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How good is Bonds? Good enough to make you suspicious. The day he hit that one-armed homer against the Mets, it happened that teammate Matt Williams had just gone ahead of him for the league's home run lead. Can Bonds just turn it on and off? Well, Syd Thrift remembers watching Bonds in Triple A back in 1986, when Thrift was Pittsburgh's general manager. During batting practice before a game in Phoenix, Thrift saw Bonds pull five or six balls over the rightfield fence. "I told him any good hitter can do that," Thrift says, "but I'd like to see him hit a few over the leftfield fence. He hit five in a low and said, 'Is that good enough for you?' I said it was fine. I had the manager take him out of the game in the fifth inning, and I took him back to Pittsburgh that night."
Thrift, who used to make sure to talk to Bonds for at least five minutes every day to reassure him that he was appreciated, remembers one other thing: "The first five home runs he hit in Pittsburgh—they were over the leftfield fence."
In Bonds's return to Pittsburgh, on April 9, he was hailed with boos and buckets of fake dollar bills to deride his free-agent defection to San Francisco, but he went 2 for 4 with a double, a triple and three runs scored. In the Giants' home opener he homered in his first at bat. If Bonds hadn't failed to produce in each of the last three National League Championship Series—he averaged .191 for the Pirates in those playoffs, all of which Pittsburgh lost—it would be reasonable to suspect that he was toying with the game.
Even with his poor postseason record ("Call me Mr. July," he says), Bonds has become the richest player in a very rich sport. However, the money seems incidental to his story. With the kind of numbers Bonds has put up and continues to put up, nobody seems to mind how many numbers the Giants have put up. In fact, nobody makes a peep about Bonds's contract anymore. Who, besides Reggie Jackson, ever produced the way Bonds has during the first year after a big free-agent signing? San Francisco, which had an opportunity to sign him for $75,000 out of high school in 1982 (it lost him to Arizona State when it refused to offer more than $70,000), finally got him last December for $43.75 million over six years. In two or three seasons, if salaries continue to escalate and if Bonds continues to perform at anything like his present level, he'll seem like a blue-light special.
What the Giants may not get for their money is goodwill. Bonds does not create it. And it's not because of his enormous and highly visible self-confidence, which is expected and forgiven in great athletes. If Bonds makes a basket catch or struts around the bases after a home run and then faces the fans and asks, "Am I not a special —— person, or what?" he will still be loved. Nobody minds swagger at his level. Many people pay to see that. But his complaining, his rudeness, his insensitivity to teammates can wear a franchise out.
His return to Pittsburgh may serve as a cautionary tale for the Giants. In his seven years with Pittsburgh, Bonds couldn't have played much better or harder. Still, it seemed the Three Rivers Stadium fans would have welcomed a flu epidemic more warmly than they did Bonds. They went well beyond the usual free-agent-leaves-Pittsburgh booing.
It wasn't just the fans, either. When Bonds entered the Pirate clubhouse for what he may have imagined would be a joyous homecoming, the players didn't even look up from their card games.
There was just too much history between Bonds and the Pirates. There was the 1990 playoff game in Cincinnati after which Bonds blasted teammate Jeff King. King had been scratched from the game after aggravating a lower-back injury the day before. (The injury would cause him to miss much of the next season.) "When we play Friday, Bobby Bonilla will be playing third, and Jeff King will be sitting there getting his back healthy. He'll be getting ready for spring training," Bonds said to reporters. On the trip back to Pittsburgh, R.J. Reynolds grew tired of Bonds's beefing—Reynolds and other Pirates had been outraged at his attack on King—and told him to grow up. Their argument on the team plane reached a climax when Bonds shoved a slice of pizza in Reynolds's face.
Then there was spring training of 1991, when Bonds, sulking over the Pirates' victory in his off-season arbitration hearing, got into a yelling match with Jim Lachimia, a club p.r. man. He then exchanged words with Jim Leyland, the Pittsburgh manager. This episode grew out of Bonds's decision to freeze out the press that spring; the argument began over whether two photographers could snap pictures of him. But the enduring moment was when Leyland yelled, "I've kissed your butt for three years! If you don't want to be here, then get your butt off the field!"
When the Pirates did not keep his close friend Bonilla from defecting to the Mets, Bonds wondered aloud if racism was at work. He wondered if Pirate centerfielder Andy Van Slyke, whom he called the Great White Hope, would have been treated the same way. It was no wonder that a Pittsburgh player was once quoted as saying, "I'd rather lose without Barry Bonds than win with him."