SAN FRANCISCO -- When Barry Bonds signed a $43 million contract with the San Francisco Giants, folks around here -- and just about elsewhere else -- were asking, "How can you pay anybody that much money?"
Now they know.
This is not to argue that any ballplayer is worth that kind of money. It "is" to say that if any player is, his name is Barry Bonds.
"He's the best," said Phillies manager Jim Fregosi.
"He's the best in the game," echoed Darren Daulton. "He's probably underpaid."
Spoken like a true player rep, to be sure . . . and yet Daulton had reason to wax ecstatic Wednesday after getting a close-up look at a vintage Bonds performance. All Bobby Bonds' kid did was rip a double to right, smash a blistering single off John Kruk's glove, line a single to right, and cap his day by lining a double off the fence in right-center.
Not bad, even by Barry Bonds' standards. When the day mercifully ended, he was hitting .432, slugging -- now get this! -- .875, and leading the league in RBI, runs, on-base percentage, doubles, multi-hit games and standing ovations from his adoring fans in Candlestick Park's new left-field bleachers.
Granted, he's only second in home runs, walks and outfield assists, but it's early.
"I knew he was good," said Chub Feeney, the former National League president, "but I didn't know he was this good."
Heck, not even Barry Bonds is "this" good.
"You're kind of spoiling everybody real early," a radio interviewer told him after Wednesday's 4-for-4 outburst.
"It changes, man," Bonds told him. "Don't get all wrapped up in that."
OK, so maybe he won't hit .400 this season. Maybe he won't make longtime Giants fans forget Willie Mays. But he's doing a good job of making them remember how Willie Mays played in his heyday.
"He's as good as I've seen -- I mean for all-around" Richie Ashburn said about the young man who, in a month's time, has done the near-impossible: convinced even those who criticized the deal last winter that he's worth what he's getting.
"He's right up there with Mays and Aaron," said Ashburn. "He's a great outfielder. I'd put him close to Clemente, and I never saw one better than Clemente."
Hardly a game goes by that Bonds doesn't impress his new-found fans with a spectacular play. On Tuesday night, he came racing in to take a hit away from John Kruk with a diving catch. Wednesday, he made a catch that surprised even him, --ing across the foul line into the visiting bullpen and snaring Daulton's slicing drive in the webbing of his glove.
"I didn't think I caught it," Bonds said. "I stuck out my glove. It hit my glove."
If there was one redeeming feature to Wednesday's 11-2 blowout, it was that the lopsided score encouraged the Phillies to keep throwing strikes to Bonds, thereby enabling him to put on a hitting show worth the price of admission, and then some.
Maybe Expos manager Felipe Alou did the unthinkable Sunday, electing to pitch to Bonds with first base open and the game on the line in the ninth inning. No way Fregosi would ever do that.
"The only time I pitch to him [in critical situations] is when I'm forced to," the Phillies manager said.
Alou learned his lesson the hard way Sunday, as Bonds stroked the first pitch to left to score the winning run against the Expos.
It takes a strong person to live up to a $43 million price tag, to rise to the challenge, meet the most unrealistic of expectations rather than crumble under the pressure.
"You have to be a hard-nosed S.O.B. to survive [in this game]," Fregosi said the other day. "That's why I love Bonds. He's tough."
The first time Bonds faced Fregosi's club this year -- in a 9-8 Phillies comeback victory at the Vet -- he was walked four times, and didn't like it a bit.
"He said to me, 'You walk me and I'm going to punch you,' " Fregosi recalled of their next-day conversation. "You watch him. He looks at me from the on-deck circle until he gets to home plate. Just stares at me."
Wednesday, Bonds was swinging, not staring. Hey, let him have his fun. Next time these teams meet, if the game is close, he'll be walking . . . and staring again.
In the meantime, the newest Giants superstar is having the time of his life, earning the admiration of the opposition, not to mention the Candlestick bleacherites, who have gotten in the habit of standing and bowing in his direction whenever the occasion warrants.
"I'm a happy player," Bonds said Wednesday, and he looked it.
So far, the folks paying him that $43 million are happy, too.