CHICAGO – Every so often, he gives us a glimpse into his psyche, and on those occasions Barry Bonds becomes more than hero or villain, the two archetypes into which he's been cast and with which he ably plays along.
He is neither, really. Bonds is human, shades of everything, able to show fallibility and brilliance simultaneously, to admit weakness after he exhibits unfathomable strength. To see Bonds do both Thursday afternoon, when he hit the 752nd and 753rd home runs of his career through a flag-whipping wind at Wrigley Field, proved him not just the tin man in need of some oil in his legs. Bonds seemed … genuine.
It was sad, too, because it showed Bonds can be a sympathetic character when he shows some vulnerability, that he can appreciate Hank Aaron's home run record instead of foisting the attention on himself. The chase toward 755 has been more like baseball's version of Bataan, a long march toward a sad ending. It's not so much the steroids that Bonds allegedly abused that have sucked the joy out of it; it's that he could never admit to using them or ask forgiveness, both of which would have allowed for the accomplishment to take center stage instead of the person.
"It's real now," Bonds said after he drove in six runs in the Giants' 9-8 loss to the Chicago Cubs, and he sounded somewhat surprised, and maybe even a little intimidated.
The weight of history is immense. And whether it's this weekend in Milwaukee, next week in San Francisco or sometime soon thereafter, Bonds will pass Aaron and get that parting gift to accompany his grand prize.
For a few days, at least, the prospect of Bonds stalling for good before he reached Aaron seemed possible, if not likely. Stuck on 751, he sat out the first three games of his San Francisco Giants' series against the Chicago Cubs, the effects of 30 innings – plus a fair bit of All-Star Game partying – turning him into a typical 42-year-old full of aches and pains too strong for a couple Advil.
No one could have imagined those three days would fully recharge Bonds. He isn't an iPod. He is a baseball player, one stuck in an 0-for-21 funk that, a few days earlier, prompted his knocking over a laundry cart in frustration. A planned outburst, in all likelihood, as much in Bonds' public persona is, which made the honesty about his brief respite this week even more intriguing. "Probably should have done it a long time ago, but I didn't," said Bonds, who rarely admits such things. "I want to be out there, want to play, so, you know, sometimes your ego takes over."
Rejuvenated, as Bonds called it, he led off the second inning against Cubs pitcher Ted Lilly amid booing and other various vitriol. On Lilly's first pitch, a fastball down the pipe, Bonds wound his gears as he does on his biggest of swings and unleashed a rocket that rendered the stiff breeze meaningless. As many balls as it knocked down Thursday, the only way that ball wasn't leaving the entire stadium was if it hit a bird.
The Audubon Society was spared a casualty and the ball ended up in the hands of Dave Davison, a 39-year-old who catches home run balls for a living and, with the money he'll make off No. 752, hopefully can finally escape the clutches of mom's basement.
Bonds enjoyed his trot among a smattering of cheers, and while the boos returned in the next inning, he dumped a bases-loaded single into left for his second hit of the day, and the 40,198 at Wrigley seemed to understand that this was no corpse traipsing to the plate.
Sore shins had kept him out of the lineup, sure, though Bonds did get one at-bat Tuesday, when he pinch hit and lined out to left field against left-hander Will Ohman. Once again Thursday, Cubs manager Lou Piniella called on Ohman, this time in the seventh inning with his team ahead 9-5 and two runners on.
A called strike put Ohman ahead, then three balls left him behind. Bonds fouled off a fastball. The count was full. Ohman left a fastball over the middle of the plate. Bonds connected, and the ball was destined to be another wind casualty.
Only it kept going. It just stretched, like a rubber band tested to its limits. And by the time it descended, Cubs center fielder Jacque Jones looked up and couldn't fathom how it had landed in the basket above the brick-and-ivy wall and, eventually, the hands of a 13-year-old boy.
The kid was either savvy or surrounded by people who knew he might have snagged his college education, because he procured another ball to throw back on the field and kindle a deflated crowd. Only a dolt would forfeit the specially inscribed ball that Major League Baseball uses for Bonds' at-bats, the kind that he said has distracted him.
"You actually really realize something's going on and you don't want to think about it," Bonds said. "You want to think about the opposition and playing the game. But when they stopped it for a second and switch baseballs, it's very hard not to know that something's happening in front of you."
He's right. All of that gets lost. It's difficult to sit here and appreciate what Bonds did Thursday – vanquish a slump with his 18th and 19th home runs, his first ones since July 3, his second multi-homer game of the season, his 71st career with at least two, putting him one behind Babe Ruth – without all of the drama and chicanery spoiling the moment.
Because he heads to Milwaukee, the place where Aaron hit No. 755, the place where commissioner Bud Selig lives now. And maybe, rather than disregard his feelings about those two, Bonds continues this sudden honesty and say what any man in his place would: He's sad Aaron isn't there, and he hopes Selig attends the Giants' games, because both are integral figures in the baseball world, and both should witness history, personal feelings aside.
Yet Bonds probably won't, because he has spent so many years insulating himself that openness feels wrong. After the game, he went back to his private place, meeting along the first-base line with the Rev. Jesse Jackson for a minute-long chat and 15-second prayer. Gone was the glimpse he offered Thursday, the brief sparkle like the ones that had emanated off Lake Michigan earlier with the whitecaps cresting a mile or so from the stadium.
Forget the clouds and the wind. The scene was gorgeous: Chicago smiling, Wrigley breathing, history welcoming itself and Barry Bonds right in the middle of it revealing one more dichotomy. How failure so quickly turns to greatness.