For all his considerable accomplishments in baseball—332 home runs, 461 stolen bases, five seasons with 30 or more of both—Bobby Bonds remains curiously underappreciated. His reputation was, in the final analysis, a casualty of the unfairly high expectations he shouldered and of the inevitable comparisons he suffered playing alongside a more famous teammate. Blessed with extraordinary speed and power, Bonds was trumpeted as "the new Willie Mays" when he joined the San Francisco Giants as a rookie outfielder in the late 1960s, even though the old Willie Mays was still very much a presence playing alongside him in the Giants' outfield.
In a 1970 game at Candlestick Park against the Cincinnati Reds, there was a play that seems, in retrospect, symbolic of Bonds's often frustrating career. With Mays playing center and Bonds in right, the Reds' Bobby Tolan hit a long drive to right center that Bonds and Mays chased, neither calling off the other because neither appeared to have much chance of reaching the ball before it sailed over Candlestick's wire fence. Both leaped high, colliding in midair, but it was Mays who came down with the ball in his glove despite having been knocked unconscious by the collision. Mays later rated that catch as superior to the fabled over-the-shoulder grab he made to rob Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series. Bonds, unashamedly, was the supporting act.
For much of his 14-year career, Bonds was oppressively accused of failing to live up to his apparently vast "potential," a word he grew to despise. Ever the practical man, he accepted the criticism, arguing that Mays excepted, few players ever did achieve the potential assigned to them by overzealous reporters. He dismissed comparisons with Mays as absurd. "A guy like that you can't follow," he would say. He had fun with the very notion of a "new" or the "next" Mays, describing himself as the first of that hapless breed. In fact, he and Mays became fast friends, Bonds crediting the older man with motivating him as a player.
Mays became the godfather of Bonds's son Barry, a boy who was romping in the Giants' clubhouse when he was four years old, playing catch with his father. It is perhaps a final irony that Barry Bonds should exceed the expectations once heaped on his father and be destined to surpass his godfather's home run feats—and that Bobby should be known in his final years as "Barry's dad."
The father became the clubhouse visitor, presiding, as he once did as the Giants' batting coach, over his son's amazing achievements. And it has been in the last few months that Bobby is finally gaining acclaim long overdue. Stricken with lung cancer nearly a year ago, he had heroically endured heart and brain surgeries and debilitating chemotherapy, often returning to Pac Bell Park for the last looks at the inheritor of his skills. Barry himself has frequently called attention to his father's courage. And as the son continues to topple records, researchers have discovered that the old man was himself a superior player and that his reputation as an underachiever was unfair.
Bobby saw Barry play for the last time on Aug. 20, at Pac Bell. He died three days later at 57, years shy, tragically, of his potential for a long life.