SAN FRANCISCO -- Barry Bonds, whose numbers argue forcefully that he has surpassed Ted Williams -- and by the time he is finished, anyone else -- as the greatest hitter who ever lived, will play against the Red Sox this weekend for the first time in his 19-year major league baseball career.
For Red Sox fans who might idly muse what it would be like to see Bonds in a home uniform, don't bother. Yes, the San Francisco Giants left fielder said here on a recent afternoon he could possibly end his career in the American League as a designated hitter, as long as that didn't take him away from his family. So geography would almost certainly eliminate Boston as a last stop in a career spent exclusively in the National League, the last dozen seasons in northern California.
But Bonds, whose knowledge of baseball history had him humorously mocking a visitor stumbling to draw comparisons between Williams's feats with the Red Sox and those of the 39-year-old Giants slugger, said Boston is a place he would never call home.
"Boston is too racist for me,'' he said. "I couldn't play there.''
It is a judgment, he acknowledges, not derived of firsthand experience -- he missed the 1999 All-Star Game, played in Boston, because of an injury -- but on word-of-mouth.
"Only what guys have said," he said, "but that's been going on ever since my dad [Bobby] was playing baseball. I can't play like that. That's not for me, brother."
When it was suggested the racial climate has changed in Boston, Bonds demurred.
"It ain't changing," he said. "It ain't changing nowhere."
They built a tunnel to honor Ted Williams in Boston. What did he imagine would be built for him?
"Nothing, man," he said. "I'm black. They don't build stuff for blacks."
Barry Bonds has never been afraid to touch a nerve, which may be why he has appeared impervious to the steroids controversy swirling around him this season. Two of his associates -- his trainer, Greg Anderson, and his nutritionist, Victor Conte Jr., are among four men indicted on charges of illegally supplying performance-enhancing drugs from the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative in nearby Burlingame, Calif.
Bonds and a handful of other players, including Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield of the New York Yankees, testified before a federal grand jury in the BALCO investigation last fall. Federal agents also have players' urine samples that could be tested again for tetrahydrogestrinone, a recently discovered "designer" steroid derived from another anabolic steroid banned by the US Anti-Doping Agency. Major League Baseball this spring added THG to its list of banned substances.
Bonds has been a BALCO client since the winter of 2000 and has lauded the company for a personalized program of nutritional supplements. But he has denied using steroids, and since addressing the issue this spring has refused to discuss it further.
"We are not having a BALCO conversation," he said sternly in a 30-minute interview that otherwise was frequently punctuated by his laughter.
But even with "the cloud hanging over us," as Giants owner Peter Magowan described it Tuesday, Bonds has continued his assault on baseball's record book, one in which he already owns the season record for home runs, 73, set in 2001. In the first days of this season, he passed his Hall of Fame godfather, Willie Mays, for third place in career home runs, with only Babe Ruth (714) and Hank Aaron (755) still ahead.
Since the start of the 2001 season, Bonds has broken six season records, including Williams's record for on-base percentage and Ruth's record for slugging percentage. Bonds, who has 676 career home runs entering the weekend, 16 more than Mays, hit a National League record eight home runs over seven consecutive games (April 12-20). He is the most feared slugger of any era by one distinct measure -- no one has ever been walked intentionally as often as he has.
Wednesday night against the Toronto Blue Jays, when he was walked deliberately for the 49th time this season -- 19 times more than any other entire team -- Bonds tossed aside his elbow guard even before ball four was delivered. He received his 50th free pass in the eighth inning yesterday when he pinch hit in an 8-5 victory over Toronto.
He has been issued at least one intentional walk in 33 of 56 games, and is virtually certain to break the major league record of 68 intentional walks he set in 2002. He has 534 intentional walks in his career, 241 ahead of Aaron.
Rickey Henderson, who played one season for the Red Sox, holds the record for most walks in a career, but Bonds is closing in. Season record for walks?
"It's me, then Babe Ruth -- do your homework," he said, chiding a visitor in front of the row of lockers on one end of the Giants' clubhouse in which he is the sole occupant, though on many days, like this one, he is joined by Harvey Shields, who was his personal stretching coach, and another assistant, Greg "Sweets" Oliver. Shields was recently hired by the club when Major League Baseball ruled that players' own trainers could not have access to team facilities.
"I passed Ruth for the single-season record in walks in 2001," Bonds said, "then in 2002 I broke my own record . The way things are going now, I'll probably break that one, too."
Bonds has 92 walks. At his current pace, he would finish with a mind-boggling 226.
"It's tiring," he said, "but it's all right."
The night before, Bonds had had a quiet night against the Blue Jays, the Giants' first game back home after a 14-game trip that had taken the team to four cities in three time zones. At the tail end of that trip, Bonds had made an additional cross-country trip to attend a funeral.
"Everybody was tired," Bonds said. "I'm still trying to recover, but I feel a little better today."
That night, he would have a first-inning intentional walk and two hits -- a leadoff double in the third and a first-pitch single in the sixth -- in three official at-bats. But it was a quiet night in McCovey Cove, that part of San Francisco Bay beyond the right-field fence where only a handful of kayaks cruised through waters in which on consecutive days a kayaker named Larry Ellison had retrieved the home runs with which Bonds had tied, then passed, Mays.
Sellout crowds are expected this weekend for the Red Sox. "It's been a tougher ticket than the World Series," Magowan said.
He's a showstopper
There is scant evidence that baseball fans have been turned off by the potential scandal. Major League Baseball recorded huge increases in attendance during spring training, a record number of tickets sold before Opening Day, and an increase of 15.1 percent in attendance in the season's first month, when the average attendance was 29,363, the highest since detailed attendance records began to be kept in 1980.
Bonds, who led all National League players in All-Star balloting announced this week, remains a big attraction.
"I haven't been around for 40 years like some people," said Dave Flemming, the Giants' first-year broadcaster who formerly worked for the Pawtucket Red Sox, "but I've never seen anything like batting practice in Camden Yards [in Baltimore] last week. Barry was taking huge swings, trying to hit the warehouse [beyond the right-field fence, on Eutaw Street], and people were going nuts. There was a big crowd, two hours before the game. They were giving him a standing ovation during BP. He hit the warehouse on one hop with one ball."
Bonds does not hear cheers everywhere he goes. There are boos, and chants of "BAL-CO." He has never been a beloved figure, in the Ruthian way, even before the dramatic transformation in his physical appearance in the last few years led to rampant speculation of steroid use.
Bonds, who created an uproar with earlier comments that suggested he was more interested in passing Ruth than Aaron because Ruth was white, views the antipathy toward him not as a function of personality, but of race. When he spoke of Boston's racist past, he knew to which audience he was speaking. "I'm not dumb," he said.
But unlike other athletes unwilling to offer opinions that deviate from the politically correct, Bonds professes not to care about the consequences of his remarks. To remind him, when he says that he will not be honored like Williams was, that outside of SBC Park, there is a statue of his godfather, is only to invite a derisive counterpoint.
"Muhammad Ali doesn't, though, and he's the greatest boxer of all time," Bonds said.
(Ground has been broken in Louisville for a Muhammad Ali Center, scheduled to open in 2005.)
"But who's the guy in Philadelphia? Is that Sylvester Stallone? Sly Stallone? Rocky?"
There is a statue of "Rocky," the cinematic boxer played by Stallone, at the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
"But Muhammad Ali don't? Ha."
He similarly dismisses the argument that the once-controversial Ali has morphed into one of the world's most beloved athletes.
"We can count those on our hand," Bonds said. "You guys [whites] can't count those on your hand.
"I live in the real world, brother. That's all. I do the best I can in the real world. I ain't mad at it, but it's still the real world."
No extra incentive
While he is handsomely paid by the Giants, who signed him to a four-year, $72 million contract extension after he hit his record 73 home runs in 2001, Bonds has not reaped the fringe benefits that typically would accrue to an athlete of his rarefied stature. He snorts at the notion that the BALCO investigation accounts for the lack of commercial endorsements flowing his way.
"I wasn't getting any of that stuff when I had six MVPs, five MVPs, four MVPs, three MVPs," he said. "Why would it be any different now?
"But it doesn't matter. The only person I need love from is God. That's all that matters. How you're doing with the higher power. All the rest of the stuff is irrelevant.
"I ain't never played baseball for fame. I just play to play. I ain't never liked fame. I don't need that [expletive]. I don't need fame. Fame is taking care of your bills, your kids, and your household and having respect, that's about all. That's famous to me.
"Sure, we make a lot of money. So? That's the only thing I do. If I could do something else better, I already would have done that. This was my skill."
Ted Williams famously is said to have expressed the desire that when people saw him walk down the street, he wanted them to say, "There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived."
Did Bonds ever entertain a similar desire?
"All I want you to do when you write your story," he said in response, "is list all the white athletes that they say things about, and then list the black athletes that are talked about in a positive way.
"Ted Williams will always be positive. Babe Ruth will always be positive. They had a ceremony here at the World Series [a credit-card sponsored "most memorable moments," as chosen in fan balloting] and Willie Mays wasn't even in it. How can you not have one of the best baseball players to walk on the planet not there?
"He was downstairs here, with me.
"How can 70 home runs [the number hit by Mark McGwire, the first player to reach that number] outdo 73? And don't blame 9-11 for nothing, dog. Don't try that. You know what I mean?
"Do I care? No. Am I letting you know about it? Sure. Whatever you write, that's on you. Do I worry about it? No."
In his hands, Barry Bonds held a bat, the instrument of his greatness.
"See, we're like baseball bats," he said. "We're equipment. When this breaks, they get another one to replace it.
"In any sport, you try to do the best you can and don't break, so they don't replace you. That's all I do."