SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – On a day in which a federal court in San Francisco heard arguments about Barry Bonds' testicles, the San Francisco Giants assembled for their second year without him (and them). All the accoutrements of Bonds' past had vanished: the entourage that followed him, the throng that chronicled his every move and the fetid vibe that trailed a remorseless cheat.
Left is a baseball team, one with a halfway-decent chance in the National League West. With that, too, comes the opportunity to eradicate the final remnant of Bonds, the specter that still hovers after the franchise enabled him for 15 years.
"Barry still casts a presence," said Rich Aurilia, the longest-tenured Giant and Bonds' teammate for 10 seasons. "As an organization, until we turn it around and start winning again, there's always going to be that stigma there: We haven't won since then."
So it's true. As Bonds stands trial in San Francisco for perjuring himself in front of a grand jury – as Judge Susan Illston debates the merits of evidence and witnesses and, yes, the size of Bonds' berries, all vis-à-vis his alleged steroid use – he still hovers. Even though the Giants let go, and even though Bonds himself let go, the memory of him, of life with him, so ingrained itself into life as a Giant that it remains fresh if not fond.
To team with Bonds meant a life of contrasts. Giants players saw the special treatment afforded Bonds … and realized it was reserved for him, not any of them. They tried to play like none of the extra attention mattered … only to complain under their breath how it was such an unnecessary distraction. They witnessed history – 73, 660, 715, 755, 762 … and the chaos that accompanied – the BALCO raid, the steroid accusations, the denials, the brazenness ("Let them investigate," Bonds said) and the fact that the greatest hitter of this generation, maybe the greatest of any, would also be this century's Shoeless Joe.
"I got to see all the cool stuff happen," Tim Lincecum said.
The reigning NL Cy Young winner joined the Giants on May 6, 2007. Two days later, Bonds hit his 745th home run. Over the next three months, Lincecum watched Bonds chase and break Hank Aaron's record.
"I also saw how crazy it was," Lincecum said, "and I wasn't even here for the craziest part. So in a weird way, it was sort of a relief last year. After he was gone, we changed. We got young. It wasn't all about Barry."
Finally, the Giants mustered the fortitude to forge ahead without Bonds. He defined them for so long, without him the Giants struggled with their identity. Years and years of sacrificing the future for the present – giving away No. 1 draft picks to plug holes and try to win a championship with Bonds – left the Giants' farm system in shambles. For all the promise shown by Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez in the pitching rotation, the Giants' lineup struggled without Bonds, his familiar cleanup spot occupied most of the time by catcher Bengie Molina.
In Bonds' final season, they went 71-91. Last year, they finished one game better.
"It was a quick flush last year," Cain said. "A lot of the guys here hadn't even played with him. They didn't know what it was like.
"We can't wait for just one guy to do it all. And it's better that way. You're going to miss having his bat in the lineup. It's huge. But we're going to be able to cope with it."
To do so, San Francisco opened its coffers in free agency. Shortstop Edgar Renteria ($18.5 million for two years) and future Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson ($8 million for one year) offset the youth, Jeremy Affeldt ($8 million for two years) and Bob Howry ($2.75 million for one year) age the bullpen. And should Los Angeles and Manny Ramirez experience a falling out, the Giants could be his parachute – golden, of course.
Whether the Giants really want another selfish left fielder who writes his rulebook is a matter of how willing they are to compromise something from which they've worked so hard to distance themselves.
"We've moved forward here," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "We had to. Barry's obviously done so much to impact this organization. He had so much to do with their success. As far as now? No. We're in our second year."
Bochy sat silent for a moment.
"I didn't think I'd get a Barry question this year," he said.
Certainly he should know better. Fourteen players from the 2007 Giants were at their camp on Wednesday, each with a unique memory of Bonds and the indelible stamp he left, inadvertent though it likely was. They know he's fighting for his freedom, far from the days where his greatest foe stood 60 feet, 6 inches away, and yet they can't shake that ghost, not until they exorcise their own demons.
Bonds is gone. And he isn't.