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ON BASEBALL

Giant says he's been taken down

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Just days after Mark McGwire appeared before a congressional committee and offered what many construed as a backhanded confession of steroid use, a subdued Barry Bonds came out of the Giants clubhouse on crutches yesterday in Phoenix and made comments that contained elements of a retirement speech.

The man who has shown a remarkable capacity to shut out the cacophony of voices that believe his pursuit of Hank Aaron's home run record is a tribute more to his medicine cabinet than his considerable athletic skills, sounded like a man beaten down.

Bonds, showing none of the defiance that marked his "no one is going to ruin my joy" press conference of Feb. 22, told a handful of reporters that it may be midseason at the earliest before he returns from knee surgery -- and maybe not until next year.

"Right now I'm just going to try to rehab myself to get back to, I don't know, hopefully next season, hopefully the middle of the season," said Bonds, who has undergone three procedures on his right knee since Oct. 12.

Then Bonds, who has been at the center of the BALCO controversy since his personal trainer was indicted on steroid charges, and was rocked again last weekend by a published report of payoffs to a former girlfriend who accused him of using steroids, suggested he might never come back.

"I really don't have much to say anymore," Bonds said. "My son and I are just going to enjoy life. My family's tired. You [media] guys wanted to hurt me bad enough, you finally got there.

"You wanted me to jump off the bridge, I finally have jumped. You wanted to bring me down. You've finally brought me and my family down. Finally done it. From everybody, all of you. So now go pick a different person. I'm done. Do the best I can, that's about it."

When asked if there was something specific he was talking about, Bonds said, "Inner hurt, physical, mentally. Done. I'm mentally drained. I'm tired of my kids crying. Tired."

Barry Bloom, a reporter for MLB.com, said he followed Bonds to the parking lot and Bonds told him, "I might not be back at all. I'm just going to go home and try to enjoy my family. I'm sick and tired of seeing them so upset. I'm done. Finished with it. Certainly, I'll be gone after 2006."

Last summer, the Giants triggered an $18 million option they were holding on Bonds for 2006, one they could have voided if he did not reach 500 plate appearances this year or 1,500 combined from 2003 to 2005, including 400 this year.

A baseball official with knowledge of the situation said the Giants were caught off-guard by Bonds's pronouncements that his knee problem will keep him sidelined until midseason at the earliest.

On Oct. 12, shortly after the 2004 season ended for the Giants, Bonds had an arthroscopic procedure on his right knee. On Jan. 31, he had a similar procedure, for a minor arthritis cleanup and small meniscus cartilage tear. He underwent a third procedure March 17, described as a debridement of tears in the medial and lateral menisci; the third procedure apparently was necessary because Bonds tried to come back too soon.

The Giants, said the official, "thought these were all minor cleanups."

Giants trainer Stan Conte had said Monday that he expected it would take six weeks for Bonds to come back from the latest procedure, which would put him back on the field around May 1. Conte did not alter that assessment yesterday.

"His knee looked the way we expected," Conte said. "I suspect he'll progress as knee patients do. It looks OK. He went through the regular rehab, six days out of surgery."

But Bonds, who was with his 15-year-old son Nikolai, was considerably more pessimistic after seeing Conte yesterday.

"I'm going to try and let myself heal," he said. "I'm 40 years old. I'm not 20 or 30. I've got a lot of work to do to try and get back to these guys. I don't know if I'm going to be back here."

Bonds has 703 home runs, just 11 short of Babe Ruth and 52 fewer than Aaron, the record-holder. Under normal circumstances, the record chase would be cause for celebration. But baseball is under siege, some of its biggest names left to squirm in front of the congressional panel and almost no one in the game free from the whispers that can ruin a reputation.

Last weekend, Rockies star Todd Helton, whose name never had been linked with steroid use, defended himself against a former Rockies broadcaster who in an ESPN Radio interview said that former Colorado manager Don Baylor had confronted Helton about being "juiced." The accusation was later retracted by the broadcaster -- but too late for Helton, whose name was broadcast coast to coast.

Bonds never has admitted to steroid use. In sworn testimony before a federal grand jury in December 2003, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, Bonds denied knowingly taking steroids, saying that trainer Greg Anderson had given him a clear substance he said was flaxseed oil and a cream he was told was arthritis balm.

But in a rather tawdry development over the weekend, the Chronicle reported that Kimberly Bell, 35, a graphic artist from San Jose who says she dated Bonds from 1994 to 2003, told the grand jury that in 2000, the left fielder confided to her that he had begun using steroids. Bell also testified that Bonds had given her $80,000 in cash in 2001 -- earned, she claimed, from his sale of autographed baseballs and other memorabilia -- to make the down payment on a house in Scottsdale, Ariz., near the Giants' spring training facility.

Bonds's attorney, Michael Rains, said the Giants star had never used banned substances and had never made large cash payments to Bell. He said he had "no grave concern, none at all," about the grand jury inquiry.

But the government, according to the Chronicle, has subpoenaed Bell's bank records, her correspondence with Bonds, and some 90 minutes of messages that she said the Giants star left on her telephone. IRS criminal investigator Jeff Novitzky, lead agent in the BALCO case, contacted Bell last month after she appeared on a TV program with Geraldo Rivera promoting a book she is writing about her relationship with Bonds.

Even Bonds's detractors acknowledge he never has backed away from a fight in his life. But yesterday, he sounded like a man backed into the ropes, not sure he wanted to answer the bell for another round.

Material from wire services was used in this report.


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