SAN FRANCISCO – Barry Bonds invited us into his living room Sunday morning. Actually, it wasn't an invitation so much as him not telling us to jab sharp objects into our carotid arteries. And it wasn't a living room so much as Bonds' corner of the San Francisco Giants clubhouse, where he rested in front of a Panasonic plasma screen with his son Nikolai.
And us – well, we're the media, scourge of Bonds' existence yet paradoxically his lifeline to the general public. Moments such as this, it must be understood, happen on rare occasion, when Bonds feels in a giving mood on his voyage to the all-time home run record. Yet this felt different because Bonds himself was doing what the rest of the baseball world has done with him: track a milestone homer.
"I don't want to see Boston, man," Bonds said, flipping past the Red Sox game on the Extra Innings television package. "I want to see A-Rod."
Alex Rodriguez, heir to the home run record that Bonds sits on the cusp of breaking, has hit 499, and the rain delay in Baltimore that held up the start of the New York Yankees' game irked Bonds. So to fill the time, Bonds engaged in a conversation as schmoozy as it was interrogatory.
About 20 or so of us hovered around Bonds' locker, none closer than 4 feet. When Bonds gets crowded, he turns grumpy. Little details like these emerge as you spend time around him. Covering Bonds is a trip back to middle school and the alpha male, where he's the object of everyone's attention and the rest of the room stands rapt to every movement.
The chat, similarly, vacillated between the vapid and revealing. As Bonds scanned past some trash TV, one reporter engaged him on the consummate American question of the moment: How screwed up are Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears?
"It's not about personal things," Bonds said. "It's about dollars and cents. You just have to understand that."
Bonds kept flipping. Nikolai rocked in his chair and cracked his neck, seemingly oblivious to the crowd surrounding his father. The tarp was coming off at Camden Yards. Bonds would get to see A-Rod's at-bat, and someone wondered whether he would do what Aaron isn't: see Rodriguez break his record in person.
"If I'm alive," Bonds said.
Seeing as A-Rod sits on 499 after turning 32 earlier in the week, Bonds should be fat and happy in retirement by then. Though Bonds responded to backhandedly critical comments by Giants owner Peter Magowan on Friday – the night of his 754th home run – by suggesting he'll play next season, he scoffed at the idea of finishing with 800 home runs, a guttural, machine-gun laugh punctuating the thought.
He leaned back then, interlocking his fingers behind his head after spitting a stream of tobacco juice into an empty water bottle. The Orioles were about to take the field. Bonds reminisced about Kevin Mitchell, in town for the Giants' 20-year anniversary celebration of their division-winning 1987 team, and Bobby Bonilla, and how they were the two strongest players he knew.
One locker over, Barry Zito sidled up. No one seemed to notice. Bonds had switched subjects, this time to the night before, when Florida pitcher Dontrelle Willis came after him with 12 consecutive fastballs, the hit-me-if-you-can variety, and Bonds couldn't. Tim Hudson and John Smoltz had done the same, with equal effectiveness, and Bonds got defensive.
"The hardware sits in my house," Bonds said, pointing his index finger and swiveling his chair as if he were in his trophy room. "Say whatever the hell you want. I can visit it any time I want. And there's a lot more in mine than there is in theirs."
All we needed were some Doritos and beer, and this would have been the ideal Sunday afternoon at a buddy's house: channel surfing, Hollywood starlets, trash talk and, now, baseball.
Johnny Damon stepped in.
"This is the guy they've got to get going," Bonds said.
Damon drew a walk against Orioles starter Daniel Cabrera, whose problems repeating his delivery have doomed him throughout his four-year career.
"His mechanics aren't the same," Bonds said. "You can see it."
Derek Jeter stroked a single to right field. Someone asked Bonds what he was doing.
"We're all here together," he said. "We're having a slumber party."
When Bobby Abreu coaxed a four-pitch walk out of Cabrera, the morning's crescendo beckoned. The 30 minutes awaiting A-Rod's at-bat had been interesting. Bonds can be accommodating, interesting, funny, reflective. Were he this way all the time, perhaps a pair of Nikes would be sitting in his locker instead of the Fila shoes he endorses, but then that wouldn't be Bonds, defiant until an end that's much likelier to be bitter than sweet.
On a 1-1 pitch, Rodriguez tracked a Cabrera slider across the outside corner and unleashed a mighty cut. He fouled the ball straight back, a tick off.
"Good swing," Bonds said.
Bonds had suspended his film study to watch this at-bat. Video of Florida pitcher Sergio Mitre highlighted his kamikaze sinker, which has led to the best groundball-to-flyball ratio in baseball this season. Bonds fell prey, twice grounding out to second baseman Dan Uggla in short right field and shattering his bat on a flyout to right field. Bonds would leave here stuck on No. 754, heading to Dodger Stadium for three games and Petco Park in San Diego for three more.
A-Rod, too, would end his day one shy of a milestone. Cabrera threw a 97-mph fastball in the dirt, and Rodriguez swung through it for strike three.
And so ended Bonds' goodwill. The crowd scattered. He needed to work. Maybe take some practice swings. Thirty minutes of his time had been plenty.
Barry's living room was fun. So long as you know not to expect another invitation anytime soon.