In 10 at bats during three games at Atlanta's Turner Field on May 18,19 and 20, he hit six solo home runs off six counts (0 and 1, 3 and 2, 2 and 0, 3 and 0, 2 and 2, 0 and 0). Six days later Braves righthander Jose Cabrera, who served up the third of those blasts, sounded like an eyewitness to a gruesome car accident filling out a police report: "It's 2 and 0 and I want to try to make the guy hit the ball. But, wow—I remember it right now—the sound it made when he hit that ball. I mean, I didn't even have to look back."
Bonds can no longer stake claim to being the best overall player in baseball. He steals only one or two bases a month, and his defense, while still above average, has slipped from his spectacular standard of the mid-1990s. However, by embellishing his career with new levels of hitting excellence, Bonds has earned the right to be called the best player of his generation.
Yes, Bonds is haunted by October, as Dustin Hoffman is by Ishtar. He's a .196 hitter in 97 postseason at bats, with only six RBIs. Through Sunday, though, with 499 fewer regular-season at bats than Mantle, Bonds was approaching the Mick's marks in hits (2,415 for Mantle to 2,204 for Bonds), home runs (536 to 520) and RBIs (1,509 to 1,454) with plenty of baseball ahead of him. How much? That's a question for San Francisco and other clubs to ponder after the season, when Bonds is eligible for free agency. No player has hit more than Aaron's 163 homers after his 37th birthday—the last 22 of which occurred as a DH. The most for a player past 37 without any at bats as a DH are 130 by Williams.
Should Bonds want a contract longer than three years, he could wind up with an American League team. Otherwise, the Giants would love to have him back. It would likely mean paying him a record amount of money for a 40-year-old, with Dodgers ace righthander Kevin Brown having set the bar at $15 million (for 2005, the seventh and final year of his $105 million contract). Bonds hinted at his long-term plans after hearing of Jones's remark that he could make a run at Aaron's record 755 career homers. "Hell, no," Bonds said with his trademark bluntness. "I promise you from the bottom of my heart, I won't be in the game that long."
Meanwhile, Bonds is making the best salary run for a would-be free-agent hitter since, well, take your pick: Bonds in 1992, one of his three MVP seasons (after which he received a six-year, $43.75 million contract from the Giants), or Ramirez last year, when, as a Cleveland Indian, he became the first player to average more than an RBI per game in consecutive seasons since Joe DiMaggio in 1939 and '40. Well protected in a deep Cleveland lineup, not to mention a smaller, more provincial market, Ramirez accepted the risk of a more intense environment in Boston, not to mention $160 million over eight years.
Ever since Ramirez introduced himself to Red Sox fans by swatting the first pitch he saw at Fenway Park over the Green Monster, he's been treated like a regular at Cheers. What's not to like when he's batting .391, as Ramirez was through Sunday? Famously shy, Ramirez in two months might also have exceeded his eight-season Indians career total in media interviews.
"I wanted to change from how I was in Cleveland," he said last Saturday at Fenway, before a 5-0 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. "I'm trying to speak more, to be more relaxed and friendly. Sometimes I still do my work—my hitting—before I'll talk. But if I come back and the reporters are still here, I'll talk. Why not? It doesn't hurt me."
The 6-foot, 205-pound Ramirez is a dedicated craftsman who takes extra hitting, lifts light weights, jots notes on a small yellow pad while studying videotapes of his at bats and gobbles up an RBI or two like multivitamins. His 56 in 48 games through Sunday led the majors, and his career rate of 0.85 RBI per game is the sixth-best in history. There's no use in asking Ramirez to explain how he does it any more than it was to ask Sinatra how he summoned that voice. It is in his DNA. Ramirez has an RBI gene.
"I don't have a secret," he says. "If I don't drive them in, somebody else will. One thing: I never worry. One situation is more important than another? No. Every situation I approach the same. Hit the ball."
Given how scalding No. 3 hitter Bonds and cleanup man Ramirez have been, the question comes up: Will pitchers keep touching the stove? Neither player has benefited from a hot bat behind him in the lineup. Through Sunday the Giants' cleanup batters ranked 10th in slugging among No. 4 hitters in the National League, while the Red Sox' No. 5 hitters were 12th in the American League. "I think the main reason he's still seeing pitches [with the bases empty] is pride," says Toronto pitching coach Mark Connor of Ramirez. "Pitchers still want to try and get him out."