Anatomy of an American Sports Hero 

Who do you have to screw to get your due?

click to enlarge Barry Bonds loops a double Tuesday night against the Rockies. - DARRALD BENNETT
  • Darrald Bennett
  • Barry Bonds loops a double Tuesday night against the Rockies.

It was supposed to be gift-wrapped. Barry Bonds, the reluctant leading man in the 2001 model of the great Home Run Derby, coming to Colorado and taking a stab at Mark McGwire's single-season home run record. He abused Rockies ace Mike Hampton in San Francisco last week to hit his 41st and 42nd home runs of the season, putting him ahead of Big Mac's '98 pace. Now he had three games in thin air, and the potential damage was inconceivable. It was Coors Field, after all. And it was his birthday no less.

But America's new and improved hero found little to celebrate as he turned 37 in Colorado on Tuesday, joining his Giants in their second straight defeat to a resurging Rockies club and being shut out of the long-ball parade by humid conditions, hot pitching from rookie Shawn Chacon and an uncharacteristically bulletproof middle relief team.

Walking the walk

In a rare recent instance of subjecting himself to the press, Bonds told the Indy of his appreciation for the renewed fan support he's experienced this season, most notably his league-leading 2,140,315 All-Star votes. "You're grateful that people still consider you one of the best players [and] to have the opportunity to play with some of the other great players. To be able to still be in that class 15 years later, that's the joy of it."

Though he is experiencing a renaissance in popularity among the fans, he would not have you think he is getting better with age. "I haven't changed," says Bonds about his recycled role as a home run hero. "I'm the same as I always have been. You guys have changed the fans."

He is largely correct. Bonds hasn't changed much. He is still brutally honest, stand-offish and defensive around the press. He throws questions back in reporters' faces, challenges their affinity for clichs and stereotypes, and takes them to task for not paying attention. "Remember, this game ain't nice to you," he cautions. "It's only nice to you when you're doing good."

Bonds has mellowed a little. He wears considerably less "Mr. T gold" than he did in his magnet-to-the-hoopla youth. And instead of boasting of his potential, he can, if he chooses, rest on the legacy of his laurels. He is poised to be the first ever four-time Most Valuable Player, surpassing the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial and Yogi Berra. This season he has moved into ninth on the all-time home run list, tied with Mickey Mantle at 536 and trailing only Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson, Harmon Killebrew (all of whom he'll pass if he reaches 70 this season), as well as Frank Robinson, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. And oh, that McGwire fellow.

In an era bereft of real heroes, we're easily led to gawk at the latest model of a chemically enhanced athlete bashing the hell out of yet another unbreakable record. "It should have been that way forever," Bonds says of his new role as the pastime's poster boy, papering over his exaggerated image as a bad boy of baseball. "I've never done anything wrong to anybody. I've been consistent throughout my career. Unfortunately I haven't won [the World Series], but I'm not the only one."

Talking the talk

So where is the love due this living legend? The Rockies acted out their own what-have-you-done-for-me-lately theory, playing Tuesday's game with six formidable starters who were raised as Rockies, all Sky Sox alumni. There isn't a team in the league that wouldn't give the right arm of their pitching rotation for a farm system reaping such dividends.

But in a seemingly endless effort to keep topping themselves with tales of the ones that get away, the Rockies were working hard at press time to finalize a three-way deal that would send Neifi Perez to the Royals and bring in second baseman Jose Ortiz, outfield prospect Mario Encarnacion, and a pitching prospect from the A's. The inability to agree on the going rate for their 26-year-old, Gold Glove-fielding, .300-hitting shortstop left Perez joining other franchise favorites -- Andres Galarraga, Vinny Castilla, and Ellis Burkes -- among the exes.

In an ironic coincidence, the Giants traded for Galarraga before Tuesday's game, hoping for an offensive punch in their pennant drive. The Big Cat was scheduled to arrive in Denver about the same time Perez would head to Kansas City Wednesday morning. It's the Giants' last game at Coors Field this season, and perhaps the last game ever in Colorado for the 40-year-old original Rockie. The convergence of heroes coming and going on Blake Street should give one pause, and if El Gato makes the lineup for one last Colorado curtain call, count on a reception from the fans that honors the impact his smile and heart and character had on the fledgling franchise from '93 to '97.

The Perez trade was the latest in a series of moves for a team that is not over-priced, but that could lose for a lot less than they're currently spending to do so. Meanwhile, the club has locked up players like Larry Walker, Todd Helton, Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle with no-trade clauses in their contracts.

At the risk of oversimplifying, it's no mystery that race and nationality often play a subtextual role in a team's marketing of its stars and the media's co-opting of the deal. We have not forgotten the despicable racist treatment of Hank Aaron as he broke Babe Ruth's all-time home-run record, and even 27 years later, Bonds' treatment as he pursues McGwire will be worthy of scrutiny.

For their part, the Rockies want Todd Helton to be their poster boy for the duration of his generation, making his wholesome, middle-American image synonymous with Colorado baseball. But Galarraga, Perez and Castilla have served time at the heart of the squad and the promise for the future. Their biggest shortcoming? The reduced ink and a communication gap among players for whom English is a second language.

But Bonds is a native. His communication issues can't be blamed on a reluctance to use the language. "It has nothing to do with me," he tells reporters. "It has to do with you. I don't write the paper. I failed English."

"Mark said it to you before," Bonds told reporters at the All-Star game. "If you get to 50 home runs by [September 1], that's when you talk. Ever since I talked to you guys, I stopped at 39." Bonds has three new notches in his bat since the break, but those are his only home runs in a 25-game stretch.

Going the distance

"I'm not in Mark's class," Bonds says of McGwire, also 37, and a half season ahead of Bonds with 567 lifetime home runs. "Mark hits a home run, it's 500-plus feet. Mark misses a ball, it's 402 feet. Barry Bonds hits a ball, it's 440 feet. Barry misses a ball, pop up to the shortstop. Big difference."

Diamondback Luis Gonzalez is hot on his heels with 40 home, but Bonds refuses to take either of them seriously. "Me and Gonzo, we're like, 'What the hell are we doing?' We both are laughing at ourselves more than anything else. We both know this is unrealistic what we're doing.

"How can you enjoy something when [your team] isn't enjoying it?" Bonds queries. "That's a question I'd like to ask [McGwire]. How do you not feel separated from your teammates? There's times that you almost don't want it to go on, because you don't want to feel separated from the team. It's draining."

"I don't care what anyone says," Bonds concludes, "I would stay [at 42 home runs] to go to the World Series with this team, and I would be the happiest man you've ever seen in your entire life."


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