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Bonding with Barry is difficult

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 22, 2001


Imagine Barry Bonds lifting his son toward heaven. Would you cheer?

Imagine him circling the bases in triumph, his fist pumping in the air, the fireworks going off in the distance. Would you care?

Imagine him stacking his home runs, one on top of another, until the total reached 71. Would you count along?

Every day, and every swing, the image becomes sharper. Every game, and every home run, it becomes easier to picture Bonds taking Mark McGwire's Magical Mystery Tour.

But would it be the same as '98?

Would we be the same?

Perhaps we will see. No one, not McGwire nor Sammy Sosa nor Roger Maris nor Babe Ruth, has begun a baseball season the way Bonds has started this one. He has played 71 games, and he has 38 home runs, and by the time you get to the next paragraph, he may have 40. He is on pace to hit 86 home runs, which is especially impressive when you consider he doesn't get as much as one at-bat against the Rays bullpen.

The summer has been claimed by Barry Bonds. Whether that makes you smile or scowl, whether it makes him smile or scowl, has not been determined.

If you remember -- and don't we all -- the best part of the summer of '98 was that by and large America loved both the grinning McGwire and the gleeful Sosa. They played off each other, one good guy trying to outperform another good guy, and the nation watched with delight. True, McGwire was the favorite, what with his comic book physique and the unbelieveable distances his bat propelled baseballs. But if Sosa, who brought joy into the race, had passed him on the final day of the season, who would have been disappointed?

On the other hand, no one has ever called Bonds gleeful.

Arrogant, yes. And abrasive and angry and talented and temperamental. Caustic and combative. But never gleeful.

This is the question of the moment: Is the country ready to embrace Bonds the way it did McGwire and Sosa? And if it tries, will Bonds respond as if it is attempting to strangle him instead?

For much of his career, Bonds has worked very hard at being unlikeable. He could be the most popular man in his sport -- hey, he has the most talent -- if he chooses. Instead, he has made it a point to keep people, including his teammates, at a distance. Once, in a slump, Bonds talked about how difficult it was struggling the way he was. Then he looked at a teammate and said, "You must feel like this all the time."

This has always been the shame of Bonds. He has a marvelous smile, but darned if he'll let you see it. He has great insights, but he isn't about to share them with you. He says he wants to be loved, then he refuses to allow it.

So would America cheer for Bonds?

Yes, if he would enable it.

Let's face it. Fans forget quickly, and they forgive easily. There is nothing like success to turn yesterday's villain into today's victim. In less than a half-season, the spin has gone from Bonds the Miserable to Bonds the Misunderstood. Already we have begun to try to understand Bonds, to figure out what we did to make him so unpleasant.

All Bonds has to do is keep hitting home runs, flash that smile a few times as if it were always there and act as if he enjoys that other creatures roam his planet. Do that, just that, and the public will fall in love. Heck, much of it will even stay up late to watch him play. The thing is, those who know him say the smiling and being nice would be harder on him than a good slider.

There is something about pressure that brings out the true nature in people. How would Bonds respond to hundreds of reporters gathered around the four lockers he has in the Giants' clubhouse? What if cameramen were crowding the leather recliner he has? What would he do with pro wrestlers in the on-deck circle? Would he give his uniforms to the fans who brought him his home run balls? Would he smile? Or would he snarl?

To give Bonds credit, he has said he is trying. Some of that seems to seep out every now and then. But is this the new Bonds? Or is it, as has been suggested, part of his drive toward a new contract?

According to Bonds, there is no reason to worry. He told the San Francisco Chronicle that he doesn't consider himself a threat to McGwire.

"Not a chance," Bonds said. "The gut feeling in my heart: I don't think so. I'm not Mark McGwire. I'm just not that powerful a hitter. Mark is so much stronger than I am. Even when Mark is tired, the ball goes 520 feet. When I'm tired, or a normal guy is tired, it goes 230 feet."

Believe that if you wish. Or look at his numbers and try to figure who is going to get Bonds out.

This is the summer of Barry Bonds. A nation waits to be won over.

If Bonds wants it to think of him as a good guy, the requirement is simple. . .

All he has to do is be one.

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