And what of Bonds, you ask? Is he baseball hardened too? Yes. More than anybody.
The surefire Hall of Famer is entering the 18th year of a magnificent career filled with individual achievement, and although last season he came within one victory of reaching what he has repeatedly called his one true desire, the world championship slipped away. Some will remember the mighty slugger hitting .471 against the Anaheim Angels, launching four monstrous homers in seven Series games. Yet if you are seeking a lasting image, a Barry Bonds World Series postcard, perhaps it was his final sighting of 2002: sitting in the dugout alone, forlorn, as the Angels celebrated on the field.
His emotions at that moment were understandable. At 38, had he lost his last chance at a championship? He had been surrounded by more talent than ever before, most notably the equally moody and nearly as productive Kent, the first second baseman to drive in 100 runs for six straight seasons. By himself Bonds, for all his ability, could carry a team only so far. With Kent, his antagonist and slugging partner, the sky was the limit. And now, after the Giants had blown a three-games-to-two lead, the sky had fallen.
No more than a week after the World Series, San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean knew that the Giants would present a drastically revamped lineup in 2003, with Bonds still in the middle but surrounded by a new candy coating. Centerfielder Kenny Lofton and rightfielder Reggie Sanders were free agents, and when both made it clear that they would return to Pacific Bell Park only if given multiyear deals, they were as good as gone. Lofton was 35, temperamental and a shell of the player who had won four Gold Gloves. Sanders, also 35, was a good guy in the clubhouse but prone to injuries and slumps. "They made their positions clear," says Sabean, in his seventh season as San Francisco's G.M. "This is a business—a rough business." Third baseman David Bell was also a free agent—and one of Sabean's favorite players—but when the Philadelphia Phillies offered him $17 million over four years, Sabean let the journeyman walk. And then there was Kent.
Soon after the World Series was over, Kent, the 2000 National League MVP, told the Giants that he would test the free-agent market no matter what the Giants offered. Sabean says that this was the beginning of the end, though in fact that may have come last March, when Kent was caught lying to the team and the press about the cause of his broken left wrist. Kent said he had slipped while washing his truck, but witnesses said he had fallen off his motorcycle. The public dispute was ugly. The team's front office launched a full-scale investigation, and when the facts came out, Kent was torched by the media and criticized by Sabean. The second baseman was not on good terms with either party again. "I wasn't optimistic," Sabean says of re-signing Kent. "I knew that no matter what offers we made to Jeff, he wasn't going to sign immediately. He was determined to see what was out there, but we weren't going to wait around. We had work to do." Kent signed with the Astros in December.
In San Francisco the general manager has to weigh every personnel move against the impact it will have on one man: Bonds. He is the franchise—the best, highest-paid and most demanding player on the team as well as the biggest attraction in the game. Before he could construct a new lineup around Bonds, however, Sabean first had to replace manager Dusty Baker, who after 10 seasons had left for the Chicago Cubs. Reportedly jealous of the skipper's popularity and the amount of credit Baker had received for the Giants' success, owner Peter Magowan had made little effort during or after the season to sign him to a new contract. After the Series, Sabean acted fast, hiring former Montreal Expos manager Felipe Alou, 67, in November and giving him a two-year contract with a third-year mutual option. The mild-mannered Alou was appealing for a myriad of reasons, but first and foremost was his long friendship with Bonds.
Alou and Bobby Bonds, Barry's father (who was found last year to have lung cancer, another matter weighing heavily on his son this spring), knew each other from their playing days in the 1960s and '70s, and when Alou broke in as a manager in the early '90s, Bonds always sought him out before games against Montreal. "He would talk to me about hitting, about life in the big leagues," says Alou. "Sometimes he would joke, 'How are you guys going to pitch me?' " Sabean knew that like Baker, Alou wouldn't rock Barry's boat. The last thing San Francisco needed was the my-way-or-the-highway approach of a Buck Showalter or a Bobby Valentine. Barry wants a $3,000 leather recliner in front of his, ahem, three lockers? Fine. Barry doesn't want to take BP? Fine. Barry needs his own p.r. staff on the field? Fine. "I know that superstars operate at a different altitude," says Alou. "If you mess with that, you might end up with a superstar who's no longer a superstar. Barry is a very special player. He deserves to be treated as such."
With Alou's input, Sabean replaced the players around Bonds, building a lineup that should produce a higher on-base percentage and, consequently, more RBI opportunities. (Over the last two years Bonds hit 119 homers, but 75 were solo shots.) Although Alfonzo, Cruz, Durham and Grissom combined for 25 fewer homers and 61 fewer RBIs than Bell, Kent, Lofton and Sanders totaled last year, the newcomers put together a higher batting average (.281 to .273) and OBP (.355 to .345), two areas in which Sabean wanted his team to improve. What's more, except for Alfonzo, who will bat fifth behind Bonds, each of the new guys has stolen at least 32 bases in a season. "We will definitely have an exciting element that wasn't as prominent last year," says Sabean. "We've added some players who know how to make an impact with their speed."
Factoring in deferred payments, the combined salaries of Alfonzo, Cruz, Durham and Grissom are approximately $12 million this season. The Astros are paying Kent $7 million. Unlike Kent, however, San Francisco's four newcomers have not been MVP candidates lately.