Bonds takes a curtain call

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There were no signs of asterisks, syringes or steroids at PNC Park last night, only a solitary banner in the left-field bleachers that somehow seemed appropriate on this surprisingly feel-good summer evening of baseball.



Pirates fans, perhaps following the lead of sporting icons Henry Aaron, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Muhammad Ali, paid tribute to the new home run king, Barry Bonds, with standing ovations when he took the field with the San Francisco Giants for the first game of a doubleheader, then again when Pirates management honored him with a brief scoreboard video tribute between games that brought a grateful Mr. Bonds out of the dugout to tip his cap and wave to the paying customers.

Classy gestures all around considering that Mr. Bonds has been, arguably, the most reviled athlete in Pittsburgh sports history, going back to his postseason failures with the Pirates in the early 1990s, long before he was linked to the BALCO scandal and baseball's steroids controversy. The few, inevitable boos from the crowd of 25,434 couldn't come close to drowning out the night's overriding message: Steroids or not, 758 home runs are a lot of home runs.

"It was nice," Mr. Bonds said of the tribute after going 1 for 3 with a single in the first game, a 3-1 Pirates win, in what could have been his final appearance as a player in Pittsburgh. "That just goes to show Pittsburgh people understand the game."

Mr. Bonds won two National League MVP awards during his days with the Pirates from 1986-92 and led the team to three consecutive division championships from 1990-92. Not coincidentally, the franchise has not had a winning season since he left for the Giants as a free agent after the '92 playoffs.

The scoreboard tribute highlighted a couple of Mr. Bonds' marvelous accomplishments with the Pirates. It's probably just as well that it lasted only 90 seconds. There was no time to show Mr. Bonds' infamous spring training run-in with Pirates manager Jim Leyland in '91 or his throw from left field to the plate, too late to get the Atlanta Braves' Sid Bream, in Game 7 of the '92 National League Championship Series. Pirates fans forgave him for his petulance with Mr. Leyland, but many never will forgive him for that throw after watching Mr. Bream score the winning run to send the Braves, not the Pirates, to the World Series.

"I had to come over toward my left, then cross-fire it," Mr. Bonds said yesterday, shrugging.

On this night, Pirates management wisely stuck to the positives. A younger, much leaner Mr. Bonds was shown hitting his first big-league home run off Atlanta's Craig McMurtry on June 4, 1986. There also were snippets from his MVP season in '90 when he became baseball's second 30-home-run, 50-stolen-base man. An interview with Mr. Bonds after that monstrous season was replayed with him looking into the camera and saying he didn't feel "complete" as a player, that he still had bigger goals to accomplish.

Pretty prophetic, huh?

Would you believe five more MVP awards with the Giants for a career total of seven, four more than anyone in baseball history? His record 73 home runs in the '01 season? And, of course, his record 756th career home run last week, an astonishing number he pushed to 758 with a home run Friday night off the Pirates' Matt Morris?

It was after Mr. Bonds hit No. 756 off the Washington Nationals' Mike Bacsik Tuesday night that Mr. Jordan, Mr. Gretzky, Mr. Ali and, most significantly, Mr. Aaron, whose 33-year-old home run record was eclipsed, appeared on tape on the AT&T Park scoreboard in San Francisco to offer their congratulations. Asked yesterday if he ever dreamed of being the home run champ, Mr. Bonds shook his head and said, "No, never. Never in a lifetime. You never think of those things. You try to just do the best you can. You reach for the stars, knowing you can't jump that high, but you just keep going."

It's fair to wonder how much different the past 15 seasons would have been for the Pirates if Mr. Bonds had stayed with the organization. He says not to waste your time thinking about it. There never was any chance.

"There was never even an offer," Mr. Bonds said. "It was the same situation with Bobby [Bonilla] and Dougie [Drabek]. The great thing is the way [Leyland] handled it. He said, 'It's not going to happen here for you guys. It's time you guys just move on. I want the best for you.' He's the one who made it easy for us because he said, 'Your talent is just exceeding what they actually want to do here. Good luck to you guys. It was an honor for me to have the opportunity to manage you guys.' "

Mr. Bonds, 43, said he plans on playing one more season, then retiring. "I need to win a championship, get 3,000 hits." He has 2,919 after his single last night.

Mr. Bonds could be back with the Giants next season, although that seems unlikely now that he has broken the home run record. It's more likely he'll be with an American League club as a designated hitter.

Only one thing is certain:

Mr. Bonds won't be playing for the Pirates.

"No," he said, quietly, "my days here are gone. I had fun, but ..."

Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Barry Bonds, the newly crowned home run king who might be the most reviled athlete in Pittsburgh sports history, gets a classy reception from most of the 25,434 fans at PNC Park yesterday.
Click photo for larger image.

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