Bonds' Issue: Ready For His Turn in Spotlight


The name is Bonds, Barry Bonds. And this is the year when everybody in baseball will finally have to come to terms with him.

Is he the best all-around player in baseball?

For that matter, has he been the best player in baseball for the last 11 years--but without due recognition? If he wins the National League MVP this year, it will be his fourth--but should it actually be his sixth?

Now that his two homers on Wednesday night have given him 522, passing Ted Williams and Willie McCovey, is it time to ask if Bonds is 'The Greatest Living Player'? He'd have to surpass Willie Mays and Ted Williams for the honor.

Finally, the Big One, at least for this summer. Will Barry, son of Bobby and godson of Mays, break Mark McGwire's record of 70 home runs? Bonds now has 28 bombs in 53 games, including a record-setting 17 in May. That's a pace for 86 home runs.

The instantaneous reaction is: Can't happen. Bonds has never even hit 50 homers. He draws 120 walks a year and, like Williams, won't expand the plate to chase a record. And he tends to miss a few games every year with injury. Last year, 19.

That's probably the correct take. But Bonds in new Pacific Bell Park--a yard built to Barry-friendly specs--is a different creature than Bonds in Candlestick Park, that blustery boneyard for home runs. Last season is the only comparable season for Bonds. And he hit a career-high 49 homers in just 143 games--a pace for 56 for 162 games.

What seems certain is that Bonds will finally get his due as more than the grouchy star who wasn't beloved Mark McGwire, joyous Sammy Sosa, hat-backward Ken Griffey or iron Cal Ripken.

Luckily for both Bonds and baseball, the Giants' outfielder has finally shown signs of maturing. If he'd entered June with 28 homers just five brief years ago, it might have been a worse nightmare for baseball than if an Albert Belle or Dave Kingman had been on such a pace. They'd have ignored the media. Bonds probably would have insulted or goaded them.

Like his father, Barry has long felt unappreciated, over-criticized and stereotyped. Both were genuinely sensitive, as well as sulky when they got fed up.

Bonds's peers often saw the best of him. The Orioles' Brady Anderson thought Bonds was such a misunderstood baseball masterpiece that he begged his friend to let the press and public know him better.

"No point," answered Bonds. "It'll never change."

Yet it has changed. Bonds has learned to be gracious. When he hit his 500th homer last year, and was deluged with affection in the Giants' new park, Bonds seemed appreciative. He said all the right words. And avoided the two words that have always gotten him in the most troubled: 'I' and 'me.'

This season, he has done something far tougher. He's swallowed his bile. If Bonds still wanted to gripe, he'd have decent reasons these days. If he can keep his lip zipped, others will plead his case.

The Giants, unwisely it now seems, have negotiated with Bonds the same way the Orioles dealt with Mike Mussina last year. When a major contract extension could have gotten done, they stalled, perhaps hoping that, at 36, Bonds couldn't duplicate his .688 slugging percentage and .445 on-base average of 2000.

Someday, somebody is going to explain to me why front offices don't understand that paying a Hall of Famer the going rate is good business. Give the greats their share. They are the game.

Now, the Giants will pay the familiar Orioles price. Bonds has made it clear, without popping off, that he won't sign with anybody until he becomes a free agent this winter. In other words, like Mussina, he's as good as gone. Memo: You sign these guys before the last year of their contract begins or they leave.

Bonds' current binge is also fueled by other snubs that he's keeping to himself. Teammate Jeff Kent got MVP last year in part because Giants' management and teammates lobbied for him.

Bonds was also left off the All-Century Team. What, 522 homers, 476 stolen bases and a closet full of Gold Gloves doesn't do it for you? All you need to say about Bonds' credentials is: Compare his numbers to Williams's. Nobody is Ted. But, in an almost identical number of at-bats, Barry doesn't look bad.

Nobody can stay as hot as Bonds has been the last two weeks. And, in baseball, streaks usually turn right into slumps. Also, Bonds has missed 79 games the last two seasons. Maybe that means he's due not to get hurt at all this year. But the traditional interpretation would be that, at 36, he's more injury prone.

Don't expect 86 home runs. But don't be surprised if Bonds plays this season at an all-around level that is higher than anyone since Willie Mays in his prime. He's the best player in the game in an era crammed with fabulous talent.

This, at last, is his breakout showcase season--the year when our questions will be about his career accomplishments, not his ego. Luckily for all concerned, it's arrived late in his career. The man inside the No. 25 suit has had time to achieve a personal maturity appropriate to his athletic ability. Turn the spotlight on Barry. He's finally ready for it.

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