Baseball fans, the media and those with the arm strength to hurl syringes from the bleachers have all made their feelings known about Barry Bonds. For a different point of view, it might be wise to turn to a less jaded, if more impressionable crowd.
On a spring evening in San Francisco, the Giants are warming up to take the field at AT&T Park. A few miles away, at Ford Field in the Presidio, another set of Giants -- a team in the eight- to 10-year-old division of the San Francisco Little League -- has just finished practice. Christian Banks, 9, is sprinting around the bases, giggling and waving his glove in the air, as a pack of boys chase him, throwing their mitts in his direction and yelling "Tackle him! Tackle him!" The twin spires of the Golden Gate Bridge loom behind them above a line of eucalyptus trees.
Eventually the boys are corralled into a fidgeting semicircle. Most are wearing their orange-and-white uniforms, though some have opted for replica Giants jerseys. Shy at first, they gradually become excited to talk about their hometown team and its star. All but one of the boys say they are Giants fans, and all but two say they still like Bonds. Their feelings about his behavior, however, are not so favorable.
"He took drugs, and that's bad," says Christian.
Gabe Harlow, 9, holds up his hands as if grasping a beach ball. "You can tell," he says. "He has a huge head!"
The boys are unanimous in their feeling about Bonds's place in the record book. "He shouldn't keep the records," says David Immerman, a freckled 10-year-old, "because it wasn't him who hit the home runs. It was the steroids who hit them." Gabe agrees: "You need hard work and dedication to break records, not just drugs."
Asked to name their favorite Giants, the boys mention Randy Winn, Noah Lowry and J.T. Snow -- despite the fact that Snow is no longer on the team. Only Christian has seen Bonds on Bonds, the reality TV show (tellingly, Christian says it made him like Bonds more), and none have read Game of Shadows. A couple are aware of the book but can't name it. "The Slugger?" one boy guesses. "The Shadow of Bonds?" ventures another.
Across the Bay Bridge, in Albany, the feelings are much the same. At the Albany Village fields, the Cardinals are warming up for a game against the Braves in the 10- to 12-year-old division of the Albany Little League. Center fielder Paul Kennedy, 12, has been nicknamed "Bonds" because, as his father, Paul, explains, "they say all he does is hit." Junior offers his thoughts on Bonds. "I don't think he's a bad guy," he says, absent-mindedly massaging his mitt. "I don't hate him. I think people put pressure on him that sometimes makes him do bad things."
What about the records? "I think he should apologize," he says. "I think he should stay in the game as long as he knows that what he did was wrong. I still like his hitting. It inspires me a lot. Just the other day my friend asked me to come outside and play, but I told him I wanted to wait until Barry hit."
It's clear that while Bonds' prodigious skill at the plate remains alluring, the magic is gone. It's like finding out that the life-sized Mickey at Disneyland is really just a pot-bellied guy in a mouse suit. Francis Griffin, a seventh-grader at the Bentley School in Oakland Hills and a self-proclaimed "big Giants fan," admits to being conflicted about the prospect of Bonds' passing Hank Aaron's record. "I'd be a little happy and a little sad, kind of both," he says, "because I used to kind of like Barry Bonds. But now because of the steroids" -- he pauses, looks at the floor for a second -- "now it's different."