Glum Bonds says knee may cost him season

Sad ending comes into focus

March 23, 2005|By David Steele

THAT WASN'T A sitcom episode Barry Bonds delivered at the San Francisco Giants' spring training headquarters yesterday. No Sanford and Son references this time. There was nothing funny about how he looked or sounded as he spoke, or about what he said.

In fact, if this were another TV show, it might have been the series finale. The farewell. And it would be a bigger deal than the last episode of M*A*S*H.

No, Bonds didn't go as far as to say he'd never play again, but never before yesterday had the end been so easy to see. Something beyond the usual edgy give-and-take with reporters really got to him yesterday. Something besides the knee that's giving him more trouble than any injury before. Something besides the arrival, like clockwork, of another revelation linking him to steroids, and even something besides the uncovering of allegations of infidelity.

It might be a combination of all of that, in fact - as well as what might have been a glimpse of his own future, in the shrunken form and reputation of Mark McGwire, transforming in one afternoon from the legendary Big Mac to a Little Wuss in front of Congress and a national audience.

Remember, it was a sudden onset of knee problems - a physical breakdown in the wake of a late-career home run surge - that drove McGwire into retirement after the 2001 season, and away from the visibility and scrutiny that, as it turns out, belatedly caught up to him anyway.

Now, here is Bonds, getting worse-than-expected news about his knees and about reported exposure of his personal life, and doing a 180-degree turn in barely three weeks from the combative, taunting protagonist of one of the all-time classic news conferences, to the morose veteran offering the closest thing to a concession speech you might ever hear.

This might be the most fortuitous knee injury in the history of professional sports. Bonds could never have planned it that way - and to be clear, there's no doubting whether the knee problems of a highly productive 40-year-old athlete are legit - but if it gives him an exit strategy that might provide him a semblance of peace of mind, he might be inclined to walk away from both the records he's chasing and the oppressive heat he'll face on the way.

Right up until yesterday, Bonds had acted and sounded as if he would play until he was 50, just to show up all his critics. He'd put the career home run record out of reach for the next 10 generations, and smirk and stick his tongue out all the way there - either that or snarl and glare his way there. Either that, or he'd taunt everybody by passing Babe Ruth and then quitting short of Hank Aaron.

Now, it appears that none of that is worth it to him. Not the physical pain he apparently is facing, and definitely not the aggravation he'll experience over the next two or three years. If he wasn't sure if his time atop the home run chart was forever tainted, then McGwire's fall from grace had to have convinced him.

No player had been immune from this scandal the way McGwire had. If he took a damaging hit from this, with all the influential figures in baseball, the media and the fan base making excuses for him all these years, then what chance does Bonds have with all the bridges he's burned?

Bonds' very words, and the tone in which he delivered them, indicate the weight he feels he's carrying around. He acknowledged that he's hurting physically, but spent far more time talking about the mental toll. He pointed the finger at the media, out of habit, but the signs that he's in trouble aren't coming from the newspaper or television; if he's worried more about the media than the feds, elected or otherwise, then he probably does need a long vacation.

Plus, he's having what you might call a family crisis. He's getting it literally from all sides, and now his body is betraying him. He may officially be out of places to hide.

Until now, the game has been Bonds' refuge, never more so than two summers ago when his father, Bobby, died. Bobby was the most important member of an intensely and intentionally small inner circle. That was MVP awards ago.

Now, the game is his tormentor. His whole body of work is under suspicion, and it will be not just as long as he plays, not just as long as he lives, but as long as they play baseball in America. It's hard to imagine a player going through a level of abuse comparable to what Aaron endured 30 years ago, but Bonds' chase would come close.

Yesterday, Bonds sounded like a man wholly uninterested in facing that. He sounded more like a man who'd rather hoist himself up on his sore 40-year-old knees, limp away and hope that nobody follows him.

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