Tony Gwynn & Jeff Passan: Can Bonds catch Aaron?
SAN FRANCISCO – At least once in every young man's life, he plays a game where he gets to slap the ever-living crap out of a friend's wrist with two fingers. The friend returns the favor. Whoever's skin blushes the most loses. The exercise inevitably continues, because testosterone is rather addictive, and in the end, someone ends up angry, because the other guy hit just a little too hard.
Now, this has to do with Barry Bonds, and not just because he may know a thing or two about testosterone. Bonds, an employee of the San Francisco Giants, fired an unprompted – and, it must be said, magnificently crafted – slap before Tuesday's game against the Chicago Cubs by putting the onus for a return to San Francisco next season on the team's brass. And Peter Magowan, the Giants' principal owner, shot right back and said Bonds' future here depends on the health of the aging team and, perhaps more importantly, that of the creaky outfielder.
In this chase toward Babe Ruth's spot in second place among home run hitters – by the way, Bonds missed No. 714 when Chicago's little center fielder, Juan Pierre, yanked a ball back from over the fence in the fifth inning Tuesday – everything has been garish. From Bonds' gonna-play-but-might-not flip-flopping to the signs hung by Philadelphia Phillies fans to the omnipresent cameras for Bonds' TV show, it's a Doberman's bark with a mosquito bite. To watch Bonds navigate the contract issue with the even-handedness of a diamond cutter was refreshing, even if it did reinforce the notion that he is some kind of conniver.
Naturally, both Bonds and Magowan ignored the crux of their burgeoning slapfest: It makes zero sense for Bonds to even think about leaving San Francisco, and it makes even less for the Giants to let him walk.
Bonds needs them. He needs their willingness to accommodate his diva tendencies and their proximity to his family, for even Clint Eastwood would ask for a shoulder on which to cry if he took the guff Bonds does. He needs their spin experts who do a decent job of cocooning him and their fans, the only people left in the baseball world who don't care that he might have hit hundreds of home runs while ingesting a cocktail of steroids.
They need Bonds. They need his star power to sell merchandise and his bat, no matter how much it has slowed, to win games. They need his flair for the dramatic and his march toward Aaron to keep selling out AT&T Park.
This relationship of symbiotic sleaze has gone on for years, through Bonds' 73-homer season and still after the steroid revelations. The Giants chose this course, and to all of a sudden act above Bonds would be disingenuous and laughable. Even Bonds, who could tarnish baseball's most cherished record, deserves better. His apologists would sniff out Magowan's duplicity in a second.
"This is my home, so I would hope [to return]," Bonds said. "But I don't want to get too excited too early and get crushed. I don't ever try to assume or predict."
Presumably, he could have neither assumed nor predicted Magowan's responses to a trio of questions posed after he was briefed on Bonds' comments.
Would he be willing to let Bonds become a free agent?
Could he fathom seeing Bonds possibly break Hank Aaron's all-time home run record with another team?
"It wouldn't be difficult."
Can he picture Bonds wearing another uniform?
Here's one that wasn't asked: What kind of moron slaughters his cash cow?
Magowan, a brilliant businessman, knows the answer: some special kind.
And stupid Magowan isn't. He was short and incisive intentionally. Barry wants to play hardball, huh? His agent tells Newsday that Bonds would likely return in 2007, then insinuates he could do so as a designated hitter. Fine. Don't let the door hit you.
"What am I supposed to say?" Bonds said. "I don't have another year on my contract, do I? If I don't get one, and I get one somewhere else, that's what I'll play."
Magowan's retort: "Can he play left field on a regular basis? As a DH playing for the Giants, that wouldn't make very much sense."
For all of Magowan's candor, Bonds showed impressive restraint. On four occasions, he responded to questions by pantomiming sealing his lips and locking them shut. Lounging in front of his TV that broadcast the Ms. Fitness World pageant, Bonds did talk about his reputation as a clubhouse cancer and his desire to race Ferraris around Italy and how, when he hits his 715th homer the horde of reporters hounding him will thin.
"Best [expletive] news I've heard since my kids were born," he said.
None of this 2007 chatter would be in play if Bonds didn't talk, too, about his injured knees and elbow. Though he still hobbles around like a 41-year-old with bad wheels, the rest of Bonds' body is catching up, evidenced by the mammoth home run he hit in Philadelphia.
"I get sore," he said. "I'm just recovering faster."
Without Victor Conte's help.
The only compelling reason for a divorce between Bonds and the team he's been with for 14 years would be his health. Bonds said he could play more than 150 games as a full-time DH, and, if the money were right, it might carry more appeal than limping in the Giants' outfield for 120 games.
How this plays out – civilly or curtly – should be quite the sideshow. Will Bonds fire back? Will Magowan stay on the offensive? Bonds said he'll know late in the season whether he wants to play in 2007, and Magowan said he won't decide on the structure of next year's team until the season is over.
Which means plenty of time for slapping.
"I'm not ruling out he'll be back here next year," Magowan said. "A lot will depend on what he wants and what he thinks is best for him. And some things will depend on what we think is best for the organization."
It was right there, plain and simple, on Tuesday. In the bottom of the seventh inning, following what looked to be Bonds' final at-bat, fans poured toward the exits. Bonds got another at-bat in the next inning, and after he flied out to right field, thousands more left before the 95th and final pitch of Jason Schmidt's complete-game gem.
They were there to see Bonds.
And if Magowan doesn't realize that in due time, he'll have a red face to go along with his crimson wrist.