For a night, Bonds beats bad-bat blues

JOHN EISENBERG

October 12, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

PITTSBURGH -- After his disaster of a playoff series reached a low point in Game 4 Saturday night, Barry Bonds spent 90 minutes in conversation with his manager, Jim Leyland. Then he went home and spoke for two hours on the phone with his old teammate, Bobby Bonilla.

"I didn't get to bed until 6 in the morning," Bonds said last night.

His mind was turbulent with emotion. For the third straight year, he was falling apart in the National League playoffs. This time, with his contract up and free agency looming, he was having these terrible, conflicting thoughts about his six years in Pittsburgh coming to an end.

"I didn't think it would bother me because my father was traded a lot," he said, referring to his major-league dad, Bobby Bonds. "But I was feeling real emotional. And to have another series like this, I was going, like, how could everything just fall apart after such a good season?"

Such were the circumstances when Bonds approached the plate in the first inning of Game 5 last night. The Braves were one win away from wrapping up the series, and Bonds had one hit in four games. There were some boos when his name was announced.

You have to understand the history. After Game 1, in which his failure to get a hit dropped his lifetime postseason average to somewhere near a reasonable score on an eighth-grade algebra test, he had struck a brave pose.

"You need to make sure you enjoy yourself when you make the playoffs," he said. "I'm having a good time. I really am."

After Game 2, he joked with reporters and offered this caveat: "It's not like I'm going to have a nervous breakdown or anything. I mean, I'm a husband and a father. That's enough stress for anyone."

But by the end of Game 4, his series average down to .091, he was unable to summon even a phony smile.

"Don't even come near me!" he shouted when the clubhouse door opened and reporters streamed in.

Could you blame him?

Back in the first inning of Game 1 Tuesday, Bonds struck out and immediately CBS ran a graphic on his failings. One at-bat, and he was getting buried.

By yesterday, a local FM station was running a promotion in which the winner was the 10th person who called "after you heard the sound of Barry Bonds choking in the playoffs." In the middle of the next song, there was the sound of someone coughing. Tough town.

I must confess: I'd been feeling a little sorry for him. He has a history of mouthiness, and normally you would find no quibble here with an overpaid, egocentric ballplayer getting his comeuppance. But to see him stripped this naked was getting just a little obscene.

But then Bonds spoke with Leyland and Bonilla until dawn, and they calmed him and encouraged him, and then his wife surprised him and flew Bonilla in for the game. Then he went out with his family yesterday afternoon to a restaurant. Call it an emotional rescue.

"I didn't want to go in there, but there were all these people in there and they were just so supportive," he said. "I must admit, I was feeling better when I came up to bat. Just not so tense."

A steady drizzle was letting up when Bonds approached the plate in the bottom of the first. The temperature was dropping into the 40s and there were thousands of empty seats in the outfield. It seemed like a good night to wrap up a depressing series for the Pirates.

But the Pirates were already up a run, and then Bonds was working Atlanta pitcher Steve Avery to a full count. Then Avery delivered a high fastball, and, suddenly, just like old times, the ball was flying to right-center and up against the wall, and Bonds was sprinting to second. The crowd was screeching.

"Standing there, thinking about all the people who'd told me in the last 24 hours that this jinx was going to end, I wanted to shout out, 'You people, you were right!' " he said.

The Pirates went on to score four runs in the inning, making for an easy night and a 7-1 win that narrowed Atlanta's series lead to 3-2 with the teams going back to Atlanta to finish up. Bonds later singled, stole second and scored, and made a superb running catch in the outfield. Just like that, he was back.

Maybe it was his calming talks with Leyland and Bonilla. Maybe it was the sheer randomness of the game, at last on his side. Maybe it was just a big night. For whatever reason, he finally was back, at least for a night, and the Pirates were big again. The only problem, of course, was that it was probably too late.

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