw massive dollars at Alfonso Soriano. They're believed to have offered Carlos Lee $1.5 million more a year than he got in Houston. They've tried to deal for Manny Ramirez and they're still trying to deal for him, even after being told initially they didn't have enough to get him.
"They had so much interest in those other guys, and they've got so much interest in Manny," says an executive of one club that has talked to the Giants, "that clearly, they don't want to bring Barry back."
Bonds, not surprisingly, has come to the same conclusion. And he's not happy about it.
"Their actions indicate he's not very high up on their priority list," Borris told ESPN.com, after the Giants declined to offer Bonds arbitration Friday night. "I think, for the last 14 years, they've taken him for granted and they're taking him for granted now. I think they're thinking, 'He would never leave us.' But that may be a big miscalculation on their part."
Actually, that isn't quite what the Giants are saying. Not that they're saying much at all.
"We've had conversations with him and his representative, and those conversations are continuing," said the Giants' executive vice president and COO, Larry Baer. "Other than that, I don't want to get into it. We've talked. We continue to talk. We haven't broken this off at all. And that's really all I prefer to say."
OK, fine. But the Giants' actions have said plenty.
"If they can get Manny, or if they could have signed Lee or Soriano, then they'd have the perfect excuse not to re-sign him," said an executive of another club. "But I don't think they're going to wind up with Manny. And if they don't, I don't know if they have any excuses left. Then they can't say: 'We couldn't bring him back because we have a better option.' "
"Obviously, the guy can still hit. But is the payoff worth the headache? If you sign him, you start by having to answer questions for a month about 'How can you bring this guy into your organization?' Then you have to sit there all through spring training and deal with 15 ESPN reporters hanging around every day."
-- An AL executive
So The Barry Watch this week really starts with The Manny Watch. If Ramirez goes elsewhere, or stays right where he is, the fact is: There doesn't seem to be another middle-of-the-order masher for the Giants to go get.
The free-agent shelves are empty, unless they can convince themselves -- and their fan base -- that Ryan Klesko or Trot Nixon or Cliff Floyd is that kind of bat. And right now, other than Manny, there's no thumper like that to trade for, either (Pat Burrell, anyone?) -- although Vernon Wells and Mark Teixeira could wind up being out there at some point.
But let's assume, for now, that no other cleanup force falls out of a fog bank and lands on home plate at AT&T Park. Let's assume the Giants do come to the apparently grudging conclusion that they have no better option than Barry.
Even then, it's still not a fait accompli.
The Giants have shown they have many dollars to spend, after allowing players making well over $50 million to become free agents. When the team didn't offer Bonds arbitration Friday, at least one message that sent was that the Giants want him to take a pay cut if he returns. But when the haggling is done, money shouldn't be the ultimate reason Bonds stays or goes.
So what will be the ultimate reason? Say hello to that 40-ton gorilla in the hotel ballroom.
There isn't a Ouija board in America that can tell the Giants, or anyone else, what lurks in Bonds' off-the-field future. That's a question only grand jurors and federal prosecutors can answer for sure.
But the impact of the grand jury's continuing fascination with Bonds is a gigantic factor here. How do the Giants, or any team, casually throw an "indictment clause" into a contract like this? Good luck getting The Greatest Slugger of His Time to sign off on that.
And even if there's no indictment, you don't need us to tell you why that grand jury and those prosecutors are out there digging. The reason they're digging is the same reason just about every team outside the 415 area code is running from a man who sits a mere 21 home runs away from Hank Aaron's all-time home run record.
It's obvious that the pooh-bahs at Major League Baseball don't want to see Barry Bonds become the man who breaks that record. So no wonder the conspiracy theories seem to outnumber the bidders these days.
"I'm starting to buy into the theory that no one is going to sign him," said one assistant GM. "When Tom Hicks in Texas comes out one day and says, 'We'd be interested,' and then two days later says, 'No way,' you have to wonder if somebody somewhere said something to him. Don't you?"
Heck, yeah, you do. But a high-ranking official of a team that has, at times, shown at least mild interest in Bonds insisted the blackball theory is both immoral and fictional.
"That's not happening," the official said. "If it is, I'm not aware of it. No one has said anything to us. I know that."
Then again, maybe no one has to. Clubs that have contemplated signing Barry can see all the sideshows he'd bring them on their own. They don't need anybody at MLB to draw them a picture.
"Obviously, the guy can still hit," said one AL executive. "But is the payoff worth the headache? If you sign him, you start by having to answer questions for a month about 'How can you bring this guy into your organization?' Then you have to sit there all through spring training and deal with 15 ESPN reporters hanging around every day.
"Then, when he gets closer to Aaron, you have an even bigger pain on your hands, with all the attention and the reporters and the controversy. So you have to ask yourself: 'Is it really worth putting my face next to this guy's and having to answer those questions for the next six months?' "
It's getting increasingly clear that the conclusion most teams have come to when they ask themselves that question is: no thanks.
Borris continues to say, though, that the outside world is greatly underestimating the level of interest in his most famous client.
Asked how many teams have serious interest in Bonds, Borris replied: "I don't want to comment on that right now. But I will say that a number of teams are intrigued by the possibility of Barry playing for them. There are teams we've spoken with that weren't even on our radar, that are interested in Barry playing there."
But how many teams is that? An official of one club rumored to have had interest says, flatly: "I don't know of anyone else [besides the Giants] that's interested."
The list of teams connected with Bonds in some rumor or other this offseason has included everyone from the Padres, A's, Angels and Mariners on one coast to the Red Sox, Orioles, Marlins and even the Devil Rays on the other coast. But we haven't found one team that will admit it has done more than just poke around at least so far.
And still the Giants aren't a lock to sign the guy. Apart from all of the factors we've already laid out, there is another issue that the Giants have already lived with for way too long and clearly would love to fix before they bring Barry back. It's an issue that actually has several prongs:
- Prong A: There is Barry and his (for lack of a better word) posse -- all the trainers, fitness guys and personal assistants that have become part of his own unique package.
- Prong B: There is the never-ending Bonds Circus, which any time he makes news, or might be about to make news, draws an instant media swarm that engulfs the clubhouse and half the ballpark.
- And Prong C: There is the biggest problem of all -- Bonds' ability to hover above everyone and everything connected with his team, without the rest of the operation having any apparent say in that bloodless coup.
All indications are that the Giants are spending a lot of their time these days trying to figure out what, if anything, they can do about any of that. But knowing what we know about Barry, it's hard for us to envision his giving in on this front.
He's a man who has gotten very used to doing things his own way. And his position, no doubt, will be: "If you want to sell tickets and cash in when I break Hank's record, the other stuff comes with the territory. Period."
So what do the Giants do then -- tell him to take a hike?
"You know what," said one executive. "I think, if he's out there, they'll face unbelievable pressure to bring him back. Even if they trade for Manny, if Barry is still sitting out there, you don't think people are going to be asking why they're not signing him? The people of San Francisco want to see him break that record. That's the one constituency in America that loves him. So no matter what else happens, there's a lot of pressure there to bring the guy back."
But now that Borris has lashed out at the Giants for not offering arbitration, he has introduced a whole new plot twist -- that Bonds is so insulted, he might not want to come back.
"There's no hard feelings," Borris said, with no discernible trace of empathy. "This is not Barry's first contract. He understands this is just business. He understands the Giants have a business plan that doesn't include him. But in all fairness, Barry's business plan might not include them, either."
So what better place for everyone to firm up those business plans than the winter meetings, smack dab in the middle of Disney World, the happiest place on earth? But if the Giants can't make the Greatest Slugger of His Time happy this week, he'll need someone else to step up besides Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Pluto.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.