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Miles apart

The Baltimore Sun

The cities are 2,500 miles apart, on opposite sides of the country, and possess contrasting reputations.

There's Pittsburgh, the blue-collar Steel City that has provided America with sweat and grit, as well as Bill Cowher's granite jaw and sandwiches stuffed with meat, fries and coleslaw.

And then there's San Francisco, the famed seaport turned liberal hotspot for Bohemian thinking, computer wizardry and eclectic dining. It has created its own slice of Americana, giving us cable cars, the Gold Rush and Jerry Garcia.

However, the two cities are, in some ways, alike. Both are located along water and surrounded by some of the country's steepest hills. Both were and continue to be havens for immigrants.

And the cities share a link in the sports world - a figure irksome to those in Pittsburgh, revered by those in San Francisco and a cause for consternation basically everywhere else in between.

Barry Bonds.

The San Francisco Giants' controversial slugger, on the precipice of becoming major league baseball's all-time home run king, spent most of his formative years in suburban San Francisco, but began his big league baseball career with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

As a free agent after the 1992 season, Bonds returned home and joined the Giants, where his talents - and later, accusations that he used performance-enhancing drugs - elevated him from star player to national curiosity.

Now Bonds is again at the center of the baseball world, just two homers from tying Hank Aaron's record 755. And, generally speaking, the only two major league towns he has called home couldn't be further apart in sentiment about the man. However, the steroid whispers don't seem to play much into either city's outlook on Bonds.

"The only two places that nobody thinks about [Bonds and steroids] is Pittsburgh and San Francisco," said Pirates announcer Bob Walk, a former teammate of Bonds' in Pittsburgh. "He is loved there and hated here, and it has nothing to do with steroids."

Postseason woes

The Pirates selected Bonds out of Arizona State with the sixth pick in the 1985 amateur draft. Within a year, he was in the majors, and by 1990 he had won the first of his record seven National League Most Valuable Player Awards.

He placed second in MVP voting in 1991 and won it again as a Pirate in 1992, while Pittsburgh went to the NL Championship Series for the third consecutive season. The Pirates never made it to the World Series, however. And Bonds, a sleeker version of the 240-pound behemoth he is now, batted .191 with one homer and three RBIs in 20 postseason games for Pittsburgh.

In his last act as a Pirate, in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the 1992 NLCS, Bonds failed to throw out the plodding Sid Bream, who was running from second to home on a single to left. Bream scored the winning run, the Atlanta Braves went to the World Series and Bonds shortly thereafter bailed for a then-record six-year, $43.75 million deal.

Fair or not, postseason failure is the legacy he left in Pittsburgh.

"I grew up watching him, but he never did anything in the big games," said Kevin Gray, a native of Pittsburgh, while at a Pirates game earlier this summer at PNC Park. "He couldn't throw Sid Bream out at the plate. ... [Bream] had half a knee left between his two legs."

But it wasn't just Bonds' lack of clutch postseason play that soured Pirates fans. He could have become Pittsburgh's next beloved outfield hero, in the tradition of Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, but he didn't have the inclination to play up to the fans or media, Walk said.

Therefore, despite superior talent, Bonds might have been behind Andy Van Slyke, Jay Bell and even Jose Lind in popularity during those Pirates glory years.

"He just wanted to do what he wanted to do - go out and be a great, great baseball player and then have everyone just leave him alone," Walk said. "So there was no way with that type of attitude that he was ever even close to approaching Stargell as far as being popular.

"Now maybe he would have if he had been here the whole time and never would have left, and as he got older and mellowed out a little bit, he probably would have mended some bridges. Who knows? That's a tough call."

That speculation is all water under the Roberto Clemente Bridge now.

When Bonds left for greenbacks and greener pastures, Pirates fans tabbed him as a disloyal, money-grubbing gun for hire. But Bonds, unlike many superstars, has demonstrated hometown loyalty by remaining in San Francisco for the past 15 years. And the Pirates, who haven't had a winning season since Bonds left, have since developed a reputation for not re-signing their quality players.

"It doesn't matter - that's Pittsburgh," said Tawnia St. Amant, 28, who attends a double-digit number of Pirates games most seasons. "[Fans] boo him, but that goes for anybody who ever played for the Pirates and left. They could have been diehard Pirates and just happened to be traded. If they come back, they'll be booed."

The last time she attended a Giants-Pirates game, she said, vendors were selling "Boo Bonds" T-shirts. She didn't purchase one, but she has bought into the sentiment. The steroid controversy surrounding Bonds doesn't bother her. It just makes it even easier not to cheer for him.

"I'm not a fan, to be honest. Not a fan of Bonds," St. Amant said. "I think people feel like when he played here he was a true athlete compared to whatever he supposedly is now."

Change of heart

Yet maybe, just maybe, Pittsburgh fans are softening ever so slightly.

On April 13, in his lone game at PNC Park so far this season (other games were postponed by weather), Bonds homered twice. The first came in the second inning, and was accompanied by a shower of boos. He did it again two innings later.

"By the time he got the second home run, half the people in the stadium were standing up clapping and cheering," Walk said. "I think they are starting to give in to: 'Hey, this guy is something special. And he's not the only guy to have left here. Everybody has left. Nobody has stayed around.'"

For his part, Bonds, 43, said he and Pittsburgh have kissed and made up.

"Pittsburgh has changed," he said. "Pittsburgh is always like, once you leave they like you, they do. It's a little bit different, [but] Pittsburgh is not bad at all."

There is, however, no place like home.

And Bonds would love to hit his historic 755th and 756th homers in San Francisco - the town where he is a favorite son.

"I have had the best time of my life here in San Francisco. It can't be better. The best relationship on the planet," Bonds said. "These people I grew up with. You can't turn my friends against me. ... We are deeper than just me in a uniform."

That's not just Bonds' rhetoric. The town is undoubtedly smitten with Bonds the player and, yes, Bonds the person.

You could tell by the way AT&T; Park erupted when he was announced at this month's All-Star Game. Bonds tipped his cap and bowed to each corner of the stadium while flashbulbs flickered.

"I just like the man. I like that he is himself," said San Francisco native Corinne Aguilar, who attended the All-Star Game wearing a Bonds jersey. "He has had to deal with a whole lot of bad press. The media is so hard on him. ... The media never cuts him a break."

That's a typical refrain in the Bay Area - that nationwide Bonds has been unfairly singled out after his grand jury testimony in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative case leaked.

"I think it is a witch hunt, the whole steroid thing," said Aguilar, 64. "I have kids and I am glad baseball is cleaning up its act with steroids, but don't pick on one man when everybody was doing it. ... Start fresh if you are going to clean up baseball, but don't make a big thing about him, just because he is so great."

Unconditional love

Unless he is proved guilty for using performance-enhancers, his fans aren't giving in. Perhaps it's blind adoration or simply life in San Francisco.

"It's the Bay Area," said Percy Massey, 54, who wore a Willie Mays jersey to the All-Star Game. "I think we are more open here."

In a recent Sports Illustrated article, however, San Francisco was portrayed as torn in its appreciation of Bonds. Not so, said Edan Yee, a San Francisco physical therapist who has missed just one Giants home game this season.

"In general, the overwhelming majority of people here support him," said Yee, 35. "I'm pretty sure [Sports Illustrated] was looking for people that would say something bad about him."

At least during the All-Star Barryfest, Bonds detractors were laying low. And his fans were showing their love with money. According to a supervisor at the main AT&T; Park merchandise stand, nearly 1,000 Bonds All-Star jerseys and T-shirts were purchased before the game's first pitch. In comparison, the stand had ordered 200 jerseys and T-shirts of other big-name stars. And none had sold out.

Part of the reason for the loyalty is that Bonds resuscitated the Giants. In 1992, they finished fifth of six teams in the NL West with a 72-90 record. The next season, with Bonds, they won 103 games and nearly made the playoffs.

"He was new hope," Yee said. "The team was potentially leaving. And then we get the big-name guy. It meant a fresh start with someone who was a superstar already."

It also meant four postseason appearances from 1997 to 2003 and one World Series trip - the Giants' second since 1962. In that 2002 World Series, a seven-game loss to the Anaheim Angels, Bonds batted .471 with four homers.

A much different story than the one he wrote in Pittsburgh.

That was 15 years and 2,500 miles ago. He is lifetimes away from that slender, cocky kid with the speed, power and baseball pedigree that stormed Pittsburgh. Yet his greatest day on a baseball field still could involve the Pirates if he doesn't get on a tear.

The Pirates visit San Francisco from Aug. 10 to 12. Then, because of the April cancellations, the teams fly to Pittsburgh for a doubleheader Aug. 13.

It would be a fitting subplot if the home run that propels baseball's most polarizing figure to break its most sacred record comes for his hometown team against the city he left embittered.

"I know how popular he is in San Francisco. They put statues up for him and stuff there," said Walk, his old Pirates teammate. "Maybe it could have happened here, too, but not the way it ended."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

BONDS CHASES AARON

Last night: Did not play vs. Braves

Tonight: Braves @ Giants, 7:05 p.m.

Online: Go to baltimoresun.com/baseball

AARON -- 755

BONDS -- 753

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