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Can't beat him

Pitch to Barry Bonds, you lose. A walk is no good either. Either way, his power over pitchers is beyond argument.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published June 8, 2004

photoHOW DOES BONDS DO IT?
A look at that swing, along with some statistical breakdowns, in anticipation of Bonds’ first visit to Tropicana Field today. Go to graphic

ST. PETERSBURG - With Barry Bonds playing at Tropicana Field for the first time this week, the chances for damage are good.

To the back wall of the stadium, which has never been hit by a fair ball. To the video board, which hangs like a bull's-eye over the right-centerfield seats. To catwalks, which form a ringed target above the field.

And to the egos of the Devil Rays pitchers and the reputation of manager Lou Piniella.

"What's amazing is if you pitch to him and he beats you, you get criticized, but if you walk him you still get criticized," Piniella said. "It's a no-win situation."

Bonds is obviously the best player in the game today, and arguably could be the greatest ever. But as he zeroes in on Hank Aaron's all-time home run record - with 674 he is 81 away - the question is raised if he is too good for his own good.

Tired of watching Bonds beat them, some teams have simply stopped giving him the opportunity. Rather than decide what type of pitch to throw him, they debate whether they should even bother to pitch to him.

In baseball shorthand - to BB, or not to BB.

"There's times when you have to pitch to him, and you better pitch to him carefully," said Twins reliever Terry Mulholland, who shares space at the top of the Bonds' hit list having allowed eight homers. "And there's times when you don't have to, and you probably shouldn't."

Then-Arizona manager Buck Showalter may have gone too far in 1998 when he intentionally walked Bonds with a two-run lead, two outs in the ninth and the bases loaded, though the strategy worked when the next batter lined out.

But more frequently teams aren't even trying to get Bonds out.

The intentional walk he drew as a pinch-hitter Monday in Colorado was his 43rd this season - more than any other team (and twice as many as any AL team) - and puts him on a season pace for 122, which would obliterate his record 68 from 2002.

Overall, he has walked 80 times in the 48 games he has played and is on pace to draw 227, which would also better his record (198 in 2002).

Some say pitching around Bonds is smart baseball. Others say it's something less ...

"This intentional walk stuff is a joke," said Rays TV analyst Joe Magrane, who gave up homer No. 107 to Bonds in 1990. "Why not go right after him and see what you're made of. It's a great test. ...

"History tells us he'll go down as the No. 1 home run hitter of all-time, but you also have to tell yourself of the 600-something plate appearances he's going to have, he's going to a home run at most, what, 70 times? So what are the odds of it happening to you?"

Noting the occasion of Bonds' first - and probably only - visit to the Trop, Piniella says the Rays don't plan to give Bonds any free passes.

"This is a business - and it is a sport - but it's also part entertainment too, and that takes away from the entertainment value," he said. "I don't think fans want to come to see us walk him intentionally every time he comes up, or three-quarters of the time he comes up. We hope to make our pitches against him."

For the most part ...

"If it's a game-winning situation late in the ballgame, obviously you're going to let somebody else beat you," Piniella said. "But with two outs and nobody on, we're not going to walk him intentionally, I can tell you that. Now, we do walk a lot of people here unintentionally."

Giants manager Felipe Alou has heard other teams say they would give Bonds a chance. "I'm looking forward to it," he said. "But they'll probably do the same thing (as others)."

None of the scheduled Rays starters for the series - Doug Waechter, Mark Hendrickson and Victor Zambrano - have faced Bonds, and they are eager for the challenge.

Waechter, who was 5 when Bonds broke into the majors, has allowed 15 home runs, third-most in the AL, but has made some mechanical adjustments to keep the ball down. He goes into tonight's start with the confidence - and naivete - to say he doesn't plan to do anything different.

"I'll just attack him like any other hitter," Waechter said. "You don't want to make a mistake. But if you make a mistake to any hitter in this league you get hurt. ... The way I've got to look at it is that it's going to be the same as any other game."

The bravado is expected, but the sage advice from Mulholland is that it can be a bad thing.

"If you haven't faced him a lot and you're young and you've got a lot of confidence in your fastball or whatever you're featuring, that can get you in trouble if you let your ego get in the way of your game plan," he said.

"There's a reason why he has put up the numbers he has put up in his career, and it's not because he's lucky. Unless you learn to respect his talent and his ability, you can cause yourself a lot of problems if you just ignore that and think you can dominate the guy. I'm not saying you can't get a fastball by him, but you have to be smart in how you pitch him."

Teams used to think there was a way to get Bonds out: fastballs in on his hands. "You can't do that anymore," Piniella said. "Those balls in San Francisco find their way into McCovey Cove."

Yankees star Gary Sheffield, a close Bonds friends, said there is a way to get Bonds out.

A way.

"You've got to pitch him inside and keep pounding him inside, and then hopefully he hits the ball foul and gets rushing at the plate, then you pitch him away," Sheffield said. "And that's about it. That's really about it."

The Rockies tried something like that over the weekend. Then they tried something else. By Sunday, when Bonds had been walked seven times but was 4-for-6 with two homers in his other at-bats, manager Clint Hurdle was talking about "Plan C."

"He gets to swing with a game on the line and the damage is done," Hurdle said this season. "They ought to have yellow-and-black striped tape around him when he comes out."

Rays outfielder Jose Cruz spent last season with Bonds as teammates in San Francisco, and he was impressed by Bonds' discipline and concentration, amazed at his performance.

"He's definitely the only guy I've ever seen that you think he's going to hit a home run every time up," Cruz said. "Every time. Not once do you think maybe he'll get a single or something."

During the games Cruz will be like every opponent, hoping Bonds doesn't hurt them. But during batting practice he plans to stay on the bench and watch.

The back wall, the scoreboard, the signs atop the Batter's Eye restaurant will all be in play. "You'll see balls you've never seen hit in there before," he said. "Everyone should watch him take BP. It's an impressive show. I've never seen anything like it."

- Times staff writer Antonya English and other news organizations contributed to this report.

[Last modified June 8, 2004, 01:01:17]

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