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Madden: A rooting interest in Bonds' season

Saturday, June 23, 2001

Let's go, Barry. Hit 71. OK, perhaps it's a tad early for Pittsburghers to rally behind favorite son Barry Bonds for what figures to be an epic chase of Mark McGwire's single-season home run record. But why not beat the rush? Bonds had 38 homers heading into last night's San Francisco game, just the Giants' 72nd of the season.

Bonds, doing it all without steroids, body-building supplements or a trace of humility, is way ahead of McGwire's 1998 pace. In '98, McGwire didn't hit his 38th homer until July 11. Not only is Bonds chasing McGwire, but with 532 career home runs before last night, Bonds is not-so-quietly edging his way toward Hank Aaron's career mark of 755.

Bonds has long been victimized, by the media and by the fans.

He should have five Most Valuable Player awards but has only three, because the ink-stained wretches who vote for such honors snubbed him for Terry Pendleton in 1991 and for Jeff Kent last year. Baseball writers often don't vote for Bonds in such situations because they dislike him. That's wrong. Kind of funny, but wrong.

Fans in Pittsburgh never appreciated Bonds. There were no howls of protest when the Pirates let him leave via free agency while signing Andy Van White, er, Slyke, to a ridiculous contract. You might not admit it, but Bonds is the best player to wear a Pirates uniform. Honus Wagner fans can argue that. Roberto Clemente fans can't. The only thing Clemente could do clearly better than Bonds was throw. Cue the Sid Bream jokes.

Bonds might be one of baseball's best 10 players ever. Pittsburgh was graced by his presence for seven seasons. Yet he's viciously booed when he returns. Sure, he choked in the playoffs, but he was once married to a stripper. Shouldn't that count for something?

Me, I'm rooting for Bonds big time. I want to see how he handles the pressure, media and fans if he nears McGwire's record. Don't forget, McGwire was a surly so-and-so through the first half of the 1998 season until, taking a cue from home run rival Sammy Sosa, he learned to have fun with the chase. I want to see Caucasian America flip out as a black man chases the sacred record of a big, strapping white lad.

It wasn't handled well the first time around. Aaron still has the hate mail to prove it.

But mostly, I just want something about baseball to be vaguely interesting. The Pirates stink, and anything dealt from a stacked deck bores me to tears.

There's something about Bonds, though. I liked his recent verbiage concerning his pursuit of McGwire. Barry claimed he had "not a chance" to break the record, citing McGwire's superior strength and the fact that it allows him to hit homers when he is tired. I can't see how Bonds could possibly be tired after rarely running hard over his 16-year career, but that's not the point.

Bonds is making excuses in advance. Brilliant. If only he had thought of that before his various playoff appearances with the Pirates.

"Don't count on me hitting," Bonds could have said. "I'm just not a postseason type of player. The regular season is a lot more relaxing. Maybe we all take this playoff stuff a little too seriously. And, by the way, I'm going to play real deep in left field so I have a good reason for not throwing anybody out."

If you set your goals low in the public eye, then no one is disappointed. You can only overachieve. It's a perfect PR strategy except for looking like you have the intestinal fortitude of a fourth-grade girl who's afraid to succeed at dodgeball during recess.

Yes, Bonds is ready to roll. He just needs a cool nickname. "Big Mac" and "Slammin' Sammy" are, unfortunately, taken. ESPN's Chris Berman used to call him Barry "U.S." Bonds, but "U.S." is too much like "us," which Barry is definitely not one of. How about "The Bay Bomber?" It's appropriate because Bonds knocks quite a few baseballs into the water outside Pacific Bell Park and because Bonds will probably sell his soul on eBay someday.

Once Bonds hits 71, it's movie time. He's not a Yankee -- yet -- so Billy Crystal won't want to be involved. Bonds plays in San Francisco, so ask Bay Area adult film pioneer Jim Mitchell to direct. Many people will find the idea of Bonds being the all-time single-season home-run king obscene anyway. Eddie Murphy could portray Bonds -- if Murphy were willing to have charisma bypass surgery, that is.

Bonds is one of the greatest baseball players. He's probably the second-greatest left fielder of all time, trailing only Ted Williams.

Bonds can hit for average, hit for power, get on base, run, field and throw. His statistics are remarkable. Media hatred permitting, he will make the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

But Bonds won't break McGwire's home-run record. At the moment of truth, he'll fail.

After all, he always has.

Mark Madden is the host of a talk show from 4 to 8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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