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
But it does not. The sun lingers, making the giant catcher's mitt in the
leftfield stands glow orange, and the young women who were brave enough to wear
tube tops giggle and smile and raise their arms in little woo-hoo motions
during player introductions, the better to catch the attention of young men.
And when the Giants' cleanup hitter comes to the plate in the second inning,
their woo-hoo is more pronounced, their wriggle more wriggly. "Leading off,
number 25," says the P.A. announcer, her voice rising dramatically, "
... leftfielder ... Baaa-reee Bonds!"
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.
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
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.