Head games

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! SportsMay 4, 2006

Tony Gwynn & Jeff Passan: Can Bonds pass Aaron?


MILWAUKEE – In a momentary lapse of old age, perhaps, or maybe it was that feeling of invincibility again, Barry Bonds neglected a fundamental rule of batting practice – keep your face away from the cage, stupid – and took a foul tip off his forehead.

Once word came that Bonds was OK, the requisite cracks followed. Good thing Bonds took steroids, or his head wouldn't have grown enough to sustain the blow. And Kevin Frandsen, the San Francisco Giants' rookie second baseman off whose bat the foul tip screamed, had done in his first big-league week what Bonds' teammates had wanted to do for the last 20 years.

About 45 minutes earlier, before his header, Bonds stood in the Giants' clubhouse readying himself to hit. One of his newest accoutrements is a tiny microphone that captures sound for his TV show, "Bonds on Bonds." Bonds asked the cameraman for a special microphone – "I don't want the one I can't mute," he said – slipped it up his shirt and started to pace.

"I hate doing this," Bonds said. "Just trying to get ready, you guys ruin my concentration level. Just want to take this show and (kick it) in the (expletive) garbage."

That these two incidents occurred within the same hour is no coincidence. What made Bonds so great in the past, even before his alleged steroid use – a single-minded focus and an ability to enter a world all his own – is no longer possible, not with a mic clasped to his shirt almost every waking hour and certainly not with the specter of Babe Ruth looming.

When Bonds hit his 712th home run on Tuesday, a 440-foot atmosphere-scraper, the pressure of catching and eventually passing Ruth's mark of 714 homers became that much more real. No, it's not the all-time home run record, but Babe Ruth is still the biggest name in baseball history and the standard bearer for absolute greatness.

So until Bonds hits No. 715, the baseball world will revolve around him and his every move. On a smaller scale, so will the tiny universe in which he operates.

The clubhouse door opened around 3:30 p.m., and Bonds lazed on a green leather couch. He perched his right elbow between the two cushions and balanced his head on his hand. Bonds' left leg was splayed on the arm of the sofa. He didn't look like a guy with a bad knee.

As Wolf Blitzer discussed the Zacarias Moussaoui sentencing, Bonds watched and didn't say much. He knows better than to sound off without a controlled audience, as he later did in defending Bud Selig's decision not to attend either game in his hometown with Bonds on the cusp of tying Ruth. Instead, he stared through squinting eyes at the 9/11 conspirator while the rest of the room stared at him.

Next to Bonds' locker stood a cameraman for his TV show who focused on Bonds. In the opposite corner was Bonds' stretching coach, Harvey Shields, keeping an eye on his man. Around the clubhouse, creating a perimeter like detectives on a manhunt, were reporters who tried to act like they weren't looking at him.

And outside, at Miller Park, before a weak crowd of 17,358, there was no doubt upon whom attention was lavished. Milwaukee Brewers fans booed Bonds, which wasn't particularly original, and they chanted the word "Steroids," which he's heard enough that it should affect him like the neighbor's barking dog. Eventually, you just drown it out.

Yet with everything else – the grand jury exploring perjury charges, continued fallout from the BALCO case, two fairly damning books about him and, yes, that (expletive) show – benign could turn brutal.

With an 0-for-4 night, his batting average dipped to .264 (though his .530 on-base percentage, to be fair, is second highest in baseball). It took Bonds 31 at-bats to hit his first home run this season, and even the most liberal prognosticators figured he'd be long past Ruth by May.

"I suck right now," Bonds said before the game. "That's what I see."

He laughed.

"That's it," he said. "You don't have enough tape, enough time, and you would never understand it anyway, even if I sat here trying to explain it. Those are things I have to correct on my own."

He's convinced he will.

"Believe me, you'll know," Bonds said. "I won't have to say a word."

Unless Bonds retraces Ponce de Leon's steps, he won't see a return to his youth, let alone his prime. He's 41 now, and he runs like he's got another 15 years tacked on to that. Bonds said when his knee hurts, his elbow follows in kind, and vice versa. It's tough to hit with a bum arm and leg.

Even more when he can't internalize. When a fan threw a syringe at Bonds earlier this season, he used his word again: "Concentrate." He wanted to concentrate on baseball, like it was so easy he could command it to happen. In the past, sure. These days, it seems, Bonds' head is good for one thing only.

Stopping foul tips.