Tune into KNBR, the San Francisco Giants' flagship radio station, and you're likely to hear broadcaster Jon Miller doing play-by-play as Barry Bonds steps to the plate. It sounds so realistic that a hopeful Giants fan might think the star leftfielder has made a sudden return from the disabled list. But then Miller begins to describe the pitcher dissolving into tears upon seeing Bonds, or the catcher calling timeout to ask for the slugger's autograph, and the truth becomes clear--it's an imaginary scene for a lighthearted Giants radio ad.
Those make-believe plate appearances are the closest the injured Bonds has come to an at bat this season, which is the main reason San Francisco had started 8-10 and fallen five games behind the hated Dodgers at week's end. The Giants have lost four of five games against Los Angeles, their starting pitchers and closer Armando Benitez have been erratic, and, worst of all, they have no idea when Bonds is coming back. "Everyone keeps saying it's early, it's early," says shortstop Omar Vizquel. "But we can't afford to fall into the trap of thinking that all we have to do is hang around until Barry comes and then we'll just take off. It's not as simple as that."
Nothing about Bonds's situation is simple. In addition to the lingering cloud of the BALCO steroid case, he's recovering from a March 17 operation to remove torn cartilage from his right knee, his second such arthroscopic procedure in two months. He has been so secretive about the specifics of his rehab and the timetable for his return that even those within the San Francisco organization are in the dark. Bonds has imposed a gag order on team personnel, and last Friday, when reporters told manager Felipe Alou that Bonds had referred them to his website, www.barrybonds.com, for an update on his condition, Alou grabbed a pencil and jokingly asked, "What's that address?"
Bonds reportedly is working out with his friend Greg Anderson, the personal trainer who's one of the targets of the BALCO investigation, and it's unclear how involved the Giants' medical staff is in his rehabilitation. "We have no new reports on Barry Bonds," team trainer Stan Conte said last week. "We have no old reports on Barry Bonds either."
Whenever Bonds makes an appearance in the SBC Park clubhouse, there might as well be yellow police tape across his locker area. A team staffer is invariably stationed beside Bonds's cushy recliner to politely intercept any reporter who ventures near. Occasionally a question is lobbed from a distance, and Bonds tosses back a "No comment."
But this much seems clear: Bonds won't be back by May 1, the unofficial target date for his return based on the six-week rehab common for surgeries of his type. It appeared last Friday that he might have had a setback, when, after walking unaided for more than a week, he arrived at SBC on crutches and with his right leg bandaged from mid-thigh to mid-calf. According to his website Bonds had fluid drained from the knee the day before and was using the crutches as a precaution. Last week Bonds had started walking the Bay Area hills and beaches; that conditioning work created the fluid buildup. "I might have overdone it a little bit," Bonds told mlb.com on Friday. "But this doesn't put me behind schedule."
While the guesswork about Bonds continues, San Francisco muddles on. It didn't help that rightfielder Moises Alou, a free agent signed to hit behind Bonds, had only six at bats before a calf injury sent him to the disabled list. Until Alou's return last Friday the Giants sometimes had first baseman Lance Niekro, a rookie who didn't make the team in spring training, hitting third and utilityman Pedro Feliz, a dangerous but undisciplined hitter, in the cleanup spot. At week's end would-be reserve outfielder Michael Tucker led the team in home runs, with three. "Nothing against their other guys, but everything changes when Barry's not in the lineup," says former San Francisco righthander Russ Ortiz, now with the Arizona Diamondbacks. "His presence changes the way you pitch to guys two or three spots ahead of him because you don't want him to come up in a position to hurt you."
As Bonds goes about his clandestine rehabilitation, it's the Giants who are hurting. It might be easier to keep their heads above water if they knew when their life preserver would arrive. Bonds may show up in the clubhouse now and then, but as in the radio commercials, his presence in the lineup is only make-believe. -- Phil Taylor