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As a teenager Moises Alou was walking along the beach in the Dominican Republic with his father, Felipe, one day, when the older Alou picked up a rock and threw it far into the sea. Felipe was in his late 40s at the time, but he still had enough of an arm after his 17-year major league career to fire the stone a long way. Without a word Moises picked up a rock and flung it, Felipe remembers, nearly twice as far.
That was a couple of decades ago, but Felipe, now the Giants' manager, remembers the episode because it told him two things. One, that Moises might have the physical ability to be a big league ballplayer someday. "The other thing," Felipe says, "was that he liked to be challenged."
At 38 Moises still likes a challenge, and he has an even bigger one than he expected to face when he signed a two-year free-agent contract with San Francisco in December. The Giants brought him in to fill the important fifth spot in the batting order, behind Barry Bonds. But with Bonds out indefinitely after a knee operation--his third time under the knife since the end of last season and second in two months-- San Francisco doesn't need Alou to protect Bonds: They need him to be Bonds.
At least they need him to do a reasonable imitation until the 40-year-old slugger returns to the lineup. Alou isn't likely to duplicate Bonds's 45 home runs, .812 slugging percentage and major-league-record 232 walks in 2004. But he did hit .293 with 39 homers (a career high) and 106 RBIs (five more than Bonds) for the Cubs last season. "Moises will hit," says Felipe. "He's always been able to hit, and all you have to do is look at what he did last year to know that he's still dangerous. He may be older, but you don't forget how to hit overnight."
If Alou fails to approach his '04 numbers, it may have less to do with his age than with his new address, spacious SBC Park. Alou was much less productive on the road last season (.247, 10 homers) than at hitter-friendly Wrigley Field (.339, 29). If Bonds is out until midseason or longer, as he morosely indicated he might be to a group of reporters on March 22, San Francisco becomes a far less clear-cut favorite in the NL West. But Bonds's pessimism notwithstanding, the Giants think the original timetable set for his rehabilitation, which would get him back in action in early May, still holds.
Most of his teammates think Bonds's ominous assessment was an indication of his growing frustration over his balky knee and the steroid innuendo that dogs him. "I think it was one of those rehab days where the media caught him at the wrong time," Moises said the day after Bonds made his pronouncement. "Maybe he's not optimistic about [his knee] right now, but that's a natural feeling. Everybody's dealing with what we've got here, but we know that Christmas is coming--and we're going to get a big gift."
When and if Bonds does return, the geriatric Giants will have a particularly elderly outfield with 37-year-old centerfielder Marquis Grissom flanked by Bonds in left and Alou in right. Their inability to cover as much ground as they once did could undermine a solid pitching staff.
Still, San Francisco would gladly watch a few more fly balls fall in the outfield in exchange for seeing Bonds send even more balls flying out of the park, and Alou is eager to fulfill the role as Bonds's second banana for which he originally signed on. "I know why I'm here, and I know what's expected of me," he says. "This is a job I know how to do."
It was probably inevitable that Alou and Bonds would one day play together in San Francisco, because both have Giants pedigrees. Bonds's father, Bobby, spent seven years with the team, and Alou's father and two uncles, Jesus and Matty, are all former Giants. The Alous made history in 1963 as the only three brothers to play in the same major league outfield. "But they never won a World Series in San Francisco," says Moises. "That's the history I would like to make." His chances to do so depend largely on whether he spends the bulk of the season batting behind Bonds or in place of him. -- Phil Taylor