Programming note: Giants Insider Andrew Baggarly is in Arizona; check back for his coverage throughout spring training and watch SportsNet Central nightly at 6 and 10:30 p.m. for all the day’s MLB news.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – It was a news conference lacking news, a spoonful of saccharine, a syringe pumped full of saline.
Barry Bonds came back to baseball after a seven-year absence with a gleaming smile, a trimmer physique – and if he held any contrition in his heart, it didn’t get as far as his lips.
A reporter teed up a question about whether Bonds would follow Mark McGwire’s lead and admit to steroid use during his record-setting and controversial career.
The all-time home run king did not make contact.
“I already went to court,” Bonds said. “And that’s where I’ll leave it.”
Bonds’ arrival in Giants camp Monday as a weeklong guest instructor was the first step toward ingratiating himself back into the game and industry that so roundly shunned him seven years ago. His news conference, held on a patio overlooking Scottsdale Stadium, was the first opportunity to repair an image and a legacy that forever will be linked to the game’s bloated steroid era.
It was much less confrontational than his “arrival” news conferences during his playing days. He did not challenge reporters to clean out their closets. There were no raised voices, no castigations, more glow than glower.
“Forgive me if I’m squinting,” he said at one point, with a laugh. “I’m not used to the cameras. It’s been seven years.”
But a great hitter never forgets how to swat a good pitch, or lay off the ones he’s intended to chase. Bonds was evasive when he could have been apologetic, content to duck behind his pending appeal of a felony obstruction of justice charge even though he’s already served his house arrest sentence.
He offered interesting answers about his hitting philosophy, his legacy, Alex Rodriguez, the Hall of Fame, his future role with the Giants and even his passion for distance cycling.
But at the most substantial moment, Bonds did not offer up what everyone wanted. The feared slugger who never stepped out of the batter’s box called timeout.
He only used the word “regret” one time, and that was to describe his testy relationship with the media.
“My only regret is that I wish we had a better relationship and that’s it,” he said.
Perhaps an apology was asking too much, and not because of Bonds’ pending legal issues. After all, McGwire’s watery eyed interview with Bob Costas did nothing to boost his standing with Hall of Fame voters, or redeem his reputation in full. If McGwire’s admission had any effect, it’s that it allowed him to go about his business as a hitting coach. He gave everyone what they wanted. The beast was fed.
Bonds might care about what you think. He might not. But he never cared about leaving you satisfied.
Maybe Bonds still feels he has nothing to feel sorry about. In a fascinating conversation I had with him in the spring of 2005, he once asked me why nobody says a word when a hitter wears corrective lenses. Doesn't that help him see the ball? Doesn't that help him perform?
It was a 45-minute stream of consciousness at his locker, with me and most of his entourage, who nodded heads as he made one justification and rationalization after another. It was the closest he's ever come to admitting to steroid use.
“You're talking about something that wasn't even illegal at the time,'' Bonds told me then. “All this stuff about supplements, protein shakes, whatever. Man, it's not like this is the Olympics. We don't train four years for, like, a 10-second (event). We go 162 games. You've got to come back day after day after day. We're entertainers. If I can't go out there and somebody pays $60 for a ticket, and I'm not in the lineup, who's getting cheated? Not me. There are far worse things like cocaine, heroin and those types of things.
“So we all make mistakes. We all do things. We need to turn the page. We need to forget about the past and let us play the game. We're entertainers. Let us entertain.”
Now the curtain closes and it will quiet down here for the next week, because that is how news cycles work. Bonds, in a Giants uniform for the first time since 2007, will work with hitters on an individual basis. Both he and the Giants hope this leads to something more substantial, although neither he nor manager Bruce Bochy speculated on what those duties might entail.
“Hopefully in the future something can come out of this, but right now I’m only here for seven days and I don’t even know if I’m good at it,” Bonds said. “I’ll let Bochy determine that.
“Hopefully I’ll be a part of this for longer, but for seven days, please do not hesitate. From the younger guys to the veteran players, pick my brain. Wear me down for seven days.”
Bonds said he worked intently with Houston Astros center fielder Dexter Fowler this winter, after former teammate Glenallen Hill put them in touch, and that experience reinforced the idea that he has something to offer as an instructor.
Bonds moved back to the Bay Area recently “because it’s my home and I love it and it’s where I belong,” so it’s fair to assume he will be around the club more often. He said the only TV he watches are Giants games and he loves Buster Posey’s approach, naming him after Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols as hitters he admires.
As for his legacy? He seems to understand that you don’t proceed straight from a guest instructor to a bronze statue and a number retirement ceremony. Those things could happen one day. The Hall of Fame, though, might never come to pass.
“I think you guys are adults,” said Bonds, asked what he would tell the conflicted BBWAA electorate, who voted 36.7 and 34.2 percent (well short of the necessary 75 percent) in his first two years on the ballot. “I have no advice for you.”
But does he feel he belongs?
“Without a doubt,” he said, laughing again.
Whether Bonds ever gets inducted or not, his stamp on the game will never wash out. He once said he would be the first person standing and congratulating Alex Rodriguez when his all-time record of 762 home runs fell by the wayside. But Rodriguez’s Biogeneis was Bonds' BALCO. ARod is suspended for the season, possibly has played his last game and might not get the six homers he needs to tie Willie Mays for fourth all time, let alone the 108 he needs to match Bonds.
What does Bonds think of how Major League Baseball handled the ARod situation, and how does he feel about most likely keeping Hank Aaron’s former title for the rest of his life?
“I think God will bless somebody else with that,” said Bonds, offering no comment on ARod other than to say, “I respect him as an athlete and I always will.”
Bonds might have hit more than 762 home runs if another team had signed him after the Giants cut ties late in the 2007 season. Technically, Bonds still hasn’t announced his retirement, keeping the door open for the Players’ Association to file suit on his behalf.
It’s become clear those teeth have softened.
“I wish it was better but there’s nothing I can do about it now,” said Bonds, asked about how his career ended and whether he felt blackballed. “I don’t know. I don’t know what blackballed really means. But … I’m fine.”
Bonds perked up brightest when told that Greg Maddux, who recently received 97.2 percent of the Hall of Fame vote, called the seven-time MVP the greatest hitter he ever faced. What does that say?
“It says two minds speak the same,” Bonds said. “He was the best ever. He made things interesting. It just makes the chess a little bit longer, but it’s a lot more fun.”
It was. About that, there’s no doubt. It was fun to watch Bonds expose the worst and challenge the best. It was fun to watch him get one honest strike to hit in a four-game series and splash it in the cove. It was fun to watch the best hitter since Ted Williams stalk prey, no matter what was printed on the vial or encoded in a doping chart.
“He’s one of the greatest minds in baseball,” Bochy said. “I only had him the one year and one thing I learned is how smart he is and how much he knows about the game.”
Said Bonds: “It feels really good to be back, to give back to the game that I love.”
Bonds is here to make a real contribution, and that’s all Bochy and the players care about. For those of us who want something else, the walking symbol of the steroid era has nothing to give you but a placebo.
You know what they say about entertainers. Always leave them wanting more.