Monday, September 27, 2004

Barry: More!

Barry Bonds will play for the San Francisco Giants two more years at least, in a contract agreement announced just after he hit his 700th career home run. Only two other players in the history of the game have hit more homers, and it will probably take him until early next season before he surpasses Babe Ruth (at 715), and maybe the season after that to become the all-time home run king with at least 756. (Eclipsing Hank Aaron. I believe I remember seeing Aaron hit his 715th or 716th on TV. Wasn't much of a shot, as I recall. Aaron was steady, stayed healthy and played a long time. Babe Ruth was a giant in his time. He hit more home runs some years than entire other teams.) Bonds is more than durable. He is still the most dominant player in the majors. If he stays healthy for two or even three more years, he'll have the record.

Since Barry hit his 703rd with about another week of this season left, it's within the realm of possibility that he might break Ruth's record, but it's unlikely. The Giants are in contention for both the division lead or a wild card for the playoffs, and especially with the division still unsettled, Bonds will be lucky to see 2 or 3 pitches a game that are hittable. This past week he was walked intentionally 4 times in one game (a record), and a total of 5 walks in another game. So he doesn't see many pitches in the strike zone at all. But he tends to hit them when he does. Since walks don't count as plate appearances, at one point he was 3 for 3 over 3 games: 2 triples and a home run.

What this takes---despite all the chatter about chemical enhancements, live balls and diluted pitching---is phenomenal concentration and a state of mental balance or calm that has to be closer to enlightenment, to "empty mind" as any of us will ever get, even for a few moments here and there.

Bonds has never been a favorite of the sports press, who don't like his "attitude," and criticize him for not talking to them as much as they'd like, and for being remote from his teammates, surly, lording over the locker room with his two lockers and easy chair. But his press conference comments after the 700th suggested what the price is for his success in terms of that concentration. Bonds keeps to his workouts and regimens, and tries to keep a mental calm and concentration on the game. It makes sense to me. Does the press really believe if he chatted with them every day about how it feels to be doing this or challenging that record, etc., that he would have lasted this long, and done so much?

When he does talk for the cameras he exhibits an engaging side that seems a genuine part of him. But to expect him to accomplish what he does every day, and be what the press want him to be, is the trap that too many people are invited to fall into, in the arts as well as sports.

And now he's done a few promos for the Giants and become a kind of poet of the game, talking about the smell of the grass and the dirt, the sound of the crowd, that this is his place of peace.

The Giants probably won't win the division, and though they may get into the playoffs as a wild card, they'll need a lot of good fortune to get far into them. Even with their hitters overachieving as they have been the past few weeks, and their starting pitchers giving them some stellar performances, their relief pitching may not be up to the challenge. But who knows? Barry Bonds may yet get the one prize that's eluded him: that World Series ring.

I missed seeing his 700th in real time (and like most of his landmark homers, he did it at home in San Francisco,) but I was watching on TV when he hit his 699th on the road. He'd been walked several times but when he came up in the late innings he had that look, like he was going to swing at anything close. And he was facing a young pitcher who clearly was going to pitch to him. Apart from the game situation, a young pitcher has to do this: he's got to test his arm against the best. If he strikes Barry out, he's got himself a rep. If Barry clocks one---well, a rookie pitcher may be permanently gone from the majors in a week (especially this late in the season, when rosters expand and minor league players are brought up for "a cup of coffee" look), so this may be his only chance to get in the record books.

This kid showed him some heat. Barry showed him how far a ball can go into dead center field, over the fence, above the stands, to the video screen above which at the time had Barry's picture showing, so he almost hit himself in the teeth. Barry taking a shot at his own image, wouldn't be the first time.

UPDATE 10/02 No More this year for Barry. After their pitiful bullpen couldn't preserve a 3-0 lead in the 9th inning yesterday, the Giants lost their chance at either the division title or the wild card berth. Barry ended up with the National League batting title, and is a strong candidate for Most Valuable Player, though that's getting rarer for a non-playoff team. He also nearly doubled his own record for the most intentional walks in a season. His home run total stayed at 703. Wait till next year.

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