Gods must be crazy

August, 4, 2007
SAN DIEGO -- Man, the Baseball Gods are some capricious mugs.

Scott Hairston, Padres utility man, comes to the plate for his ninth at-bat of the week, hitting a robust .212 coming into the night, and they grant him a dramatic, game-tying three-run home run to left in the eighth inning and an even more dramatic game-winning home run in the bottom of the 10th.

Barry Bonds, the Giants' Mr. Everything, comes to the plate with 754 home runs in his hip pocket and seven MVPs on his resumé, and they send him begging with an 0-for-4.

"Home runs are mysterious things," Ryan Klesko told me before the Giants-Padres game Thursday night. "They come in streaks and bunches, and then they go away and you wonder if they're ever coming back."

Bonds is a confident cat, but he must be wondering, just a little ...

Before the game Thursday night you could hear him taking cuts in the cage, every heavy crack from behind the door an effort to find the groove, every tight-lipped grunt a signal of his frustration.

Truth is, there may be no mystery to his current homerless streak.

"He's just all out of whack," a major league scout told me in Los Angeles this week. "He's not keeping his shoulder down. He's pulling off. He's trying too hard."

If that's true, Giants manager Bruce Bochy can understand his slugger laboring at times. "He's approaching the biggest record of all time ­- there's got to be some pressure there," he said Tuesday. "It's a drain."

The line between feeling it and pressing is razor thin, and cool and accomplished as he is, there are moments this week when it looks like Bonds wants it, wants this thing over, wants the questions to stop, wants to see his name at the top of the list, maybe too much to get it done. Too much to stay within himself. Too much to find and trust the swing that's served him so well over the years.

It's weird to see. It's un-Barry-like.

"I see him expanding the strike zone this year just a little, and I've never seen that before," Padres catcher Josh Bard told me Friday. "I think he just wants to get this thing over with. It's got to be stressful."

If he is stressed, don't expect it to last.

Bonds has looked better in batting practice the last two nights, driving balls to the opposite field, and stringing together two or three souvenirs at times. He just missed on a few Greg Maddux offerings Friday, and he hit a ball hard to right field both Thursday and Friday night. You can feel him getting closer.

Trust me, gods willing and the creek don't rise, won't be long now. And you'll think he's every bit the hitter Scott Hairston is.

Bonds at home in L.A.

July, 30, 2007
Dodger Stadium will be a vortex of venom Tuesday night. Barry Bonds continues his pursuit of sports most hallowed record as the San Francisco Giants open a three-game series against their long-standing rivals.

The booing will be swift, decisive and unrelenting. Yet, the seven-time Most Valuable Player has a certain fondness for the place his Southern California brethren call home.

"Dodger Stadium is the best show I ever go to in all of baseball," Bonds said in February 2005. "They say, 'Barry sucks' louder than anybody out there. You know what, you've got to have some serious talent to have 53,000 people say you suck. And I'm proud of that."

He'll get his wish.

Barry, Mickey, Goofy ...

July, 26, 2007
Barry Bonds relaxed before Thursday's game by serving as the pitcher in the Giants' annual family game. Asked how many such games he's participated in as a father and as a son, Bonds said, "A lot.

"When my dad played for the Angels in Anaheim, we played against the Disney characters. They had a fashion show for the wives, and then they had us play the Disney characters."

So did he get any hits off Mickey? Or did they bring in Goofy to face the left-hander? How long did it take the umpire to eject Donald for arguing? (And most importantly, did any of the dwarves get angry when Barry called them midget men?)

"I don't remember who pitched to me. I just remember some girl chasing me on the bases," Bonds said, speculating that the girl in question was probably Alice in Wonderland or Cinderella. "I was a little boy, and she was a girl, so of course I ran away from her."

Maybe Bonds needs to face some Disney characters now. Despite being very relaxed and rested from a day off, Bonds went homerless again Thursday. He popped out to third, fouled out to the catcher, flied out to left and doubled when Atlanta outfielders misplayed a flyball. He still is two home runs shy of Hank Aaron's record.

Before the game, Bonds talked extensively about a range of subjects. He commented on the equipment used by old-time players -- the heavy bats and small, clumsy gloves -- saying there is no way pitchers could have been throwing as hard then as they do now if hitters could make contact with those heavy bats.

He said baseball's modern era began with Jackie Robinson in 1947.

"When baseball integrated, that's when it became the national pastime," he said. "Before that, it was just a bunch of different leagues. You had a white league and a black league."

Asked whether he discounted pre-1947 statistics, Bonds said, "I don't discount anything. It's just different times. Different eras. It was just a different league."

Bonds also outlined his family tree, which includes his father, Bobby, and his aunt, Rosie Bonds-Kreidler, who was a hurdler in the 1964 Olympics, as well as a boxer, a football player, a martial arts instructor, a pool shark and a wolf trainer (wolf trainer?). "You have that many athletes in your family, you're bound to get one that is better than all the others."

Bonds takes a shot at Costas

July, 26, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO -- On a positive note, Barry Bonds refrained from commenting on Tim Russert's weight, Ted Koppel's hair or Keith Olbermann's height.

Bob Costas, though?

"You mean that little midget man who absolutely knows [expletive] about baseball?" Bonds told four reporters when asked before Wednesday's game whether he had seen Costas' HBO show in which the broadcaster interviewed chemist Patrick Arnold. "He never played a game? I saw it."

Or maybe he didn't actually see the show. Bonds said after Wednesday's game that he had not seen the show, though he had "heard about it." Walking out of the clubhouse, Bonds said, "Bob Costas can kiss my ass. He's not an athlete and he doesn't know [expletive] about baseball."

And so Bonds' mouth did not take the night off when manager Bruce Bochy gave his body a rest. Bonds played all 13 innings of Tuesday night's game, and Bochy said the slugger needed a break Wednesday. "The last time we played an extra-inning game, he needed three days off," Bochy said. "I'm trying to avoid that again."

Bochy said Bonds most likely will be in the lineup for Thursday's late afternoon game, but a decision will be made in the morning. "This is not a case where I can see two days ahead of time," Bochy said. "I'm just going day-to-day."

Bonds remains two home runs shy of Hank Aaron's record and would have to hit three home runs in the next four days to break the mark this homestand, but he has just eight home runs in the past 10 weeks. The Giants have a six-game road trip to Los Angeles and San Diego following this homestand, then have another seven-game homestand after that.

After not speaking with reporters the first two days of this homestand, Bonds spoke briefly with a couple reporters just before the Giants' clubhouse closed before the game. When he was done insulting Costas, a highly respected broadcaster who has spoken and written eloquently about baseball for more than two decades, Bonds said he has never seen Arnold "in my entire life. I've never heard of the man. Never." He also said he felt fine.

By the way, Atlanta first baseman Julio Franco, who is almost six years older than Bonds, played all but the final five outs Tuesday and was back in the lineup Wednesday.

"Barry and I are two different men," said Franco, who turns 49 next month. "I'm not taking anything away from him. We're two different men. And one difference is he plays left field and I play first base. He has to run all the way to left field [or back] 18 times a game -- I just have to go out to first base. … And I don't have to run after fly balls, either."

A feat without fervor

July, 25, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO -- 1967. San Francisco. The Summer of Love. Jerry Garcia strolled Haight Street, spawning a collection of beatniks and anti-war sentiment.

Forty years later, San Franciscans once again are celebrating. However, as Barry Bonds inches toward Hank Aaron's all-time home run record, his impending accomplishment does not resonate outside of the Bay Area. There is no national movement. Only white noise.

With the Giants 16 games under .500 and buried in National League West cellar entering Wednesday's game, Bonds' pursuit of sport's most hallowed record is a hollow one. It certainly lacks the depth and euphoria surrounding Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive game played record in 1995.

The controversies surrounding Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and NBA referee Tim Donaghy notwithstanding, many scribes believe the lack of national interest in the seven-time Most Valuable Player is equal parts prickly personality and off-field legal issues. Cue the music.

Bud's in the house

July, 25, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO -- Such is the state of sports in the past week that Bud Selig suddenly finds himself in an unfamiliar spot. He's finally the commissioner with the least amount of controversy in his lap.

No umpires are under investigation for fixing scores in his league. None of his players have been charged with running dogfighting rings. And best of all, it's been weeks since Donald Fehr last publicly complained about how underpaid the players are.

On the other hand, Selig does have this one little nagging issue: Barry Bonds is about to break Hank Aaron's all-time record. Under normal circumstances, such an event should be cause for celebration, with big numbers hanging on warehouse walls, families tying yellow ribbons around old oak trees, and sailors kissing nurses in Times Square. But because of the surrounding circumstances -- did Bonds use illegal performance enhancers on his way to the game's most cherished record? -- it is a murkier situation. For months the commissioner refused to even say whether he would show up for the historic moment, saying he would wait for the "appropriate time" to make his decision.

That appropriate time turned out to be Monday night while he sat at home in Milwaukee watching Bonds and the Giants play on TV.

"I felt it was the right thing to do," Selig said of joining the Bonds chase Tuesday in San Francisco. "I decided I would rather be here than sitting at home watching the game on TV and listening to my wife grumble about me watching the game on TV."

That's hardly a ringing endorsement of Bonds -- I'd rather watch Barry break the home run record than listen to my wife nag -- but it will have to do for now. Selig said he will watch the next couple games here in San Francisco, fly to Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame induction this weekend, then "probably" rejoin the home run chase if Barry hasn't broken the record by then.

He could be in for a long road trip. Tuesday was Barry's birthday, and he looked every bit his 43 years. He grounded out in his first at-bat, singled his second time up, struck out looking his third time up on a beautiful pitch, popped up in the ninth, struck out looking again in the 10th, and walked in the 13th. He let an easily catchable fly ball drop in for a single in Atlanta's three-run fourth inning but made a nice sliding catch in the 10th.

Bonds has eight home runs in the past 10 weeks. At that pace, the record home run might not come until San Francisco's next homestand in two weeks.

Manager Bruce Bochy said he would wait to see whether Bonds needs a day off Wednesday.

Selig released an official statement announcing his decision, in which he went out of his way to say that "every citizen is innocent until proven guilty." What is interesting about that is Bonds hasn't been charged with any crimes.

A baseball official confirmed that Ari Fleischer, the former presidential press secretary, had a hand in crafting it. When you call in a presidential spokesman to release a statement about someone in a plastic helmet hitting baseballs, you know people are taking things a little too seriously.

Selig declined to say whether he will take part in an on-field celebration when the record is broken, deferring the decision to the Giants. Asked whether his presence is an endorsement of Bonds, he replied, "Everyone has to make their own evaluation on that."

Which is the way it should be. Whether you support Bonds or not, you don't need the commissioner's endorsement or approval. Make up your own mind, then root or boo as you see fit. As Selig himself put it, "I always say to all of you that the focus should be on the field. And whether the commissioner is there won't change the fate of the western world."

So it isn't crucial that Bud be here, but it is good the commissioner is on hand now. After all, he and everyone else credited the pumped-up Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa for "saving baseball" in 1998 and increasing the game's popularity, so it would be hypocritical to distance ourselves from such players now.

Smoltz's 'how-to' guide

July, 24, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO -- After two decades of facing Barry Bonds, both as a starter and a closer, in the regular season and in October, John Smoltz has figured out the secret to pitching to the Man Who Will Be Home Run King. It's pretty simple. Be aggressive, make good pitches and have a Hall of Fame arm.

Smoltz has allowed eight home runs against Bonds in his career (not including a rather infamous home run in the 2002 playoffs), tied for the most all time. But the last two of those home runs were in one game in August 1998, back when Smoltz had more hair and Bonds had a smaller batting helmet. Bonds has hit 356 home runs since then, none off Smoltz.

"I learned that you can't set him up, and that's been the difference," Smoltz said Monday night after holding Bonds to two groundouts and a walk in the opener of a seven-game homestand for the Giants. "You don't have to knock him down. You don't have to hit him because you can't get him out. You just have to make good pitches."

Smoltz walked Bonds on a 3-2 pitch in the first inning, got him to ground out on an 0-2 pitch in the fourth and got another grounder on a 3-2 pitch in the sixth (Bonds singled off reliever Rafael Soriano in the eighth inning). "These are pretty good fans here, and I didn't want them following me back to my hotel if I walked him three times," he said. "These fans deserve to see him hit it here."

If Smoltz worried about walking Bonds, just imagine what the reaction would have been had an errant inside slider on a 1-1 pitch in the sixth inning hit Barry in his tender knee and knocked him out of the lineup two home runs shy of Aaron's record.

"You have to get yourself away from thinking like that," Smoltz said with a smile. "You have to pitch to him."

Bonds celebrates his 43rd birthday today and is still in a fairly deep slump. He hit two home runs Thursday at Wrigley Field but has just a single in nine at-bats since then and is 4-for-36 since the Fourth of July. He has hit two home runs on his birthday in the past, including a dramatic walk-off homer in 2003. This will be the first time he has played on his birthday since 2004.

Bonds arrived at the ballpark just before batting practice when his teammates were going out to stretch. "I don't want Barry on his legs during batting practice," manager Bruce Bochy said. "I don't want him out there running down balls -- that's the last thing you want."

Smoltz said there is an aura to pitching to Bonds as he closes in on the record. "Facing him is like being in the playoffs -- I couldn't face every batter like that," he said. "When you're facing Barry, it's like you're pitching in a tunnel and focused completely on him. That's no disrespect for anyone else, but you just can't face everyone like that in a game."

Of course, the biggest secret to success against Bonds is not facing him in the first place. Barry has 17 plate appearances against Smoltz in the past decade, compared to 70 in the previous 11 seasons.

"The biggest thing I'm proud of is that I've been smart pitching to him, but that I've also challenged him," Smoltz said.

Media following shrinks

May, 26, 2006
SAN FRANCISCO -- Remember the hit song by Three Dog Night: "One." If Barry Bonds doesn't hit home run No. 715 during the weekend series against the Rockies beginning Friday night at AT&T Park, he is about to find out one is the loneliest number.

The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times are the only two national newspapers with reporters still assigned to covering Bonds. In fact, there is no assigned seating in the press box for the first time all month.

The Giants open a three-game series against the Marlins on Monday in Miami. Monday is also Game 4 of the NBA's Eastern Conference finals. Pistons-Heat. In Miami. The Marlins have the lowest average home attendance in the major leagues: a mere 11,404 fans per game.

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays have the second-lowest average home attendance with 16,513 fans a game -- 45 percent more than the Marlins.

While Bonds may be the opening act, Three Dog Night may close the show. Tickets are available.

McGwire vs. Bonds 

May, 24, 2006
SAN FRANCISCO -- The difference between Barry Bonds chasing 715 and Mark McGwire's chase of Roger Maris' single-season home run record in 1998 is in stark contrast.

McGwire's chase was a celebration of the game. Bonds' seems more like a big drag. The obvious difference is all the evidence that has emerged in recent years over alleged steroid use by Bonds. That and Bonds' prickly attitude over the decades seems to be turning fans away.

McGwire is no longer viewed as the savior he was hailed as back in 1998, especially after the way he came off during last year's Congressional hearings on performance-enhancing drug use within baseball.