Bonds the coach can repair his relationship with baseball
MAR 12, 2014 12:00p ET
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Tuesday at Scottsdale Stadium, spring-training home of the San Francisco Giants, three old baseball players were sitting around a table, talking about the things old baseball players talk about.
Alas, I didn’t show up until Wednesday. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d been talking about home runs, since the trio – Barry Bonds, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey – combined for 1,943 home runs in the majors, the great majority of them while wearing Giants uniforms. And one of the wonderful things about spring training is the almost routine collection of historical (and historic) talent. Baseball's a many-splendored thing, and one of its splendors is the sort of scene in that lockerroom on Tuesday.
Which is why I can’t agree more with Jim Caple’s take on Bonds’ reincarnation as a one-week hitting instructor:
In the meantime, it's good to see Bonds back in the game. He was always viewed as a villain more for his personality than for whatever he did on or off the field. This move probably won't affect his chances of getting voted into the Hall of Fame -- McGwire's return to the game hasn't improved his chances -- but that really isn't the issue.
If Bonds is serious about this role, perhaps he can give back to the game. And that is far better than having the game's all-time home run king sitting at home as a pariah who hurts the game's image.
I missed Bonds’ introductory news conference on Monday, but I’ve spoken to a number of writers who were there, and by all accounts he didn’t just say all the right things; he sold them, showing sincerity and humility that he’d never showed before. For example, when asked what might come next, he said, “Not everyone is suited for the job and I may not be either. I don't know. I have seven days to find out if I am.”
The early returns, though, have been overwhelmingly positive. The San Francisco Chronicle’s John Shea, who’s been covering Bonds since he joined the Giants in 1993, told me, “It’s awesome. He’s so animated. I’ve never seen him so helpful.”
What a difference retirement makes.
When he played, Bonds had little to say about hitting to his own teammates. As he put it the other day: “We don't work together all the time, sir. They can be traded. ... It was never personal. It was, 'Why am I going to tell you something when you might be on the Rockies or someone next year and you'll tell their pitchers?'
“This is a business,” he continued. “And I treated it like a business. That was the only reason. It was never to not socialize on that level with my teammates. It's just that it's a business and I saw a lot of players come and go.”
Well, yes. But there’s a long history of great players – business-friendly players who did want to make piles of money for themselves and their teammates – who enthusiastically shared tips with teammates. In fact, many of them loved to help players on other teams.
While I’ve often wondered how Ted Williams justified talking to enemy ballplayers about hitting, I also wonder how Bonds could justify not talking to his teammates. It seems to me that if you could build some sort of equation, you would find that Bonds’ teams would have won more games in the long run if he helped his teammates rather than if he didn’t.
But all that seems like ancient history now. Three days in, anyway, as it’s been clear that Bonds means something to these new Giants, even beyond his reputation.
Hunter Pence is among the very few major leaguers who chokes up on the bat, and he chokes up because when he was 10 years old, he had a Bonds poster on his wall. Bonds choked up. When Barry Bonds talks about hitting, do you think Hunter Pence will listen?
Brandon Crawford grew up cheering for Bonds at Candlestick Park. Crawford, like Bonds, is a left-handed hitter. When Barry Bonds talks about hitting, do you think Brandon Crawford will listen?
Of course the reputation counts for something, too. And the presence.
Shortly after the Giants and their coaching staff took the field Wednesday morning, Bonds and four other coaches clustered near first base. It was clear that Bonds, without seeming overbearing about it, was The Man. Once batting practice got going, he was right behind the screen, eyes on the batter for every pitch. Sometimes Bruce Bochy was alongside, sometimes Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens. But always Bonds, except for a few moments when he demonstrated technique to Gregor Blanco.
Maybe it’s still a business, and Bonds has simply decided that coaching is now his business. But if he wasn’t actually enjoying himself, he sure was putting on a good show. And I don’t believe it’s a show. I believe he genuinely enjoys being around the game and working with young hitters.
Will this change his Hall of Fame prospects? No. Certainly not in the short or medium term. If you can’t get Ken Rosenthal on your side, you’re a long ways from Cooperstown ...
Here's the vision I can't get out of my head:
Barry Bonds at the podium in Cooperstown, making his Hall of Fame speech as if nothing ever happened.
I would cringe. I know some of the Hall of Famers would cringe. And I imagine a good number of fans would cringe, too.
We do not know exactly who did what, and to what extent. The only known truths are the statistics of each player. It's possible a PED user or two already is in the Hall, along with other cheats and miscreants.
I might counter that Bonds, as the best player in the game, bore a greater responsibility than say, the 25th man on the roster fighting for his professional life. Yet, for every point, there is a valid counter-point. Which is why I am not entirely comfortable with my position, not at all at peace.
For me, it's about the podium; I can't get past the idea of seeing Bonds on the podium. Maybe one day my position will change. I sort of hope it does.
Heck, I loved watching Barry Bonds play, too.
I’ll be honest with you. When Bonds was at his absolute best, I didn’t love watching Bonds play. I didn’t really like watching Bonds play. For me, it was like watching Herschel Walker running through a high-school defense, or a Formula 1 season when one team clearly has the best driver and the best car, and nearly every race is for second place. For me, sports are interesting when we don’t know who’s going to win; when we don’t know what’s going to happen.
Barry Bonds broke baseball. With his armored gauntlet and his 20/10 vision and his bloated physique and his perfect swing and his dazzling intellect, he broke baseball. And I didn’t really like it.
Yet I can’t deny that even before Bonds broke baseball, he was baseball’s greatest player for a number of years. I can’t deny that when I was standing 20 feet away, and he looked like he could step to the plate at 49 and pepper the outfield fence with frozen ropes, it felt like standing 20 feet from Babe Ruth or Ted Williams. I can’t deny that someone who devoted himself to becoming the greatest hitter who ever lived and actually did that belongs in the Hall of Fame.
But forget about the Hall of Fame. Caple’s right. In March, that’s not the issue. The Hall of Fame really matters for just a few days every year. Forget about Bonds’ reputation among the hoi polloi; to repair that, he’ll have to cure cancer or knock out Vladimir Putin in a cage match on FOX News. Maybe both.
You know what he can do, though? He can repair his relationship with the writers he disdained for so many years. He can make the real baseball fans, the diehards like me and you, feel better about watching him for so many years. Oh, and he might even help his old team win a few extra games.
It won’t be easy. But this seems like a pretty good start. Wednesday, I enjoyed watching Barry Bonds more than I had in a long, long time.
Rob Neyer is FOXSports.com's Senior Baseball Editor. He tweets regularly about baseball and a bunch of less important things.