The chair in front of Barry Bonds's lockers at Pacific Bell Park is big and black, a $3,000 Sharper Image leather recliner so large that it appears to block off one side of the San Francisco Giants' clubhouse. All other members of the team—no matter how well established—sit in dinky folding metal chairs, the kind found leaning against the back wall of high school auditoriums. Sometimes, when San Francisco scribes feel like taking a poke at Bonds's legendary ego, they will write about his four lockers and his Moby Dick of a recliner.
"You know, its just a massage chair," says Bonds, reclining three hours before a recent Giants home game, an ice pack on his neck as he glances at the movie showing on the 32-inch TV on the floor by his footrest. "Big deal. Junior had one in Seattle and nobody said anything. I have one and it's in the papers. But you know what? My teammates don't care. My manager doesn't care. You know why? Because I have bulging discs in my back. I'd be all locked up if I sat in those metal chairs all day. I might as well make sure my back is O.K. so I can perform at my best. Three years ago, I didn't need a special chair. But you get older. Things change." He pauses, adjusting the ice pack. "It stinks, but they do."
Bonds will be 36 in July. He has added an extra helping of stuffing in the cheeks and jowl since he won two National League MVP trophies with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1990 and '92 and a third with the Giants in '93. When he wakes up the morning after a night game, Bonds's body doesn't scream, Go get 'em! as it once did, but, Go get Advil! "There was a time I could play, then run around all night, then rise and play again," he moans. "Not anymore."
Bonds is not as fast as he was five years ago; a 40-stolen-base threat has become a 25-stolen-base threat. His left arm, an assault weapon once banned by the U.S. government, is now, following a triceps tendon tear that sidelined him for 47 games last season, just average. Worst of all, inside fastballs occasionally whoooosh through his swing and into the catcher's mitt. "He still has bat speed," says Giants lefthander Shawn Estes, "but five, six years ago he was a lot quicker getting to the ball inside. He may have to cheat more now."
Like Skip, the hobbled family Lab doomed to be put out of its misery, nothing in sports is sadder to see than the crumbling superstar who, decimated by a couple of incisions and a few misplaced fat cells, has gone from Norm Cash to Casey Candaele, from Tom Seaver to Craig Swan. And it happens so quickly. Just scan Total Baseball: In 1982 a 36-year-old Reggie Jackson carried the California Angels to the American League West title with 39 home runs, 101 RBIs and a .275 average; in '83 those totals fell to 14, 49 and .194. Barry's father, Bobby, starred as a 33-year-old outfielder with the Cleveland Indians in 1979, hitting .275 with 25 homers, 85 RBIs and 34 stolen bases; the next season, with the St. Louis Cardinals, his numbers went into free fall (.203,5, 24,15), and his career was over.
Time—and baseball—can be cruel, but Barry Bonds isn't ready for a rocker quite yet. Although in the eyes of many he was displaced as the best player in baseball by Ken Griffey Jr. and was lost in the hype surrounding the Home Run World of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, Bonds remains one of the game's best all-around performers. Through Sunday he was second in the National League in home runs (19), third in slugging percentage (.785) and tied for third in runs (46). He also was hitting .313, had 38 RBIs and was tied for the team lead with five stolen bases. Plus, as his diving, eighth-inning catch of a Mike Lansing liner in a recent 5-0 win over the Colorado Rockies showed, Bonds continues to cover a good deal of ground. "I don't know how he's done it," says his manager, Dusty Baker, "but I truly believe Barry is a better overall player now than he's ever been. It's early, but he's an MVP candidate again. He's gotten older, slower...and tougher."
There is, says Estes, a "pure greatness" to Bonds that allows him to play by a slightly different set of rules. Before a day game in that same series with Colorado, as his teammates took 11 a.m. batting practice for a 1:05 start, Bonds—shoes off, arms folded—snoozed in his comfy chair, waking up just minutes before one. "He's got his own way of doing things," says second baseman Jeff Kent. "We don't worry about that as long as he produces, and, love him or not, Barry usually does."
Opponents are equally generous in their praise. "Where does Barry Bonds rank for me?" says New York Mets rightfielder Derek Bell. "Number 1. He's the best. There's more to the game than home runs. Barry's still out there hitting .300, driving in 100 runs, stealing bases. It's about putting up all-around numbers. Barry is the complete package."
"I love Junior and Mac and Sosa, but nobody is better than Barry," says St. Louis Cardinals utilityman Shawon Dunston, a former teammate of Bonds's. "He can pick up a team, carry it on his back and not put it down. He's not going to hit 70 homers, but he believes he can. That's frightening."
What drives Barry Bonds? In a rare moment of humility, he admits, almost sheepishly, that he's spurred on by the performance of younger stars such as New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, 25; Montreal Expos rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero, 24; and Kansas City Royals rightfielder Jermaine Dye, 26—players who grew up watching Bonds. In San Francisco, however, there are many other theories about what motivates him: