George Herbert Walker Bush requested an audience with Johnnie B. (Dusty) Baker last Thursday in the Astrodome. The former president of the United States asked the current manager of the San Francisco Giants how he had survived his torturous autumn spiral—losing eight straight home games in mid-September and ceding first place in the National League West to the Atlanta Braves. "Eight games don't compare nothin' to what you've been through," Dusty told Poppy. But Poppy wasn't buying it. Those eight games had finished the Fabulous Baker Boys. You didn't have to be Ross Perot to hear that Giant sucking sound.
In fact, there it was again last Friday, a giant sucking sound in the Giant dugout three hours before San Francisco's game at home against the nearly winless, Tony Gwynn-less San Diego Padres. It was the sound of leftfielder Barry Bonds kissing his bat, full on the label. "C'mon, baby," he said. Bonds said that; the bat didn't say anything. In fact, the bat didn't speak until the fourth inning, when Bonds hit his first home run in 22 days. The Giants won the game 4-3, and because the Braves had lost to the Philadelphia Phillies a few hours earlier, San Francisco was then only 1� games behind Atlanta. And that's how the standings remained until Monday night, when the Giants won again and picked up another half game on the idle Braves.
Last Saturday, Bonds hit two more home runs in a 3-1 San Francisco win. On Sunday he hit another, his league-leading 44th of the season, in a 5-2 victory. Suddenly the bat wouldn't shut up, and Bonds wouldn't say anything. He barely spoke to the press on Friday and Sunday, and about all he said of his two dingers on the day in between was this: "I got to do what I got to do."
Scrawled at the top of his To Do list, apparently, was Get Giants back in pennant race. San Francisco, which was 10 games ahead of Atlanta on July 22, had fallen four games behind the inexorable Braves on Sept. 17, when the Giants began a seven-game road trip that followed their calamitous run of eight losses at Candlestick Park. On the trip to Cincinnati and Houston, which ended with Baker's summit meeting in the Astrodome, Bonds's bat became combustible (and just plain bussable) again. Not coincidentally, San Francisco won six of the seven games.
"Barry's proven down the stretch that he's truly the MVP of the league," said Baker on Sunday. "He's turned it on when we've needed him to turn it on. Hopefully he'll carry us into late October."
Last Friday, a typical day in his rarefied life, Bonds stood behind the cage during batting practice and chatted with his friend Danny Glover. The San Francisco-based movie star was doing research for his role in an upcoming baseball flick. "Hey, Lethal Weapon!" fans kept yelling, but it wasn't clear whether they were calling for Glover or the Giants' three-time Gold Glover.
"There's no question who the MVP is," said Giant shortstop Royce Clayton, who wasn't talking about himself. Bonds's .342 average, 44 jacks and 114 RBIs at week's end make him the likely MVP. It would be his third such award, matching Michael Jordan, whom Bonds so closely resembles in his ability to make all others in the arena look...tiny.
Imagine if Bonds had signed with Atlanta last winter, as was first expected. As it is, the Braves and the Giants have the two best records in baseball. (The division runner-up will probably win more than 100 games.) Between them they have five of the league's winningest pitchers ( John Burkett and Bill Swift of San Francisco; Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Steve Avery of Atlanta). Between them they have four of the five MVP candidates (the Braves' Dave Justice, Ron Gant and Fred McGriff and the Phillies' Lenny Dykstra are the only other possibilities). And between them the two teams have a healthy infusion of bad blood, much of which has been donated by the seemingly innocuous Padres.
"[Padre outfielder Derek] Bell hadn't played third base since high school, but he played third against Atlanta," says Baker, by way of example. "I didn't understand that. I don't understand why they traded McGriff to Atlanta...."
After San Diego manager Jim Riggleman reconfigured his pitching rotation last weekend to have ace Andy Benes throw against the Giants on Monday when he wasn't supposed to face them at all, it was reported that Riggleman did so at the telephoned request of Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. When asked about this by Baker, Riggleman denied being a member of Cox's Friends & Family Plan.