Biggest surprise of MLB season so far: Barry Bonds

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·MLB columnist
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Jose Fernandez, left, talks with hitting coach Barry Bonds during a spring training. (AP)
Jose Fernandez, left, talks with hitting coach Barry Bonds during a spring training. (AP)

Earlier this spring, when Barry Bonds and Jose Fernandez were engaged in their usual brand of verbal volleyball, the old man laid down a challenge to the young buck. One at-bat. Get me out, Bonds said, and Fernandez could take any one thing from his house. The confrontation never happened. Maybe some other time, they said. If it did, one observer there opined, chances are Fernandez would've gone home empty-handed.

Let us remind: Jose Fernandez is one of the finest pitchers in the world, and Barry Bonds is a 51-year-old man. He is no ordinary 51-year-old man, of course. He is baseball's home run king, its greatest offensive player since Babe Ruth and its poster boy for steroid use. For nearly a decade, the conflation of the three also made him its chief pariah. And then, penance apparently paid, debt ostensibly forgiven, he was back, ready to be the best again.

He's still BONDS around the shoulders and 25 on the back, the jersey fitting him as well as it ever did, if a bit less snug on account of muscle atrophied from its previously engorged state. The colors on his jersey have changed, too, and as he returns Friday to San Francisco, where he remained a hero as he embodied villainy in all other corners of the baseball world, it's in a Miami Marlins uniform, as their hitting coach.

Which is still a bit odd – not just that Barry Bonds is back in baseball but that it isn't with the Giants, the organization that stuck by him until it didn't. He never again played after hitting .276/.480/.565 in 2007 despite a 1.045 OPS that has been exceeded all of five times in the eight years since. He was 43. He was the juicer. It spoke to just how toxic Bonds was that he could produce like that and still not get a job.

To see him now, then – from persona non grata to playing an integral role for a team full of good, young hitters – almost boggles the mind. Not just the fact that Bonds is the rare superstar to leave his millions for another day and embrace a workmanlike role. It's more how good he is at it.

Teaching isn't about knowledge. It's communication, something at which Bonds didn't exactly excel, and psychology, something that takes time to foster without looking overbearing. And yet Marlins players have embraced Bonds not just out of respect that came because he was Barry Lamar Bonds but that he earned because he was B, the hitting coach who gets it.

About a week into spring training, he approached Dee Gordon, the 2015 National League hits leader, and told him they needed to meet the next day. Bonds wanted to watch, learn and understand Gordon's routine and tendencies.

"I want to get better," Gordon said. "So why not let him help me get better? That would be foolish and prideful of me to be that way. He's only the best hitter ever."

Very quickly Gordon and the rest of the Marlins' hitters understood what Bonds' hiring meant to the team. Bonds knows what to say and when to say it – and, just as important, what not to say and when not to say it. He balances hitting mechanics and the mental vagaries of the swing with remarkable acuity. In meetings with people whose knowledge of the game and its intricacies never will approach his level, he doesn't flaunt his wisdom or belittle any lack of understanding or knowledge. It's still just three weeks into April, and there's plenty of time for things to go wrong, but Bonds has been a damn-near perfect hire.

 Barry Bonds talks to players during spring training. (AP)
Barry Bonds talks to players during spring training. (AP)

Rather than isolate assistant hitting coach Frank Menechino, whom Bonds replaced as lead hitting coach, he embraced Menechino's knowledge of the Marlins' hitters. Christian Yelich, still just 24, needed to be more selective. He is hitting .370/.516/.522 and ranks second in baseball with 14 walks. He connected early with Giancarlo Stanton, a mutual-admiration society of leviathans who share the feeling of hitting baseballs harder than almost every other player in history.

"We both are aware that pitchers' meetings are a big part about us," Stanton said. "They want to get us out. We're the ones they focus on not to beat the other team. How do you maneuver? How do you stay patient?"

Bonds answers these questions, or does so to the best of his abilities. He is no vanity hire, not just another name in the endless parade the Marlins trot out in search of relevance. There is substance to Bonds, enough that if the Giants someday come calling on him for a bigger role, they'll make it a two-fer with popular and competent.

He'll get a big, boisterous cheer Friday, the San Francisco fans even more validated and emboldened that the man by whom they stood during his darkest years again can show his face. They still covet those days he stood at the plate, bat waggling, eyes locked in on the ball, another memory about to be made.

Thing is, it's realistic. During spring training, a story broke that Bonds had beaten Stanton, among others, in a home run-hitting contest on the backfields in Jupiter, Fla. That's actually not how it happened. Bonds was running an execution drill on a curveball machine. One of the players stopped swinging, and the drill needed a fill-in. In came Bonds. No stretching. No limbering up. Just him, a bat, a machine.

He saw eight curveballs. He hit four of them over the fence. And even though that wasn't the intent of the drill, Bonds couldn't help himself. There's a need for him to show, even now, all these years later, how good he is, in case anyone forgot.

We didn't. We can't. Barry Bonds is a force of nature, and even if in the eyes of many he's beyond rehabilitation, he doesn't care. He just wants to be B, not just the hitting coach who gets it but the best hitting coach in the world.

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