(Chris Carlson/Associated Press)
*This column was originally published in The Inkwell and on its website.
As a kid that grew up 45 minutes away from Pacific Bell Park – now known as AT&T Park – moon shots from Barry Bonds that landed in McCovey Cove were my childhood. On April 17, 2001, my nine-year-old self and my father hugged and jumped up and down right behind the Los Angeles Dodgers dugout when Bonds smashed his 500th career home run. Later in that year, Bonds broke the single-season home run record by hitting home runs No. 71, 72 and 73.
Memories of Bonds shattering records while making the hardest game on earth look like child’s play are still vivid, but his existence in the game seems like ages ago.
For seven years, Bonds has been in complete exile from baseball, besides a Giants reunion, first pitch and a front-row seat at a Giants game here and there. On Monday, baseball and the all-time home run leader reunited in Scottsdale, Ariz., at the Giants spring training complex. Bonds is making a week-long stint as a special hitting assistant.
Bonds doesn’t have a leather couch to himself this time, but just a normal little locker where the minor league coaches dress.
Having Bonds at spring training is huge for both himself and the Giants. When you have a guy that may be the best ever at baseball at your camp for players to pick his brain, it’s a huge advantage. For Bonds, a player that was labelled as a selfish player and not always willing to approach teammates, to willingly be a coach is even bigger.
This is a long, overdue and completely complicated reunion for baseball and its one-time biggest star. Bonds testified to a grand jury about the BALCO – a Bay Area lab that distributed performance-enhancing drugs to athletes – and stated that he unknowingly took these substances. Though he hasn’t positively tested for substances that were banned at the time in baseball, Bonds was acquitted on federal perjury charges and has twice been rejected by the Hall of Fame.
Now, how does the game’s possibly most decorated player with seven MVPs and 762 career home runs, yet possibly the most scrutinized, fit into today’s game as a coach?
San Francisco’s right-fielder Hunter Pence told the San Francisco Chronicle he can’t wait to be taught by his childhood idol.
“He was one of my favorite players,” Pence said. “I’ll be excited to talk to him. I’m always trying to get better.” Pence had a poster of Bonds on his wall as a child, and told the Chronicle that he chokes up on the bat because of that poster.
Really, how couldn’t a player be excited to talk to Bonds and reach out to him for help? Sure, he has PED implications and people can put up a red flag on his personality, but it’s time to look past that.
When the actual “PED era” began is unknown. Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001, Mark McGwire hit 70 in 1998 and the BALCO court testimony was in 2003. With McGwire’s 70 home runs in ’98, steroids were alive in that decade, but Bonds’ numbers before 2000 show how unbelievable his talent really was, no matter if he used an enhancement or not.
From Bonds’ rookie season in 1986 with the Pittsburgh Pirates through his 1999 season with the Giants, Bonds totaled 445 home runs and stole 460 bases with a .288 batting average. Bonds was averaging over 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases per year for his first 14 seasons in the bigs. He also won three MVPs, eight Gold Gloves, seven Silver Sluggers and was an eight-time All-Star. Before hitting his huge spike in numbers, Bonds was already a Hall of Fame player, and one of the greatest all-around players ever.
The time for Bonds to be back in baseball is right. The rival, Los Angeles Dodgers, have McGwire as their hitting coach and Bonds was twice the hitter he was. Jason Giambi is now one of the most respected veterans in the game as a 43 year old DH for the Cleveland Indians, and he admitted to being part of the BALCO scandal. Giambi even interviewed for the head coaching position for the Colorado Rockies last year.
The media was of course interested in asking Bonds about his PED use and the Hall of Fame at his press conference on Monday.
On the Hall of Fame, Bonds said he “without a doubt” belongs in the Hall of Fame, but did not go on a personal attack. “I think you guys are all adults,” he said. “I have no advice for you.”
Bonds also said that he only regretted his bad relationship with the media. Bonds was often silent and angry with the media during his playing days, and they certainly were not too fond of each other. He was often just a player that seemed to play on a team of one, with the rest of the team just being in his way.
“I was different character-playing,” he said. “Now I’ve had to slow down and do different things. I think we all do. I think when you’ve been gone awhile you have time to reflect on things. But I needed ‘that guy’ to play. I needed him. It was who I was at the time. It was not who I am in my day-to-day life.”
The king of home runs was finally back in a Giants uniform, looking much skinnier and a lot happier than his playing days at times. Hopefully, this is just a small step in an overdue reunion that should last much longer than one week.