Homers fly, but will he bond with fans?

This much is almost definite: Barry Bonds will make a run at the magical No. 70, the single-season home-run record set by Mark McGwire in 1998. And the world will be watching.

This remains to be seen: Will the public ever love Bonds, as they did McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and as they did his godfather, Willie Mays?

That is the troubling contradiction of the San Francisco Giants' left fielder, who will start for the National League in the July 10 All-Star Game in Seattle. He is great, probably the best of his generation, perhaps even the best ever to play his position.

But no one seems to care.

Bonds has had a bad attitude for much of his career. He's been surly with fans ("No thanks" to autograph requests), nasty with the media ("No comment" to reporters), and he's yet to win a World Series ring, meaning he's not exactly viewed as a team player. "I'd rather lose without Barry than win with him," one of Bonds's teammates once said. In five failed attempts at reaching the World Series, Bonds has hit a paltry .196 in postseason play.

This year, however, Bonds seems to be asking for a second chance. He's coming out of his shell, albeit slightly, and he seems to have struck a newfound chord of humility. Maybe all the home runs did it to him. Maybe he's calling out for much-needed help as he gets closer to the record, and the pressure becomes greater.

Maybe the people can forgive him.

"Breaking the [the home-run] record wouldn't necessarily mean that much to me," Bonds said recently before a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, displaying a glimpse of his soft side. "What I really want is a world championship for the Giants and the ring that goes with it for myself."

If Bonds breaks the record, he probably wouldn't receive as much attention as McGwire and Sosa did three years ago. After all, they were chasing a 37-year-old milestone that many people thought would never be surpassed.

Yet the home-run record would bring deserved attention to Bonds's sparkling career.

Blake Rhodes, a Giants spokesman, says Bonds is becoming more aware of his place in America's game. That's causing him to take in the scenery, enjoy the beauty of the game, even if just a little.

"I've noticed a change in Barry since he hit his 500th home run," Rhodes says. "I think he's realizing his place in baseball history. He's accepting the trappings that come along with that."

With 533 home runs through Wednesday, he's 11th on the all-time list.

Realistically (and barring serious injury), he will climb to the No. 4 spot all-time in the coming years, surpassing Frank Robinson's 586 home runs. He may even make a run at No. 3, held by Willie Mays with 660, or possibly even join Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron in the 700 club.

Bonds, a three-time Most Valuable Player, also has 478 career stolen bases and eight Gold Gloves, making him far more than a one-dimensional slugger. No player has drawn more than his 320 intentional walks - the ultimate sign of respect on the baseball diamond.

"He's definitely among the best players I've ever seen," says Ken Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau, who puts him statistically in the Top 10 players of all time.

And Bonds shows few signs of slowing down. "Earlier in the season, people who aren't close to Bonds were saying that because Barry is 36, that he wouldn't be able to keep going at his current pace," says Giants manager Dusty Baker. "Let me tell you: Bonds has a super body, and he keeps it that way. With him, 36 is just a number."

This season, Bonds had 39 homers at the season's halfway point, putting him on pace for 78, which would smash McGwire's record. It's been the kind of season when fly balls seem to float past the warning track, and line drives clear fences in the power alleys. His head never seems to move when he makes contact.

"If I knew what was going on, why I'm hitting the ball so well, I'd have done this a long time ago," Bonds says. "Overall, I haven't changed anything about the way I hit. McGwire was born to hit home runs, while I've learned to hit them."

There may also be some other factors.

For one, weight training has made Bonds huge, with muscular arms that make his early days as a lanky Pittsburgh Pirate seem ancient. He's also said to be happier in his personal life, having gone through a somewhat messy divorce.

And he's gotten a major boost from his hard-hitting All-Star teammates Jeff Kent and Rich Aurilia, who sandwich him in the Giants lineup and make it harder for opposing teams to pitch around him.

The press? While some national reporters say they notice a difference, the local press has been more reserved in pronouncing a change. Skeptics have said he's putting up big numbers because he's in the final year of his contract and will be a free agent this fall.

"Barry has been Barry," says Leba Hertz, a sports editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. "He talks when he wants to, he doesn't talk when he doesn't want to. It just depends on his mood."

Ultimately, however, Bonds's pursuit of 70 home runs may depend on opposing pitchers. Will they give him something to hit or will they be content to give him free passes? He leads the majors this season with 83 walks, which gives him the third-highest walks-per-at-bat ratio in baseball history.

Even with his astounding average of one home run per 6.1 at bats this season, that could be costly in his quest for the record.

Phil Elderkin in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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