Barry Bonds Chases the Babe
by Glenn Dickey
May 12, 2006

THERE’S A CARNIVAL air surrounding Barry Bonds and the Giants as Bonds seeks to surpass Babe Ruth’s career home run mark, and it’s likely to last for awhile, because Bonds is not swinging the bat well.

Yesterday, on his last two at-bats, he got the kind of pitches he used to drive 450 feet. On the first one, he lined to right field and, though the fans rose to their feet as soon as he made contact, the ball came to rest in right fielder Will Bynum’s glove at least 50 feet from the fence. The second pitch resulted in an equally harmless fly ball.

As soon as Bonds went out on the last at-bat, in the eighth inning, a sea of fans rushed up the aisles to the exits. I estimated the evacuation as about a third of the crowd. Others in the press box put it higher.

The fact that Bonds’ chase of Ruth’s mark is paramount and the actual outcome of the game secondary bothers some sports fans, but it’s not unusual, either for baseball or for this area.

Remember that in 1998, the big story was not the Yankees setting an American League record for most wins in a season but the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Both raced past the Roger Maris season mark of 61, with McGwire eventually hitting 70 and Sosa 66. Neither the Cardinals nor the Cubs were a serious factor in the pennant race that year, but that didn’t keep fans away from the game or lessen the national interest.

In this area, where fan loyalty isn’t as deep-rooted as in Chicago or St. Louis, fans are drawn to big events and to spectacular players. For years, it’s been commonplace for PacBell Park to empty out after the last Bonds at-bat, although never quite so dramatically as yesterday.

The Giants fans – or, at least, those at the park – are realistic, too. They know that this team is one that is going nowhere. The hope has been that the Giants could at least win their division, but both Colorado and Arizona are playing better than expected, and San Diego is playing well after a bad start.

The Giants and Dodgers were expected to battle it out for first, but they’re currently tied for last in the division. They have similar problems, because both teams are depending on older players whose best years are behind them.

The Giants had hoped that Bonds would spark a revival this season, but more and more, Bonds looks like what he is – a nearly 42-year-old player. He can’t run the bases – he advanced only from second to third on a base hit in the first inning yesterday – and he can’t move in the outfield. One ball that should have been easily catchable fell safely yesterday because he couldn’t get to it. Another time, he tumbled into the stands trying for a foul ball – and the fans didn’t exhale until he re-appeared, able to continue.

THE MEDIA has been all over the Bonds story. The coverage is almost like a postseason game. On Tuesday night, Cubs manager Dusty Baker, who was a teammate and friend of Hank Aaron’s when Aaron passed Ruth, en route to his career total of 755, was besieged by national reporters as well as local ones. The Cubs dugout was filled by reporters who questioned Baker for half an hour.

It wasn’t quite so hectic yesterday, but the press box was so full that chairs had to be put out in the back for the overflow.

Many of the media have been Bonds-bashers, but nobody wants to miss the story when Barry hits No. 715. Others were debating whether the Giants would try to trade Bonds after he reaches the magic number. That’s not going to happen because no other team would give up much for him at this point. The chance that Bonds will go to the American League as a DH is fast becoming non-existent, too. I believe his career will end this season.

There’s no ambivalence toward Bonds among the fans at the game. They gave him standing ovations when he came to the plate yesterday. I walked around the park, as I usually do, and talked to several fans who told me they were pleased that I hadn’t joined the Bonds-bashing parade.

The walkway behind the right field bleacher seats has always been wall-to-wall with fans. Now, the Giants have put up barriers at each end to regulate the foot traffic flow, with those going in one direction going out one side of the barrier and those going in the other direction going on the other side. When one fan protested this, the security guard said, “We’ll take them down after Bonds hits 715.”

That walkway is also an excellent spot to judge the size of the crowd, because the rest of the park is visible. At previous games, I could see that the entire upper deck was almost deserted. Yesterday, there was just a small patch of empty seats in the left field corner. The Giants announce tickets sold, not the actual seats occupied. There were fewer tickets sold for yesterday’s game than for the previous two in the series but almost all the tickets were used. According to those at the night games earlier, there were more empty seats at those games. It can get chilly in the upper deck at night games, though nothing like Candlestick, but when the weather is as nice as it was yesterday, it’s very pleasant.

BONDS WILL pass Ruth’s mark because, even though he’s not the hitter he was up through the 2004 season, he can still hit the ball out when he gets a good swing. But his days of hitting 40-plus homers in a season are gone. I’d be surprised if he gets more than 25 this year.

He might surpass Ruth earlier if managers plot their strategy based on current reality instead of the past. Bonds is still getting the utmost respect. He was walked intentionally with first base open on his first at-bat yesterday, a strategy that backfired because Cubs’ starter Sean Marshall was throwing batting practice in that inning. A steady stream of base hits produced five runs and turned the game into a laugher, just like that.

And, while Bonds’ career is winding down, the Giants are already planning for life without him. Managing general partner Peter Magowan alluded to a “youth movement” the other day, but you can file that under “Nonsense.” The Giants will use the $25 million they’ll have without the Bonds and Ray Durham contracts to bring in more veteran free agents, hopefully a tad bit younger than the ones they’ve been bringing in the last couple of years.

Will the fans continue to come to see a team without Bonds? The Giants will have a grace period next year because fans will buy season tickets so they’ll have a chance to see the 2007 All-Star game. After that? They’d better have a team that has a chance to go deep into the postseason.

LETTERS: I’ll update this section later today.

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