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Giant success: Bonds stages a victory tour Baseball's best player not best-loved


Could you see Joe DiMaggio on "Arsenio"?

Or Ted Williams running through a Nike ad?

Or Willie Mays chasing fly balls while wearing a diamond stud earring with a dangling cross?

Not likely. But this is the 1990s. Baseball's best player can tell jokes, sell sneakers and wear an earring, any time he wants.

And he can even earn $43.75 million over six seasons.

Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants is the baseball star as entertainer. Others play the game -- he plays the country, stadium by stadium, bashing balls over fences and making the most preposterous catches appear ridiculously easy.

When the 64th All-Star Game is played tomorrow night at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, there will be 55 other players representing the American and National leagues.

And then there is Bonds, the left fielder, the star of his own show, the leading vote-getter in fan balloting for the National League All-Stars.

"It doesn't matter how much you pay me," he says. "Or how much you boo. I'm in a cage. There is nowhere to hide. Nowhere to run. I'm not out there to smile at you, to sign a bunch of autographs. I'm out there to perform for you, to give you your money's worth. I want to give you the best performance that I've got. You'll see the determination. The frustration. The smile and fun times. You'll see it all."

The man is not boasting. He makes the statement in the visitors clubhouse at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium on Thursday night. Outside, it's 100 degrees. Fans strip off their shirts. A cameraman alongside the Giants dugout passes out. And Bonds plays.

He gets a single. He launches a home run with only one hand grabbing his 34-inch, 32-ounce bat. He hits a second home run. He drives in six runs.

Just another night on tour.

"Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle. Their legends grew when their careers ended," said Brett Butler of the Los Angeles Dodgers. "When the numbers come out and Barry is out of the game, then he'll be in that same legend stage. There is no doubt, Barry Bonds is the best player in baseball."

He has been labeled arrogant, aloof and self-absorbed.

Sports Illustrated dissected him in a withering cover story, "I'm Barry Bonds, And You're Not."

His former manager, Jim Leyland of the Pittsburgh Pirates, upbraided him in a videotaped argument during spring training 1991. The pair eventually grew closer, but the tape defined Bonds' image.

Fans come to boo him, not to cheer.

Yet when he is willing, Bonds can be charming, vulnerable, funny and friendly, a smile breaking across his face and crinkling his mustache.

During the first five minutes of an interview, he singles out no fewer than 15 of his teammates for their playing abilities, and says he was "a little nervous," the first time he entered the Giants clubhouse.

"No one really knows you," he says. "People say about Barry Bonds, 'He's just a big mouth. Shut up.' But when it gets to 7 o'clock, you see a whole different Barry Bonds."

Bonds doesn't claim to be misunderstood -- he only claims to be himself, a workaholic baseball player who trains year-round and yearns to play every day.

"I beat a lot of odds that were against me," he says. "Just the ordinary pressure. The press. The expectations. Contract negotiations. Arbitration problems. But I've always been able to handle it, deal with it, take it on the chin and keep going."

Growing up in public

Bonds turns 29 in 12 days and has grown in the public eye. His is very much a life of baseball, a West Coast version of the Ripken family story.

His father, Bobby Bonds, now the Giants' first-base coach, was a San Francisco star who hit 332 career home runs and made three All-Star teams. His godfather is Mays, a baseball icon.

His idols, in no given order, are Mays, Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson. His long-range ambition is to pursue an acting career, and he already has taken bit roles in two movies.

"I never compared Barry to me, and I never will," Bobby Bonds says. "That's for other people. In high school, they tried. In college, they tried. In Pittsburgh, they tried. But we've been around this game for a long, long time. Barry has been around pro baseball since the day he was born."

He is a singular star, winner of two Most Valuable Player awards in the past three seasons, which he played with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But now he is baseball's Giant, heading west as a free agent last winter, signing the richest contract in the game's history and then igniting San Francisco in its first-half turnaround from second-worst to first.

"Is anyone worth the kind of money Barry is getting?" asked Peter Magowan, Giants president and managing general partner. "It's hard to say. But I did believe that Barry should be the best-paid player if he is in fact the best player in the game."

"I used to say the best player I ever saw was Willie Mays," Magowan added. "But I never saw anyone play like Barry Bonds in the first two months of this season."

Student of baseball

The numbers are a revelation: .348 batting average, 24 home runs and 71 RBI. Bonds is making a serious run for the Triple Crown -- to lead the league in all three categories -- on his way to a third Most Valuable Player award.

"Sometimes, it feels like he's out there playing Little League baseball," says San Francisco shortstop Royce Clayton. "There is a side of Barry people don't get a chance to see. He is a big student of the game. He doesn't just go out there and play."

Bonds studies pitchers. And hitters. He drives opponents to distraction by playing the shallowest left field in baseball. He even motions with his glove for a batter to send the ball his way.

"He might not impress people with his attitude and his swagger," the San Diego Padres' Tony Gwynn says. "Don't form an opinion on what you see before the game. Form your opinion on what you see during the game."

But for all his greatness, Bonds lacks one thing: a World Series ring.

He has appeared in the National League playoffs the past three years, coming away one step short of the World Series, compiling a .191 postseason batting average.

He says the past disappointments have not affected him.

And yet, Bonds adds that he is fearful of the impact winning a World Series could have on the rest of his career.

"I think it would be special if we could win," he says. "All that does is make it more scary for me and my career. People will label me, 'He's a man who can win for a team.' The expectation will then be, 'Can he do it again?' I don't want it to be, 'Can Barry do it again?' I want it, 'Can the team do it again?' "

He earns $7 million a year. He is expected to hit home runs and win pennants and collect World Series rings.

His father was a terrific ballplayer. His godfather became a legend.

Barry Bonds remains the entertainer in search of a bigger stage.

"It's kind of like I want to put my family out of reach of any father-son-godfather combination that ever played the game," he said. "Whether it's home runs, World Series rings or All-Star appearances, I want it out of reach."

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