His back to the wall and his integrity under siege, America's next home run king pleaded for relief from a crush of reporters poised to confront him about his scandal-tainted quest for glory.
Barry Bonds, a symbol of the steroid era's blight on the national pastime, was headed toward Boston, where he will appear at Fenway Park tonight for the first time in his 22-year career when the San Francisco Giants face the Red Sox in a city he once declared "too racist for me."
Bonds will be the first player with 700 or more home runs to compete in Boston since Hank Aaron Sept. 22, 1976.
"You all got to give me some air," Bonds said, raising his voice at a media throng at Citizens Bank Park on a stifling June afternoon in Philadelphia. "I'm serious. I'm panicking right now."
These are difficult days for Barry Lamar Bonds, who turns 43 next month and will arrive on Yawkey Way nine home runs shy of eclipsing Aaron's mark of 755 and seizing the most hallowed record in American sports. A pariah in the game he professes to love, an outcast in baseball towns across the continent, a would-be king without a country, Bonds forges ahead on a lonely odyssey, scorned even by Aaron himself as he closes in on a personal triumph his critics will decry as an act of fraud.
"There's just an empty feeling in your heart, even though nothing against him has been proven," said former Red Sox pitcher John Burkett, who surrendered Bonds's 300th home run and later played with him on the Giants. "You want to celebrate the record, but you wonder what might come out about him after it's all said and done."
Bonds has grown weary of it all: the federal grand jury investigating him for possible perjury and tax evasion charges; Major League Baseball probing allegations he fueled his pursuit of Aaron's all-time home run record with illegal performance-enhancing drugs; hecklers chanting, "Steroids" and "Cheater"; the media hounding him at every turn.
As he barnstorms the country in a virtual bubble, Bonds grants only brief news conferences the first day he arrives in a new city and often exploits the sessions to lash out at the media. He tapes the exchanges with a digital recorder, he told a reporter in Philadelphia, "so I can post you on my website, and if you write anything crazy, it's going to be on there, sir."
In a brief interview with the Globe, Bonds attributed his poor public image to mischaracterizations by the media.
"Everything with me is like that, brother, come on," he said. "I don't even get upset about it anymore."
This year, Bonds all but invited the Philadelphia fans to taunt him when he walked to his position in left field. As the crowd chanted, "You use steroids," Bonds began waving his arms as if he were Keith Lockhart conducting the Boston Pops.
Leading the chant from the sixth row of the left-field bleachers were Jonathan Woodring and Zachary Read, who had roomed together as graduate students in Boston. Woodring wore a Curt Schilling Red Sox practice jersey.
"He is a disgrace to baseball," Woodring said of Bonds. "I think he knew what he was doing and knew it was wrong. I think he thought he couldn't be caught."
Woodring and Read joined the crowd in various chants riffing off the grand jury investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative. The inquiry has yielded convictions against five individuals, including Bonds's personal trainer, Greg Anderson and BALCO founder Victor Conte Jr., and has implicated numerous elite athletes, including Bonds, Yankees slugger Jason Giambi, and the Tigers' Gary Sheffield.
"I don't like the guy, but I remember how great a player he was before steroids," Read said. "I think it's important to note that whether or not he did [steroids], he still is probably the greatest player I'll see in my lifetime. He deserves a lot of hell, but he also deserves to be acknowledged for what he did in the years before this."
An imposing figure at 6 feet 2 inches and 238 pounds, Bonds clutched a handful of black maple bats as he strode to his dugout news conference from the visitors' clubhouse, where a table near his locker was stacked with newspapers, one bearing the headline, "Bonds Circus Comes to Town." There also was a copy of "ESPN the Magazine," whose cover story was, "The Secret Keepers: How Clubhouse Gofers Became Baseball's Steroid Connection."
"Does this constantly still shock you, the frenzy that is created around you?" a reporter asked to start the session.
"No, I'm not shocked at all," Bonds said.
"After all these years, it doesn't . . .?"
"It's been there a long time."
"Do you ever wonder why?"
"Sometimes, but I don't really have an opinion about it. Not really at all."
"With all the attention, are you enjoying this, chasing the record?"
"I'm not talking about the record. I only talk about us as a team."
"Do you have a sense of what Hank Aaron went through, with all the death threats and the hate mail?"
"I wasn't there."
"Haven't you gotten some of that?" a reporter asked about death threats and hate mail.
"I receive it," Bonds said, "but I'm staying focused on my team."
"How difficult has it been to tune all of that out, all of us and all of the fans?"
"Why do I need to tune you in?" Bonds said. "There's no reason to tune you in. None. Zero."
He struck a softer tone in his interview with the Globe. He said he visited Boston for the first time after the Globe quoted him in 2004 as saying, "Boston is too racist for me. I couldn't play there."
Though Bonds made clear in the interview that he had never visited the city and based his view on the opinions of others -- both of which the Globe reported -- his remarks caused consternation throughout the community as Boston prepared to host the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
He said he no longer harbors any malice toward Boston. Bonds's 17-year-old son, Nikolai, spent the 2005-06 academic year at Valley View School in North Brookfield, a private boarding school that describes itself as "a therapeutic environment for boys between the ages of 11 and 16 who are having trouble coping with their family, the world around them, and themselves." Bonds visited the school, about 60 miles west of Boston, for a parents' day.
"I had a good time in Boston when I was there," he said.
Asked what he liked about Boston, Bonds said, "I didn't do any sightseeing. I was just there to visit my son."
Nor did he have much to say about Schilling, who last month asserted in an interview on WEEI that Bonds admitted to cheating on his wife, his taxes, and the game. Schilling later apologized for the remarks.
"I don't even think about him, man," Bonds said.
Bonds was relatively pleasant throughout the interview and extended his hand to the Globe reporter when it ended.
But he otherwise has bred little good will in the game. Baseball writers have derided him as loathsome, surly, churlish, rude, arrogant, petulant, boorish, pompous, spoiled, and mean-spirited, among other aspersions. They have called him a lout, a twit, a jerk, and a jackass, as have some of his teammates.
"He has always been a difficult guy to get along with at times, even for his teammates," Burkett said from his home in Texas. "If you're not on his team, it's almost impossible."
"Personally, I hope Barry dies," Pete Diana, the former team photographer for the Pirates, is quoted as saying in Jeff Pearlman's biography, "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero."
"I hate him that much," Diana said, incensed that Bonds refused to sign memorabilia to auction for the children of two Pirates groundskeepers who died in a car crash.
Bonds also has shown little love for baseball's Hall of Fame. While he charges nearly $2,000 on his website (barrybonds.com) for an autographed Giants jersey and is gathering a trove of collectibles as he approaches Aaron's record, Bonds has cast doubt on whether he will donate even a single souvenir to the shrine in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"I'm not worried about the Hall," the Associated Press last month quoted Bonds as saying. "I take care of me."
Aaron, 73, withstood racially motivated death threats against himself and kidnapping threats against his children while he chased Ruth's record in 1974. He wants no part of Bonds.
"I don't have any thoughts about Barry," Aaron said in a news conference last week. "I don't even know how to spell his name."
Nor has commissioner Bud Selig stoked any enthusiasm for Bonds's march toward the milestone. Selig has yet to publicly state whether he will attend the game when Bonds makes history. The event would force Selig into the awkward position of publicly honoring a record-breaker who later could face possible criminal charges for lying under oath about his steroid use.
Bonds has publicly denied using illegal performance enhancers. He told the grand jury he believed two of the substances he allegedly used -- undetectable steroids known as the Cream and the Clear -- were nothing more than a balming lotion and flaxseed oil, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Bonds caused problems for another teammate, however, after he tested positive last year for amphetamines, according to the New York Daily News. Bonds blamed Giants outfielder Mark Sweeney, attributing the positive test to a substance he took from Sweeney's locker, the newspaper reported. The paper said Major League Baseball referred Bonds for treatment and counseling, while Sweeney denied any wrongdoing and was not disciplined.
Bonds later issued a public apology to Sweeney, a Framingham native who played at Holliston High School and the University of Maine.
"It was a misunderstanding, one of those things that got blown out of proportion," Sweeney said in an interview. "Individually, we took care of it. We ironed it out. It's over and done with."
Sweeney was among several Giants with Boston connections who said Bonds should be acknowledged for his greatness.
"What he goes through, hearing the boos and the chants and still being able to play at an extremely high level, that's amazing to a lot of us," Sweeney said.
Bonds has all but limped toward the record in recent weeks, slowed by age and his surgically repaired knees, among other maladies. After starting the season with 11 home runs in his first 77 at-bats, he has homered only twice in 81 at-bats, though he continues to generate excitement each time he steps to the plate. Bonds remains so feared by opposing pitchers that he has received 64 walks, the most in the major leagues.
Love him or hate him, his teammates said, the Fenway fans will witness a singular sensation.
"He obviously will get his fair share of boos," said Giants outfielder Dave Roberts, who will be remembered in Red Sox lore for his role in helping to win the 2004 World Series. "But it would be sad if the fans in Boston don't appreciate what a great talent he is.
"Players like him come along once in a generation."
Bob Hohler can be reached at email@example.com.