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Pictures from a Bonds family album

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It's epic, I'm telling you. Big canvas. "Bonds Family Album: Barry Bombs Away" starts in Alabama. Willie Mays of the San Francisco Giants was born in Alabama. So was Willie McCovey. Barry Bonds' father played with those two Hall of Famers. Bonds played as well as he could, under the circumstances, trying to take Mays' place as the Giants' superstar outfielder. Nobody could do that, not to anybody who saw Mays in his prime, when he made the incredible routine, the way Barry Bombs Homers now.

Barry Bonds
Barry Bonds modeled himself after Bobby Bonds, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Reggie Jackson.
History and fans -- you and me, basically -- could never ever accept anybody named Bonds, not in Mays' spot.

Barry Bonds' father, the center fielder who wasn't Willie Mays, was named Bobby Bonds. For one reason or another, he grew close to a couple of natives of Tennessee and Kentucky. Jack Daniels and Maker's Mark. Between hangovers, Bobby had a son. Barry became Bobby Bonds' own Maker's Mark.

Me, I came to the set when Barry was 13, 14 years old. The men he'd watched, modeling himself after them without realizing it, were Bobby Bonds, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Reggie Jackson. Bobby turned Barry around to hit lefty from the first day he picked up a bat, about the same age me and you picked up a bottle on our own. Bats, bottles. Men are real babies, ain't we? Gotta have it our own way. No wonder he can hit.

By the mid-1970s, Mays was gone. His contrail was still in the sky. My longer-toothed compadres on the beat spoke of Mays in hushed tones, like he invented the game. Maybe he did, kind of. Maybe he had to.

Once I was at Shea, for this old-timer's game. This was, oh, the late-'70s. Mays and Aaron weren't all that old then. Had me a baseball, a Sharpie, and no shame. Got me Hammer's autograph in the duggie. Went to Hammer first. My bad. This didn't sit well with Mays. Mays didn't suffer fools well. In going to Hammer first, I'd proven myself to be very foolish.

"Well, Mr. Mays, since you won't sign, then, tell me this: How good did you have to be to get to the Show, back in the day?" I asked.

"Three times as good," Mays said.

Willie Mays
Willie Mays had to be three times as good and often was better than that.
People used to vent about young black kids bitterly talking about excelling at school, calling it "acting white." People used to blame them, those disaffected young black kids, for saying that. You know what, fans? Them black kids, they didn't think that crap up. That ain't their concept. They just got the message.

Mays made me know this. Same thing in baseball, kinda. Later, one of my magazine compadres wrote that some young black kids bitterly said baseball was "the white man's game." As if to blame them for saying it. Like they thought it up. Like it was their concept. "Hadda be three times as good," said Mays. "Don't you never forget it. Boy."

The Boston Red Sox had worked Mays out at Fenway Park way back in prehistoric days, 1949. Ten years later, they hired that bum Pumpsie Green -- Pumpsie's a bum, relative to Mays. Mays knew he had knocked 'em dead at Fenway, in front of nobody. Sent him on his way without so much as a box lunch. Had to be good as God then, to be black, and be allowed up to play. Had to be God.

I can only imagine what Barry Bonds heard, felt, sensed, from Bobby Bonds, his father, from Mays, the God and his Godfather, from Buck, Reggie Jackson, or from stoic McCovey -- at least from McCovey's swing. Reggie, he was a real piece of work. Can't even begin to get into Reggie here, not do both him and Barry justice. Maybe another day. We can mow McCovey's lawn pretty quick, though, right here and now.

Can't imagine what it was like, seeing McCovey's big looping swing through Barry's eyes, growing up watching Real Giants taking turns in the cage, spraying bullets, launching low-orbit satellites, laughing, crying, boozing; can't imagine what he heard from players of lesser talents, jealously assessing the way they put on their caps -- "they a different kine," as Alvin Dark put it -- seeing the men he went home with being looked at as a different breed of cat, or some other, worse kind of animal; human only in a vague, partial way, but still taking their daily cuts in the cage -- can't imagine Being Barry Bonds. Only know what I saw.

We were in Atlanta for a doubleheader. June 30, 1978. McCovey's hit his 500th home run. Jack Clark hit three in the two games. Mike Ivie hit a slam.

Barry Bonds
Bonds just passed Willie McCovey, left, on the home runs list, and now Mays and others are in the Giants star's sights.
Yet the Giants were swept by the Braves. By then, McCovey did not suffer fools well; guess who was elected? Again. McCovey managed to crank out 21 more dingos before his day in the shaded sun was done. After he hit one of his final bombs barely into the second deck at Candlestick, I ignorantly asked if it was among the longest home runs he'd ever hit. He looked at me and said, "Ralph, that doesn't come close to being among the longest home runs I've ever hit."

Well. You don't know unless you ask. At least he called me by name. Must be hard, getting old, I thought, not being able to do what you could, slowing down, drooping everywhere, losing everything, not liking it. McCovey wore a bad rug of a toup at the time. His legs resembled my grandpa's, and Gramps was dead.

Can't imagine what it must have been like for Barry as a boy, a teenager, a minor-leaguer, to know, love and hate the men, to try and honor yet have to overcome them, to move on, to be a new kind of man, to try to be different, his own man, and yet to inevitably become them in ways good and bad and ... inevitable.

Every time Barry Bombs Away, every time he hits one into "McCovey Cove," makes me wonder -- what will be named after Barry one day? I've seen that short sweet swing of Barry Bombs Away, that Samurai sword stroke, unlike McCovey's. Better. Barry Bonds' swing, his and his alone, is one brief arc of beauty.

His life describes a longer arc. Maybe he'll tell us about it sometimes, but me, I tend to doubt it. You could sooner dig up DiMaggio and have him become real chatty about himself and Marilyn Monroe or something.

Watched as Barry won three MVP awards; watch now, as he's about to turn that into four MVP awards. But yet, he's not Mays. Oh, no. Nobody could be Mays. Well, who is Barry Bonds then, if not Mays, and Bobby, and Reggie, and McCovey, and flipping Joe D. too, doggone it? How is he not like Joe D., or Teddy Ballgame, or an ungodly beautiful, flawed, real human combination of all six?

  Is Barry Bonds overrated? Overhyped? Is he antisocial, a misanthropic snob, a jerk, like it said in that slick cover story of a few years back? Is it that Barry Bonds Is Insufferable -- And We're Not? Is his inside story so very different from, say, Joe DiMaggio's? What is Barry Bonds supposed to be, other than a ballplayer?  

Sat and listened to Syd Thrift, former general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, tell me how good Barry Bonds could be, and how he himself, Syd that is, never held anything against black people. I'd asked about Barry, not about black people in general. Guess Syd thought he had to weigh in. Guess it was written on my face. Sat and watched Barry Bonds do 40-40. Heck, Barry became 40-40, when necessary.

Sat in a darkened movie theater and watched Robert De Niro yell out at Wesley Snipes in "The Fan," and heard the dialogue that was given to Wesley where he told De Niro, "I don't care," and knew Wesley Snipes was supposed to be Barry Bonds, and Robert De Niro was supposed to be all of us. But was that real? Hmm.

Watched Tony La Russa try to feud with Barry Bonds, and seen Barry Bombs hit home runs off La Russa's Cardinal pitchers, then calmly say that La Russa, Old Slow Blink, by pitching to him in certain situations, instead of walking him, was meddling with the primal forces of nature; "defying physics," Barry called it.

We'll all watch as this drama plays out in the 2001 season, and for the next three or four seasons after that.

Will Barry Bonds break Mark McGwire's single season record of 70 home runs in the 2001 season?

Probably not. But nobody, not Mark McGwire, not Babe Ruth, not Sammy Sosa, ever had a May like the one Barry Just Bombed. Seventeen dingos, 28 for the season. Even if he hit 10 home runs a month in June, and the dog days of July, and then August, when everybody is hurting -- he'd still need just 13 more homers in September to beat 70. Major-league pitchers will be trying not to allow that. It's not what they go for.

Will Barry Bonds break Henry Aaron's career record of 755 home runs?

Probably not. Even though Barry Bombed 522 career homers as of the end of May, in fewer games than Ted Williams or Willie McCovey got to 521, even though Barry Bonds might end the season with more homers than Mike Schmidt and Reggie Jackson, even if he hits 50 a year for the next three seasons after that, until he's over 40, even if he passed Babe Ruth-- he'd still be 40 short of the Hammer.

Is Barry Bonds overrated? Overhyped? Is he antisocial, a misanthropic snob, a jerk, like it said in that slick cover story of a few years back? Is it that Barry Bonds Is Insufferable -- And We're Not? Is his inside story so very different from, say, Joe DiMaggio's? What is Barry Bonds supposed to be, other than a ballplayer?

Well, I can't say anything behind that. But I will say this: Bonds probably will catch Willie Mays' HR total of 660, the third all-time best. A ballplayer who isn't an unalloyed home run hitter -- but a line-drive hitter -- becoming a more prolific and productive and better home-run hitter than Willie Mays? Now that would be the story worth savoring, if only in the San Francisco Bay Area. But not all over, not even there.

Barry Bombs Away -- and nobody gets him, except fans who watch the pure game itself. If you ain't got no swing, then you don't mean a thing -- not to them anyway. As for the rest of us -- maybe we don't want to get Bonds. Why not? We carry a torch for Mays. Or some other old man who doesn't deserve it anymore. I know, sounds like a long, stormy real romance -- yeah, it does, and that's just the little bit of it that I know.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."

barry bombs away 


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