'Barry just needs to be Barry'

Editor's Note: This story appears in the June 4 edition of ESPN The Magazine.

I don't think Barry Bonds needs to do anything to reposition himself as a hero, and I'd say that even if I weren't his teammate and friend. The truth is, he's not paid to be a hero. He's paid to hit home runs. Barry just needs to be Barry.

I met him in 2001, my first full season, when the A's played in San Francisco. It was when he was on his way to 73, and I just wanted to shake his hand. He greeted me with a big smile, as if I were a 10-year veteran, and it was awesome. Then he came up to me at the All-Star Game in 2003, a few weeks after he hit his first homer off me. "I finally got you!" he said, with a laugh. I gave it right back to him, because it wasn't like he blasted me -- the wind blew it fair at the last second! It's one of my most memorable
moments: arguably the greatest hitter of all time and me giving each other crap.

Last winter, Barry and I would run into each other when we were working out at UCLA. He'd tell me about the guys on the team, and stand in on my bullpen sessions. That's when I told him I wanted the locker next to his, and he suggested getting those T-shirts made, the ones with "Don't Ask Me ... Ask Barry!" on the back. I thought he was kidding, until he brought them to camp.

When we settled in at AT&T Park, I noticed Barry has a regular chair like the rest of us. The famous recliner? Gone. And that kind of bums me out. I was looking forward to trying it, maybe even getting one of my own.

I wish more people got to see the Barry we all see. He's incredibly motivated, determined and disciplined. What he does requires a level of focus most people can't understand. If he doesn't want to deal with making everybody else happy, so what? Would the fans rather have an average player who's a great guy off the field? Kids want superstars.

If you didn't know about the allegations and the controversy, you'd have no idea this guy has anything going on in his life besides coming to the yard to hit baseballs. We haven't spoken a word about all the other stuff. In the clubhouse, he's cool. He chills. He talks, jokes with the guys here and there. He's pretty focused on getting ready, but he's smiling most of the time.

The way he's perceived doesn't trouble me. I know people love to hate. My dad always warned me that great champions walk alone. The average guy just can't relate to the president or a $20 million-a-movie actor or a home run king. Those are extraordinary people. Which is also why people want to knock them off the mountaintop.

I'm not troubled by what people say he's done, either. Barry has never tested positive for steroids. I think he's just an easy target. Look at other guys whose names have been brought up in investigations: guys whose careers are over, guys you never heard of. If you're gonna get all moral, you should attack those guys, too. But it doesn't work like that.

The fact is that at 42 years old, and with drug testing in place, he's still wowing us with unbelievable swings. Look, to hit through the center of the ball so consistently requires such skill, such hand-eye coordination, such timing. So save the asterisk stuff. The guy's just better than everyone else.

When I was a kid, I had his rookie cards. He was a lanky guy -- fast as hell, strong enough to hit bombs. I always loved to watch him play. Now I get to watch him chase the record. And as much as we all want to see the actual moment, being there with him during the lead-up, and even after, has as much importance to us as a team as the moment he hits No. 756.

Someone told me the commissioner said he will treat Barry's breaking the record like any other significant milestone. I think that says he doesn't recognize how special Barry and this record are. It's one of the most hallowed records in all of sports. To downplay it doesn't help baseball in any way.

I think everyone should enjoy the show. I know I will.

Former AL Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito is a starting pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.