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How far can power take him?

As he chases Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds also is taking note of his evolving image.

[AP photo]
Barry Bonds connects off Paul Abbott in the first inning in Seattle on the home that also lifted him into the Top 10 all-time.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 13, 2001


SEATTLE -- The quest is real, the results are attainable. Just not in ways you might have imagined.

The second half began anew Thursday and, with it, returned the examination of Barry Bonds. The talk will be of pace, as if hitting home runs were akin to watching a metronome. The comparisons will be to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, as if Bonds is already there.

Bonds is chasing history, all right, but it is not McGwire's. At least not as far as he is concerned. With each long ball he hits, San Francisco's enigmatic slugger says he is catching up to another piece of his past.

For Bonds, it is not a matter of how many he will hit. Instead, it is a question of how many will it take?

How many home runs are required for a man's image to evolve from moody to loveable?

Bonds is riding a wave of good cheer. He is enjoying a rare moment of nearly universal praise, even if he is not entirely trustful of it.

"You guys are the ones who have changed. Not me. You created this image of me and now you are changing it," Bonds told reporters during an All-Star Game interview. "Whatever the reason is, I don't know. But it will be interesting what happens when I stop hitting home runs. Do I revert back to something else when I don't hit as many home runs?"

He begins the second half with 39 home runs, which is the same number he had more than two weeks ago. Technically, he still is on a pace to eclipse the 70 McGwire hit in 1998. Realistically, the odds are long.

Bonds, who turns 37 this month, never has hit 50 home runs in a season. McGwire hit homers like Babe Ruth. Bonds hits them like Hank Aaron.

His strength has been in his consistency. Bonds is considered perhaps the greatest all-around player of his era, but he never was pigeonholed as a power hitter. Bonds hit for power, but he also hit for average. He was a Gold Glove fielder and a stolen-base threat. His prowess at the plate largely is attributable to incredible bat speed, but also a terrific eye and discipline.

And that might harm his quest for 70 home runs. The hotter he becomes, the less likely pitchers will throw strikes. Bonds probably would have to expand his strike zone, and that might limit his effectiveness.

"He has the ability to hit that many home runs, but will they let him do it?" Tampa Bay designated hitter Greg Vaughn said. "Every time you look at him, he's getting one, two, three walks a game."

He finished the first half on a 13-game homerless drought. The lack of productivity seemed to coincide with Bonds' attempt to be more accommodating with the media. This convergence did not go unnoticed by Bonds. He said the constant talk of the home run chase has left him mentally drained.

This dry spell also has done more than hamper Bonds' chances of catching McGwire. It has evoked memories of a player who often wilted when the spotlight was brightest. In more than two dozen post-season games with the Giants and Pirates since 1990, Bonds has hit .196 with one home run and six RBI in 97 at-bats.

How many home runs are required to erase the perception of a player who does not handle pressure well?

"People have made it out to be an individual person playing the Atlanta Braves," Bonds said. "It was never a Pirates versus Braves series. You've made it Barry Bonds against any playoff team he's facing. Tell me how many games has Randy Johnson won in the playoffs? Mike Piazza is hitting like .200 in the playoffs. The big-name players are not the ones who win the series, because they're the ones the other team always tries to stop."

He often has cried about a lack of respect even though he has been one of the most-lauded players of the past decade. Bonds was voted MVP three times, yet there always is talk of a fourth that he narrowly missed.

He never has cashed in on endorsements like other superstars of his era -- like Ken Griffey, Cal Ripken or Alex Rodriguez -- but his often prickly personality is mostly at fault.

With a brilliant smile and mischievous glint, Bonds can be disarmingly charming. But only on his terms. Even among teammates, he never has been the most popular player in the clubhouse.

"Do you like everybody you work with?" Bonds fires back when asked about his relationship with teammates. "Well, me neither."

Bonds said this reinvention of his image the past two months -- to a kinder, gentler Bonds -- is strictly a media creation. Others, however, see a difference in his approach. It is not so much a change in his personality, but rather an attempt to divulge more of his personality.

"Basically, it's been there the whole time," Giants manager Dusty Baker said. "He lowered, or softened, the wall. It happens to people, like the mean dude in your neighborhood that wouldn't let you have any fruit. The closer he gets to heaven, he starts thinking, maybe I'd better cool out some."

Bonds is far closer to the end of his career than the beginning. This season, the next three months, could be his legacy in the game.

It was like that, to a great degree, with McGwire in 1998. Even though he was considered a tremendous power hitter, McGwire also was characterized as moody and his career was something less than it should have been because of numerous injuries.

Yet with each home run he hit in the summer of '98, his legend grew. And McGwire seemed to wrap his arms around an emerging image of this warm and kind-hearted giant.

Bonds insists his legacy is not part of his agenda this summer. He is playing for a World Series ring, not a record or a memory.

"People remember you the way they want to remember you," Bonds said. "It doesn't matter what I think about it. It's not my choice."

Hero or spoilsport?

How many home runs will it take?

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