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December 06, 2001

Bonds in a bottle
By Dan Patrick

Barry Bonds is like a boat in a bottle. You can't touch the boat. You can only look at it with fascination, trying to figure out how the boat got in the bottle.

Barry Bonds
Barry Bonds set the major-league mark for home runs in May with 17. Then, in June, he reached 30 homers faster than anyone in baseball history.

Later, you figure out the boat was inserted after the glass was simply removed from the bottom of the bottle. Likewise, Bonds may look more complicated than he really is deep down. But we never get the opportunity to find out.

After Friday, Bonds was eight games ahead of Mark McGwire's 70-homer pace in 1998. The home-run chase will require consistency and durability. You would figure mental fatigue would be as much a factor as physical fatigue. But with Bonds, you just don't know. If he isn't talking to the media and no one will approach him, who knows if the mental game is being played?

Unless he's in the mood, you stay away from Bonds. Even in the Giants' locker room, there is Bonds, with his three lockers, and then there are the rest of the Giants.

Bonds' biggest test will come when or if he gets close to McGwire's record. What will happen when the media begins to descend upon him? Will he act the way he's always acted or will he open up a little bit?

I found out about his demeanor the hard way last year during spring training. I spent the first 15 minutes of an interview sparring with Bonds because he didn't want to open up and share anything. Bonds told me he doesn't even share anything with his teammates about the opposition. But if the home-run chase continues, we're going to want to know everything about him.

When McGwire and Sammy Sosa were battling in 1998, I remember thinking, "Thank goodness it is not Barry Bonds or Ken Griffey Jr. involved in this chase," because of their unwillingness to talk to reporters. Sosa relished the attention, while McGwire learned to accept it. Earlier this year, McGwire told me it took him a long time to understand that the situation could be less painful and perhaps even enjoyable if he embraced it.

While Bonds rarely goes out of his way to talk to anybody, the Cardinals organized press conferences for McGwire in every city before the first game. That way, McGwire took care of everybody right away. But I don't know if Bonds would be willing to take the same approach to the media.

Is Bonds capable of being Roger Maris in his reluctance to talk? If Bonds never said another word to the media, that would be fine. It's his prerogative. He will be going to the Hall of Fame because of his numbers, not his interviews.

Bonds is a phenomenon regardless of one's point of view. Has Bonds surpassed Ted Williams and Stan Musial as the greatest left fielder of all time? I believe he has, although both Williams and Musial lost years of baseball due to military service. In fact, Bonds resembles Williams in many ways. Williams had a reputation for moodiness, which cost him more MVP awards because voters actually voted against him. And like Bonds, Williams never produced in the postseason or led his team to a championship.

The stolen base may not be as valuable as it once was, but Bonds may still end up as the only man in baseball history with 500 home runs and 500 stolen bases.

Bonds' Hall of Fame numbers may appear hollow because fans tend to look for the World Series title at the end of the Holy Grail. When given the opportunity, most great players bring home a championship.

Bonds, however, tends to hit home runs in bunches and then stop. He was mired in an 0-for-17 slump before going on his home-run binge this season. And even though he seems to hit home runs every night, the Giants still aren't winning. When Bonds belted nine home runs during a six-game stretch from May 17-23, the Giants went 1-5.

In fact, when Bonds hit his 500th home run, the bat girl was the only person at home plate to greet him. The incident reinforced what I heard last season. Although Bonds had arguably a better season than Jeff Kent, his teammates considered Kent, the eventual NL MVP, to be the more valuable player. The sentiments were echoed by manager Dusty Baker.

Bonds bulked up in the offseason and slowed down. The stolen base may not be as valuable as it once was, but Bonds may still end up as the only man in baseball history with 500 home runs and 500 stolen bases. He made a conscious effort to get bigger, and we have seen the powerful results.

In the Giants' unspectacular lineup, Bonds' numbers beg the question: Why is anyone pitching to him? If pitchers are being careful, it's not working.

Atlanta's John Smoltz told me pitchers tend to get macho against players like Bonds. They think they can throw the ball by him and want to challenge him. But, I asked, why challenge Bonds? Smoltz said he never learned because he gave up seven of Bonds' first 500 homers. There is a part of a pitcher, Smoltz said, that thinks he can get Bonds out. But when Bonds gets in a groove, it doesn't matter what the pitcher throws.

As Bonds drives toward 70 home runs, baseball fans would love to share the ride with him. But there's only one seat in Bonds' car. And that's unfortunate because there are certainly a lot of passengers who would like to go along for the ride.

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