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Easy Does It

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Barry Bonds was a C student at Junipero Serra High, one of those kids who expended just enough effort to get by and not much more, but that wasn’t cutting it in a junior biology class in 1980-81.

Frustrated with Bonds’ progress, the biology teacher issued a warning that has become legend at this Catholic boys’ school in a suburb south of San Francisco, a quote that so chagrined its author he did not want his name attached to it and refused to be interviewed about it two decades later.

“One day the teacher decided he’d try to motivate Barry,” recalled Randy Vogel, Serra’s admissions director. “So he told him, ‘Barry, you better get yourself in gear because baseball will never get you anywhere.’ Who would have known, 20 years later, that Barry would be one of the greatest players of all time?”

And who would have known that Bonds, the San Francisco Giant slugger and three-time National League most valuable player, would become baseball’s single-season home run king, a crown he wears after hitting his record-breaking 71st homer against the Dodgers’ Chan Ho Park on Friday night before adding his 72nd two innings later.

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And who would have known Bonds would become one of professional sports’ most controversial figures, a player who has infuriated teammates and opponents alike, who has been described as arrogant, rude, moody, aloof, uncooperative and a jerk?

Actually, there were a few hints along the way ...

Bonds, the son of all-star outfielder Bobby Bonds and godson of Hall of Fame outfielder Willie Mays, was so gifted an athlete in high school, so lean and strong and fast and fluid, that it took little effort for him to star at Serra in baseball and basketball. And Bonds knew it.

“Everything was easy for me, all sports, when I was a kid. I’d work half as hard as other kids did and I was better,” Bonds said in a 1993 Q&A; with Playboy magazine. “Why work when I had so much ability? Some other kids were jealous.”

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Others were in awe. Bob McKercher, a friend and teammate from Little League through high school, remembers a 1981 Central Coast Section playoff game against El Camino High at the College of San Mateo, whose field dwarfed the bandbox at Serra. Against one of the area’s best pitchers, hard-throwing Andrew Leonard, Bonds homered over the 405-foot sign in right-center field.

“But it didn’t just clear the fence; it went halfway up the tree behind it,” McKercher said. “It was like a bullet.”

One day in Bonds’ senior year, scouts asked then-Serra coach Dave Stevens if he would allow Bonds to use a wood bat his first time up in a game. Stevens agreed, and Bonds hit a home run.

After turning down a $70,000 offer to sign with the Giants out of high school, Bonds showed up at Arizona State in his black Trans Am and burned rubber all over the Pacific 10, batting .347 with 45 homers and 175 runs batted in from 1983-85 and earning All-American honors his junior season.

His teammates wanted to slash his tires. Though Bonds forged a strong bond with then-Arizona State coach Jim Brock, who died of liver and colon cancer in 1994, even Brock once described Bonds as rude, inconsiderate and self-centered.

“I liked the hell out of Barry Bonds,” Brock said in a 1990 interview with Sports Illustrated. “Unfortunately, I never saw a teammate care about him. He bragged about the money he turned down, and he popped off about his dad. I don’t think he ever figured what to do to get people to like him.”

The Pittsburgh Pirates chose Bonds with the sixth pick in 1985, and less than a year later, Bonds was their starting center fielder and leadoff batter. By 1990 Bonds blossomed into a five-tool superstar, hitting .301 with 33 homers, 114 RBIs and 52 stolen bases and winning the first of eight Gold Gloves.

Some thought only the surface of his potential was being scratched.

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“One day,” Pirate teammate R.J. Reynolds said at the time, “he will put up numbers no one can believe.”

And so he has. Seventy-two home runs this season and 566 home runs in his career, which places him seventh all time. Hard to believe.

For Bonds, at 37, it’s the culmination of a journey that began on the Little League fields of San Carlos, Calif.; continued on the tiny diamond (298 feet to right, 295 to left, 354 to center) at Serra High; wove through the Arizona desert; made a brief pit stop in the minor leagues; hit the big time in Pittsburgh (1986-92) and San Francisco (1993-present) and reached unfathomable heights this season.

Barry Lamar Bonds, the oldest of Bobby and Pat Bonds’ four children--three boys and a girl--was born in Riverside on July 24, 1964, but he grew up in a privileged neighborhood in San Carlos, a middle-to-upper-class community just south of San Mateo.

Though young Barry often shagged balls in Candlestick Park with his dad, who had five seasons with at least 30 homers and 30 stolen bases, and his godfather, who is third on baseball’s homer list with 660, Barry admits he was more of a mama’s boy as a kid.

“I’d rather watch my mom put her makeup on,” Bonds said in the Playboy interview. “Or put on a wig and dance with her; ... I didn’t like my dad that much. We didn’t become close until I was in college.”

McKercher, who works for a San Francisco shipping and postage company and is still one of Bonds’ closest friends, grew up down the street from Bonds.

“We were into water-balloon fights, we played baseball, basketball, football,” McKercher said. “We loved music and liked to dance. We went to the movies. Every Friday night from sixth to eighth grade we went ice-skating. He was just a typical kid.”

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As Bonds matriculated from the Carey School, a San Mateo private school for children in first through eighth grade, to Serra, a slightly darker side emerged. Bonds starred in baseball and basketball, but the burden of being Bobby Bonds’ son began to take a toll.

The elder Bonds had a rare combination of power and speed, and that produced expectations he couldn’t live up to. Though he had 332 homers and 461 stolen bases, he also set a record for strikeouts (189) in 1970. He didn’t come through in the clutch enough. He was moody. After seven seasons in San Francisco (1968-74), Bonds was traded six times in the next seven years.

“It was like his dad wasn’t wanted,” McKercher said. “You see that, and it lingers. You see your dad go from San Francisco to New York to Anaheim to Texas to Cleveland to Chicago ... that can take a toll on you.”

Baseball kept Bobby away from home. Serra coaches Kevin Donahue (basketball) and Stevens (baseball) became father figures.

“Barry spent a lot of time in my office talking about problems, most of them the typical problems teenagers have,” said Donahue, now Serra’s athletic director. “He was under a microscope because of who his dad was. People always expected him to perform well. When he made a mistake, people tended to be more critical of him.”

On the court, Bonds loved the limelight. “He was real quick and a good shooter,” Donahue said.

*

He was a better baseball player. Bonds hit .404 in three varsity seasons but .467 with 14 homers and 42 RBIs as a senior in 1982, earning San Mateo County player-of-the-year honors. Serra, a school that has produced 10 major league baseball players, went 59-22-2 during Bonds’ tenure, winning a league title in 1980 and finishing third in the Central Coast Section in 1982.

“It seemed like when he wanted a hit, he’d get one,” said Joe Kmak, who played two varsity seasons with Bonds and is now a math teacher at Serra. “When the focus was there, he knew he’d get a hit. And the greater the competition, the greater his focus.”

Russ Bertetta, Serra’s alumni director, taught Bonds’ sophomore English and junior history classes and is still friends with the Giant left fielder.

“He’s basically the same person now that he was in high school, but everything’s so magnified,” Bertetta said. “He was a pretty sensitive guy. He’s still that way but has a harder shell. When he’s in a good mood, he’s a great guy, and it was the same in high school. When he wasn’t in a good mood, you didn’t want to be around him.”

Bertetta thinks being the son of a big league player had something to do with that.

“Growing up in that shadow, there were a lot of expectations of him that he had a hard time adjusting to,” Bertetta said. “Maybe he was tired of being Bobby Bonds’ kid. Maybe he just wanted to be Barry Bonds.”

*

Jeff Pentland will never forget the first time he saw Barry Bonds at Arizona State. Batting off a pitching machine, Bonds, then a 6-foot-2, 185-pound sophomore, hit 15 consecutive balls over the scoreboard in left-center field.

“Each ball went between 380 and 450 feet,” said Pentland, now the Chicago Cubs’ batting instructor. “My feeling was, ‘Wow, we have something special here.”’

Brock had promised Oddibe McDowell he would bat third if he returned to Arizona State for his senior year, but assistant coach Pentland intervened, telling McDowell: “You need to hit first because we have the best No. 3 hitter in the country, and that’s Barry Bonds.”

Bonds’ instincts, speed and strength, though he barely lifted a weight in high school, were unrivaled. Arizona State had a forearm strength test for hitters: Reverse curls at 150 pounds, three sets of 10.

“Barry did it the first time without ever having tried it before,” Pentland said. “Only two guys I’ve been associated with have done that: Reggie Jackson and Barry Bonds.”

Pentland said Bonds “never tried to hit home runs,” but that didn’t stop him from hitting 23 as a junior in 1985, two short of Bob Horner’s school record. Kmak, his high school teammate, played college ball at UC Santa Barbara and noticed a distinct difference in Bonds when he played Arizona State.

“In high school, he just had fun with baseball; he could turn it on and off,” Kmak said. “In college, he was more driven, more focused.”

Not all the time.

“I would find ways to challenge him against lesser teams because Barry would sometimes lose interest in those games and go 0 for 4,” Pentland said. “But any time I challenged him against the good pitchers, guys like [former Stanford star] Jack McDowell, he’d whip them pretty good.”

The brighter the lights, the more valuable the Bonds. He was MVP of the 1983 NCAA West II Regional. He tied a College World Series record with hits in seven consecutive at-bats in 1984. He did everything at Arizona State ... but fit in.

“There was some jealousy,” Pentland said. “Barry was kind of a rogue. He did things on his own. He didn’t need to be hanging out with any particular groups.”

Brock admitted in a 1993 interview with Sports Illustrated that Bonds got special handling.

“I had to talk to him a lot,” Brock said. “He wanted to be liked, tried so damn hard to have people like him. Tried too hard. But then he’d say things he didn’t mean, wild statements. I tried to tell him that these guys, 20 years from now, would be electricians and plumbers, but he’d be making millions. Still, he’d be hurt.”

*

The Pirates signed Bonds in 1985 and sent him to Class-A Prince William (Va.), where he hit .299 with 13 homers and 37 RBIs. Bonds started 1986 at triple-A Hawaii, hitting .311 with seven homers and 37 RBIs in 44 games.

Syd Thrift, Pittsburgh’s general manager, traveled to Arizona in late May to sign Moises Alou, the Pirates’ top pick in the 1986 winter draft. Hawaii was playing in Phoenix, so Thrift went to Municipal Stadium to check out his triple-A team.

During batting practice, Bonds pulled five balls over the right-field fence and walked over to the bench, where Thrift was sitting. “What do you think?” Bonds said.

“Great,” Thrift replied, “but you’ll really show me something if you can hit some over the left-field fence.”

Bonds went back into the cage and ripped a few homers over the left-field wall. “How’s that?” Bonds asked.

“Perfect,” Thrift said.

“In the seventh inning of that game, I went down from the stands and told [Hawaii Manager] Tommy Sandt to take Bonds out; I’m taking him back to Pittsburgh with me. And you know what? The first five home runs he hit in Three Rivers Stadium all went over the left-field fence.”

When Thrift called to congratulate Bonds on his 500th home run in April, Bonds razzed him.

“Of course, the shy, bashful, introverted Barry said, ‘If you would have brought me to the big leagues sooner, I would have reached this sooner,”’ Thrift said. “Heck, I took him out of the incubator. He barely played one season in the minor leagues .... That was his way of thanking me.”

Then-Pirate Manager Jim Leyland started Bonds in the leadoff spot in 1986, “but you knew it was just a matter of time before he’d be a big RBI guy in the middle of the order,” he said. “With a young player, you have to be careful putting him in those spots right away.”

In 1987, Bonds was moved from center field to left and from leadoff to fifth. He put up solid numbers through 1989, but not until a postseason epiphany--in a Pittsburgh barber shop, of all places--did he emerge as a superstar.

“They have the radio on, and a guy says what a great athlete Randall Cunningham is, but what a great quarterback Joe Montana is,” Bonds told Playboy in 1993. “I weighed the two and thought, I’m so bored with having great ability, having the potential of being a great player. I want to be a great player like Joe Montana. So that haircut was my inspiration.”

So were Mays and Bobby Bonds, who told Barry that if he wanted to reach the Hall of Fame, he’d have to dedicate himself to the game. That winter, Bonds trained harder than he ever had. In three of the next four seasons, he won NL MVP honors.

“He’s one of those guys who, when he puts his mind to it, can do anything, so I’m not really surprised by what he’s done this season,” Leyland said. “He’s in great shape. He works a lot harder in the off-season than people realize. Quietly, behind the scenes, he’s very dedicated.”

Problem was, Bonds was rarely quiet. Oh, he could clam up, blowing off reporters, but when he did open his mouth, he’d often stick his foot in it.

After a 1990 playoff game against Cincinnati, Bonds blasted teammate Jeff King, who was scratched from the game after aggravating a lower-back injury.

“When we play Friday, Bobby Bonilla will be playing third, and Jeff King will be sitting there getting his back healthy,” Bonds told reporters. “He’ll be getting ready for spring training.”

The Pirates were outraged. King sat out much of the next season because of the injury.

Then in spring training of 1991, after Bonds had lost a winter arbitration case, he got into a yelling match with a team public relations official and exchanged words with Leyland. The episode stemmed from Bonds’ decision to freeze out the media that spring. At one point, Leyland yelled, “I’ve kissed your butt for three years! If you don’t want to be here, then get your butt off the field.”

Otherwise, Leyland said he had “a great relationship” with Bonds. “We had that one family argument, that’s it,” Leyland said. “I’ve had a lot of run-ins with players. They happen, you move on.”

Bonds did after 1992, spurning the Pirates’ five-year, $25-million offer to sign a six-year, $43.75-million deal with San Francisco that made him baseball’s highest-paid player.

Bonds hit .303 and averaged 40 home runs and 106 RBIs in eight years in San Francisco and was named player of the decade for the 1990s by the Sporting News. His trademark diamond cross still hangs from his left ear, he still chokes up on the bat, and he still has the most compact and explosive swing of any power hitter in the game.

But this season he has simply been other-worldly; in addition to his 72 homers, Bonds is batting .326 with 136 RBIs, a major league-record 177 walks, an .860 slugging percentage (Babe Ruth’s record is .857) and a .515 on-base percentage.

“It’s almost unfair,” Giant first baseman J.T. Snow said, “but you expect him to hit a home run daily, or every other day. Anybody who’s played this game can tell you how hard it is to do.”

After homering on opening day (No. 495), Bonds, feeling pressured to hit No. 500, went hitless in 22 at-bats. Manager Dusty Baker sat him April 11 against San Diego, and then Bonds homered in his next four games, beginning a remarkable stretch in which he homered 17 times in May.

Giant broadcaster Jon Miller has a theory as to why Bonds has been on such a tear since.

“He was the son of a great major league player and godson of one of the greatest who ever played,” Miller said. “He had a name that branded him at a young age. There was a lot to live up to. I saw Carl Yastrzemski’s son, Pete Rose’s son, various guys who looked like they might have had some talent but could not handle those kinds of expectations. Even Brian McRae said in high school he really decided football was his sport because he really hated being branded Hal McRae’s son.

“I believe there was some of that with Barry. He doesn’t talk about it, but when he hit No. 500, he didn’t have to prove anything else. If you hit 500, you’re on the short list, one of the all-time greats. I think there was a period where he relaxed, and I think that may have helped contribute to that incredible streak. There was a serenity in his life, and maybe it showed in his performance.”

Some serenity in his personal life hasn’t hurt. Bonds’ first marriage to Sun Bonds ended in a bitter dispute over money, and his 1994 divorce went all the way to the California Supreme Court. In 1998, Bonds married a childhood friend, Liz Watson, and has three kids from two marriages: Nikolai, 11, Shikari, 10, and Aisha Lynn, 2.

“He’s more stable, and any time you have your house in order, you have less to worry about,” McKercher said. “He’s happy, content, he has a beautiful baby daughter and sees his other two kids a lot....

“I see the personal side of Barry. He’s a human being, a very loving father, a family man. He’s really good with kids and very dedicated to his job. But sometimes he needs space to do his job. He’s not as surly as everyone says, but sometimes when you’re backed into a corner, you’re going to be defensive.”

The home run record is his, but Bonds still hasn’t played in a World Series, a goal that has been more elusive because of his .196 average, one homer and six RBIs in 27 playoff games. “Call me Mr. July,” Bonds once joked.

But despite his postseason struggles, Bonds will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, which still boggles minds at a high school that has produced such prominent sports figures as John Robinson, Lynn Swann and Jim Fregosi.

“You never imagine anyone you teach will ever be one of the greatest in his field,” said Vogel, the Serra administrator. “It’s like teaching someone who becomes the president of the United States or a Hollywood movie star.”

Or a world-class biologist?

“The irony is, as teachers we’re always saying those kinds of things to students,” Vogel said, chuckling about the Serra biology teacher’s admonition of Bonds 20 years ago. “But Barry was one of those lucky few kids who had the ability to make it. I guess biology is not an important part of his life anymore.”


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