He was the first son of Bobby Bonds and the godchild of Willie Mays, and when Barry Bonds was six, he would slip on his San Francisco Giants uniform, grab his glove and join his father and godfather in the outfield at Candlestick Park while they shagged balls during batting practice. Though he stood shoulder-to-thigh to them, Bonds didn't linger long in their shadows. With each crack of the bat he would pour himself into a headlong pursuit of the ball. "I was too young to bat with them," Bonds says. "But I could compete with them in the field."
Bobby Bonds and Mays have long since retired, and these days it would appear that Barry Lamar Bonds has the field all to himself. At 6'1" and 185 pounds he is built like a heavyweight contender. And he is luminously handsome. In three full seasons as an outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates—after playing only 115 games in the minor leagues—the 25-year-old Bonds has averaged 23 home runs and 27 stolen bases, while hitting .264 and slugging .469. Batting mostly leadoff in his career, he is the only player in the National League to score more than 95 runs in each of the past three years. And his knack for running down shots in the alley, learned at some very famous knees, has left him without peer in leftfield.
But for all his accomplishments, Bonds is still trying to outrace shadows. "Barry's at the point in his career where he should be," says Pirate manager Jim Leyland. "If he handles himself the way he is capable of, he's going to be a consistent star for years." If he handles himself.
"Barry's the only individual I've met who can turn it on and turn it off. I didn't think that could be done," says Pittsburgh outfielder R.J. Reynolds. "I think one day he will put up numbers no one can believe." He turns it on and off.
"When it comes to ability, Barry's one of the top five players in the league," says Pirate centerfielder Andy Van Slyke. "The application has not come yet, but I want to be around to see it when it happens." The application has not come.
People close to Bonds feel safest drawing conclusions about his future in the sand. How good can he be? The words have twisted him around and made him annoyed, angry and alienated. As of Sunday, Bonds was hitting .322 with 11 homers and 17 steals for the first-place Pirates. And he was batting an astounding .522 with men in scoring position. But as he struggles to come into his own, he sees himself measured against an imposed standard called potential, ensnared by a web of perceptions that define him by what—or who—he is not:
•He is not popular. In the wake of a salary dispute last winter, the Pittsburgh press branded Bonds "a bad guy to have in the clubhouse" and "the Pirates' MDP—Most Despised Player." Says his agent, Rod Wright, "Barry puts up a front because he doesn't want people to know who he is." Says Bonds, "My job does not say, Walk in the locker room and kiss butt. It says, Go to work. I say hello sometimes, and sometimes I don't. I get to the ballpark and I'm going to be focused on what I have to do. But you know what they'll say? 'Hey, Barry, what's your problem? What's your attitude?' 'I don't have an attitude, I'm sitting here by myself. You got a problem with it?' "
•He is not focused. During the off-season, Bonds trained five days a week, five hours a day. "We'd start working out at 10:30 in the morning," says strength-and-conditioning coach Warren Sipp. "And every day Barry would be in the parking lot, waiting for me." But during games he has failed to run out ground balls. "Everyone knows I want to be good, very good," Bonds says. "I had it figured out—I was going to get a hit in every single game. And when I didn't get a hit the second game of the season, I was mad the whole week. The whole week. I was mad because I blew my streak. Can you believe that?"
•He is not selfless. Critics say Bonds grandstands at the expense of his team. "He goes through times when all he wants to do is hit home runs," says Pirate utility-man Gary Redus. "Someone on the other team will go [out of the] yard, and Barry will try to show that he can do it, too." Says Bonds, "Since I was a kid, I've had a stamp on my neck: Barry Bonds has a bad attitude and only thinks of himself. Who else am I supposed to think about out there? I go out there to put up the best numbers to help us win. That's being part of the team."
•Above all, he has not done enough. "Barry Bonds plays hard, he plays hurt, and he goes to the post," Leyland says. "I've been satisfied, except for what he hit last year [.248]. And the only reason he hit that is he spent a month and a half trying to hit his 20th home run." Although Bonds has yet to achieve the standard of 30 steals and 30 homers in a season that was foisted upon him at birth, he is getting closer. To some, just as Bobby was supposed to be the next Willie when he broke in with the Giants in 1968, playing right to Mays's center, Barry is supposed to be the next Bobby. And that expectation placed him on the discomforting cusp of stardom and disappointment.