Hobbled Bonds finds it difficult to outrun his mounting problems

March 24, 2005|By PETER SCHMUCK

This is how I'll remember Barry Bonds.

When the Orioles hosted the All-Star Game in 1993 , I took my wife to the big All-Star Gala at the Inner Harbor, and happened to run into Bonds' agent at the time, Dennis Gilbert.

I knew Dennis from L.A., and we fell into a nice conversation in which he tried to make the case that Barry was getting a bad rap from the national media. Bonds, he said, was really a very nice guy once you got to know him, and then he decided to prove it to us.

He called over to Bonds, who was in another conversation about 15 feet away, and beckoned him into our group.

Barry took a few steps toward us, looked me and my wife up and down, and then reduced the guy who had just gotten him the biggest contract in baseball history (at the time) to an embarrassed grin.

"Dennis, I don't want to meet any more of your [expletive] friends."

I don't relate this anecdote to denigrate Bonds, because I thought his reaction was both hilarious and 100 percent honest. He has never tried to portray himself as the world's nicest human and it would have been phony for him to come over and fawn over a couple of people he didn't care a wit about.

But the incident jumped back into my mind on Tuesday when Barry trotted out his son as an emotional prop and tried to play martyr during the announcement that he could miss most or all of the coming season after a follow-up knee operation.

I kind of liked the old Barry, in a weird sort of way. He could be nasty and condescending and openly defiant, and he could also be charming and thoughtful and a wonderful interview.

He was (and I use the past tense because I suspect he might have hit his last ball into McCovey Cove) a wonderful player long before he was suspected of using steroids, and will be remembered as one of the five greatest players in the history of the game even if that tawdry chemical cloud hangs over him into immortality.

That's why his performance on Tuesday was such a disappointment. He made the same mistake that Mark McGwire made last week, trying so hard to change the subject that no one could think about anything else.

Somehow, he tried to link his second knee operation to a media conspiracy to prevent him from passing Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron on the all-time home run list - as if the real issue was not his alleged use of steroids or the possibility of a BALCO indictment or the opportunistic former girlfriend who has created a firestorm on the home front, but the fact that the media had the nerve to put all of his dirty business on the street.

It reached the point where I was surprised he didn't go on to blame the media for global warming, the federal deficit and spiraling gasoline prices.

Depending on who you talk to, it was either the worst retirement speech ever or just the frustrated ramblings of a world-weary guy who finally sees the writing on the clubhouse wall.

The all-time home run record is tantalizingly close and Bonds could miss the entire 2005 season because of his failing knee. How many 40-something players come back from that kind of thing?

The BALCO investigation isn't going away, and now there are whispers that he could be indicted for perjury if the grand jury believes that he lied when he reportedly testified that he never knowingly used steroids.

The prospect of an old girlfriend/mistress writing a tell-all book adds a level of discomfort at home that no one should wish on Bonds or his family.

Bonds' fatalistic statements on Tuesday also created the predictable buzz that he might be trying to drop out of sight before the next round of steroid testing, but there is no evidence that he is overplaying his knee injury, and he would have no reason to believe that starting the season on the disabled list would exempt him from testing anyway.

This is no grand conspiracy to protect his legacy, which already has been badly tarnished by the revelations of the past year. This is a proud, wounded man who is just beginning to figure out that he's in a fight he cannot win.

The knee injury is real, but it also is sadly symbolic, since Bonds may be walking with a limp long after it has fully healed.

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