The Pirates front office believed it was time for some healing.
So Monday, they ripped the bandage right off and trotted Barry Bonds onto the grass at PNC Park to present Andrew McCutchen with his MVP award on opening day.
Bonds raised a palm to the sky, broke into an unrestrained smile, and the boos gave way to a chorus of cheers as baseball’s polarizing villain was welcomed — sort of — back into the city where it all began.
Bonds, Leyland talk about their days with the Pirates
Barry Bonds and Jim Leyland talk about their days with the Pirates, as well the jobs done by Andrew McCutchen and Clint Hurdle. They were at PNC Park to present the MVP and Manager of the Year awards. (Video by Andrew Rush; 3/31/2014)
“It’s great to come back where it all started,” Bonds said. “Great to be back with [former Pirates manager] Jim Leyland. I mean, it almost brings tears to my eyes. We were a last-place team, put it together, but we just didn’t get over the top though.”
Bonds, whose throw from left field never reached home plate in time to tag out Atlanta’s Sid Bream in the 1992 National League Championship Series, went on to win five more MVPs in the years after he left Pittsburgh. Several of those years were of course tainted by his role in baseball’s steroid scandal.
He resurfaced as a special hitting instructor for the San Francisco Giants this spring, and reportedly was thrilled when the Pirates asked if he was busy Monday.
Bonds was invited back along with Leyland, former MVP Dick Groat and shortstop Jack Wilson to honor McCutchen (also a 2013 Silver Slugger honoree), manager Clint Hurdle (NL manager of the year) and third baseman Pedro Alvarez (Silver Slugger) before the game.
“For me it was time for some healing,” Pirates president Frank Coonelly said. “Coming off a 94-win season and having our first MVP here since Barry, it was time to honor the past as we celebrate the current, the now and the future.”
The Bonds question was first raised by the club’s marketing staff who wanted to plan something special to honor McCutchen.
What about Barry?
“He won two MVPs here, is the only Pirate to win two MVPs for Pittsburgh,” Coonelly said. “I thought he should be here. I thought the time was right to bring Barry back.”
McCutchen was consulted, and said it would be an honor to have Bonds and Groat present him with his award.
Bonds accepted. He boarded a red-eye from San Francisco and landed around 6 a.m. Monday at Pittsburgh International Airport, then drove by his old neighborhood, before checking into a hotel room the Pirates got for him.
He answered questions in a short pregame news conference with Leyland, Groat and Wilson.
Then as the opening-day festivities got underway he chatted with McCutchen, all smiles, about his MVP season.
“He said anyone can do it once. I’m kidding. He didn’t say that,” McCutchen said. “He basically gave me a little advice. Said all right, you’ve done it now, you don’t need to put any more pressure on yourself. Just do what got you here. Just continue to go out there and play.”
Then came the moment of truth, when Bonds’ name was called to give the award to McCutchen with Groat.
From field level, the initial boos were drowned out by cheers.
He watched several innings of the game in the suite of Pirates owner Bob Nutting before catching a flight out of town.
Players, many of whom faced him in his later years, said they respected his ability to command the strike zone, to put fear into pitchers, to be selective at the plate and of course that tremendous hand and bat speed.
“I think whether he’s in the Hall of Fame or not, everybody who’s played the game respects what he’s done,” Pirates catcher Russell Martin said. “We kind of blew up Lance Armstrong and didn’t really talk about who was finishing second, third, fourth or fifth in those races. The top dog always gets put more under a microscope than the second, third or fourth guy. I think that’s what happened to him.”
And one man had no hesitation when asked if he should be enshrined in Cooperstown, N.Y.
“Barry Bonds is a Hall of Fame player. It’ll be up to those who decide to make those decisions whether he gets in,” Leyland said. “I’m not going to get into that today. I don’t know much about it. This is supposed to be a day to celebrate the great Pirate team we’re going to see today. In my opinion Barry Bonds is a Hall of Fame player. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
Jenn Menendez: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @JennMenendez.