Would You Believe 80?
With five homers in his first four games, Giants slugger Barry Bonds seems set to prove that his home run record of a year ago was made to be broken
By Josh Elliott
Issue date: April 15, 2002
Awestruck opponents and slack-jawed teammates agreed that Barry Bonds was not, in fact, playing baseball for the San Francisco Giants last week. Though it appeared that the reigning home run king had picked up where he had left off last October, by mashing five home runs in the Giants' first four games, observers tended to see Bonds excelling at some other game. For instance, San Francisco first baseman J.T. Snow thought Bonds was "hitting golf balls," Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Hiram Bocachica felt he was "playing Nintendo," and San Diego Padres manager Bruce Bochy fancied him "playing Wiffle ball, with his bat so light in hand."
So went the search for an apt description for the frightening ease with which Bonds was dominating play. All the while the Giants were laying waste to the National League West and through Sunday were the only undefeated team (6-0) in the majors.
Aside from those big-league-leading five home runs -- which could easily have been eight, after a questionable foul call in Dodger Stadium on Opening Day and two warning-track fly-outs to Pac Bell Park's cavernous centerfield -- Bonds hit .538, drove in 11 runs, scored nine and drew seven walks, despite getting a day off on Sunday when San Francisco ripped San Diego 10-1. By then Bonds's statistically preposterous 2001 season (73 homers, 137 RBIs, 177 walks, .863 slugging percentage) was beginning to seem less a fluke than an appetizer.
"I'm shocked, as shocked as anybody," Bonds said last Friday, after hitting a two-run, game-winning shot off Padres reliever Alan Embree in the 10th inning of the Giants' home opener. Before the game Bonds was presented with an unprecedented fourth league MVP award, as eight past winners -- including Ernie Banks, Reggie Jackson and former Giants greats Willie Mays and Willie McCovey -- encircled him. Bonds's burgeoning legacy was almost palpable in the air. "Babe Ruth. Ted Williams. Henry Aaron. Sooner or later they'll have to end that [list] with Barry Bonds," said Jackson in his speech, as the Pac Bell throng exulted.
Two days before, Dodgers manager Jim Tracy admitted to having pondered Bonds's place among baseball's alltime greats during the middle of a game in which Bonds had his second consecutive two-homer day against L.A. The understated Bochy was similarly moved before last Saturday's game. "He's doing things that we've never seen in our era," Bochy said. "People wonder why anyone pitches to him, but Barry Bonds is actually being pitched to more carefully than anyone we've ever witnessed, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa included. Still, every pitch that's even close, he crushes." Added Padres closer Trevor Hoffman, "The guy's been in a groove for a year and a half. He sees a strike a game, and he kills it. It's a joke."
In sending everyone back to their Roget's in search of fresh superlatives, Bonds was also forcing teams to rewrite the book on Barry Bonds. Just look at how he foiled Los Angeles's plan to repeatedly bust him inside. "If you can go inside, you can get him out," Dodgers catcher Paul Lo Duca said last week. Moreover, L.A. figured to have a fairly good chance of containing Bonds, who was 10 for 56 with just two home runs and four RBIs in his career against the Dodgers' first two starters, Kevin Brown and Hideo Nomo.
Brown started things off by throwing Bonds three consecutive inside fastballs over his first two at bats (Bonds popped out to second base his first time up) before trying to sneak a slider down and away. Bonds knocked that pitch over the left centerfield wall. "We had him set up," Lo Duca said later, "but Brownie hung it over the plate. There's not a lot of margin for error. He makes you pay." That notion was soon seconded by lefthander Omar Daal, who relieved Brown in the fifth inning. On a 1-and-1 count, he delivered a chest-high inside curve, which Bonds sent soaring into the rarely reached loge level in rightfield at Dodger Stadium. "It looked like he was waiting for the inside pitch," said a perplexed Daal. "We have to do something different, not just go inside. I hope it's not going to be like that the whole year."
The next day Bonds demonstrated his ability to make pitch-to-pitch adjustments, something he does, according to Hoffman, "better than anyone in the league." In his first at bat Bonds, who'd struck out 10 times in 25 at bats against Nomo, flailed at a shoulder-high fastball, making the count 1 and 2. Lo Duca called for another inside fastball, hoping to set up Nomo's out pitch, the forkball. Bonds never gave them the chance, sending the fastball 443 feet into the rightfield pavilion. For good measure Bonds jumped on L.A. reliever Terry Mulholland's hanging slider three innings later, setting off a barrage of highlight-show quips about his 324-homer pace. "The best plan of attack is to do your job before he gets up, so you can pitch around him," Mulholland said. "It sounds like the easy way out, but it's a hell of a lot better than a home run."
One reason Bonds is so far ahead of the pitchers is that his rigorous off-season training program is paying immediate dividends. Along with his usual regimen of weightlifting and running, he has developed a drill with his father, Bobby, that Barry believes allows him to make better use of his superior eyesight and patience at the plate. Wearing a fielder's glove on his left hand instead of holding a bat, the lefthanded-hitting Bonds steps into the batter's box and mimes his swing as his father pitches to him. When Barry rotates through, he stops upon squaring to the ball and catches the pitch with his gloved left hand. He says that allows him to relax while waiting for the pitch, instead of tensing up, and that makes it possible for him to see the ball as if it's coming in slow motion.
Has it worked? After giving up Bonds's game-winner last Friday (on an 0-and-1 breaking ball, up in the strike zone), Embree said, "Barry squares to the ball better than anyone. He gets the meat of the bat on everything, and he never misses. When he hit that ball off me, it was like slow motion for him."
The notion that another season-long media barrage will slow Bonds doesn't appear likely either. He actually seemed to be enjoying the spotlight last week. "Just two years ago I was kind of written off," he said after last Friday's game. "Now I've almost forgotten what it's like to have a quiet life."
When Giants manager Dusty Baker was asked to assess Bonds's burst from the gate, he looked as if he had just bitten into a rotten plum. "Look, I've got to be honest -- there is no explanation," he said, just as a whoop erupted from the gawkers at the batting cage. Baker paused to watch as a batting-practice pitch hit by Bonds disappeared over the wall and then just nodded his head before adding, "There's no way to explain it. No way. This is something else entirely, something we have to accept. Barry's really this good."
Issue date: April 15, 2002