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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
It is warm, way too
warm for spring in San Francisco. At seven in the evening in May, it's
70-something and sunny, like some Al Gore nightmare come to life. People arrive
at AT&T Park suspicious of the weather, in jeans and a sweatshirt, fleece
and khakis, as if this were the old Candlestick and winter might descend in a
And here he comes, swaggering to the plate, thick arms encased in plastic armor, a familiar grimace creasing his wide face. Even at 42, he has remarkable presence, one of those athletes whose mere physicality is awesome to behold, especially once he's into his batting stance, all coiled power, the bat flicking above his head, a fuse sizzling. Every pitch is dramatic, infused with promise.
It is impossible not to watch, but not as impossible as it once was. Three, four years ago, time stopped when Bonds stepped to the plate. Now it just slows. Some still cheer, of course. In the centerfield bleachers two scruffy men in Giants jerseys stand and holler, their drooping guts rolling as they turn side to side. They wave their arms and roar, fueled by $8 beers and God knows what else. "Baaa-reee! Baaa-reee!"
Their enthusiasm is not contagious, though, not even to the guy in the leftfield bleachers who wears the replica jersey that reads bonds above the number 756. To those outside the Bay Area this may be hard to believe. Why wouldn't they be going nuts? Having played in only 144 games and hit just 31 home runs over the last two seasons, Bonds was expected to back into this record, maybe by Labor Day, muddling along as a glory-seeking baseball invalid. But instead, this? Two home runs a week, sometimes three. Monster blasts. Pitchers avoiding him, like in the old days. The familiar lethal swing. Gaudy statistics--11 homers at week's end, 745 for his career. At this rate he'll top Hank Aaron's 755 in mid-June. At this rate he'll be the most feared hitter in all of baseball again. Maybe he already is.
But in San Francisco they are accustomed to his excellence. So the hype comes from elsewhere, imported from faraway studios where broadcasters rant breathlessly. Here, they are patient. There are so many Bonds swings, and have been so many over the last 15 years, that an early-inning at bat in May does not merit mania. Real passion? That can be found on the lower level of AT&T Park, at a concourse food stand, where a TV is showing the Golden State Warriors battling the Utah Jazz in the second round of the NBA playoffs. Around the set, fluttering moths to the digital flame, stand two dozen men. Men who've paid 40, 50 dollars to go to a Giants game but now, even when Bonds is batting, stand and scream at a TV. This is Warriors country--at least for the moment. At least until Bonds gets closer to the record.
Down on the field, Bonds takes a mighty cut and sends the ball screaming toward rightfield. At this, a split-second charge goes through the ballpark, the masses roused as tens of thousands appraise the ball's arc and make an instantaneous calculation: Does it have the distance, could it be number 744? And for a moment they are brought together again, the residents of this city, as they are four times most days (except for day games after night games, of course), by this middle-aged man with the gimpy knees and the sweet stroke. For better or worse, as San Franciscans their identities are now intertwined in small but powerful ways with Bonds's. And just as he is seen in so many guises--Hero, Cheater, Record Breaker, Egotist, All-Star, Villain--so are they. On the surface they are i-bankers sipping Sierra Nevadas and hipsters with ironic T-shirts and little boys eating big hot dogs, but each is also something else: Defender, Enabler, Critic, Rationalizer, Cynic, Don't-Give-a-Rat's-Ass-er.
To the nation, they are a unified whole: Bonds fans in the Bay Area. While the rest of the country is divided on his pursuit of Aaron--52% don't want him to break the record, according to an ESPN/ABC poll last week--it is assumed that in San Francisco they blindly follow their hero, despite the revelations from the BALCO investigation about his alleged steroid use. That is, when they aren't lighting up enormous medically sanctioned blunts or proposing to their gay partners.
The reality, of course, is much more complex. This is a city where, as San Francisco Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein says, "everybody has at least two opinions on any subject and states them strongly." It's a place where a tourist attraction like the Beat Museum, devoted to Kerouac and Ginsberg, is on the same block as the Garden of Eden, a flesh emporium devoted to movements more gyrating than literary. The city is a place where outsiders go to become insiders, where dissent is often the consensus, where everyone is afforded a second chance. "It's a little like Australia as a penal colony," says Bronstein. "People came here to be different, to try new things, and so there is a tolerance for that sort of thing, and there ought to be."
It is not, by any logical stretch, a natural fit for a man like Bonds, a sullen athletic marvel who seems better suited to a city of artifice and bigness, perhaps Dallas, where everyone's got a little silicone in them and it ain't how you do it so long as the result is grand and gargantuan. And even if his blasts do not yet generate fervor--as evidenced by a Redwood City tech company that started a text-messaging game based on guessing when Bonds would hit home runs, then realized the response would be greater if users could guess when Barry might be indicted--the hyperbole is growing. Already the national media descends. The Giants provide a sign-up sheet, asking outlets at which home run they will join the chase. Last week ESPN's Pedro Gomez and his merry band of camera toters arrived, and as of Sunday 142 outlets had signed on, with homer number 753 being the most popular starting point.
Care or don't care, it will be hard for those who live here to escape the discussion. And as the spotlight focuses on Bonds, first locally, away from the Warriors, and then nationally, the Bay Area and its residents, leaders, athletes and thinkers will be questioned, excoriated and commended, sometimes all at once. And those who live and work here will, each in his or her own way, try to make sense of the commotion. To hear their voices is to begin to understand the tangled relationship they have with Bonds.