LOS ANGELES — The questions are two: Will Barry Bonds hit historic home run No. 71 this weekend? And will anyone care?
With nine games to go in the baseball season, the San Francisco Giants slugger has notched 67 homers onto his Louisville Slugger and needs just four more to pass the 70 hit three years ago by St. Louis's Mark McGwire.
Those 70 swats gave McGwire the game's most glittery record, previously held by immortals Babe Ruth and Roger Maris.
So why the collective yawn across baseballdom now?
Good question. After all, Bonds can exude charisma - when he wants to. He's appeared in enough movies and TV shows ("Arli$$," "Beverly Hills 90210") to be a card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild. Yet he has never rated very high on baseball writers' "Quotem Pole." He's known to either duck the media or, when cornered, reach for standardized quotes from baseball's bag of instant clichés.
It's not all Bonds fault, of course, that he's not the center of a media whirlwind. For one thing, the nation has a lot more on its mind than baseball right now. Unlike McGwire, he's chasing a three-year-old record, not a 37-year-old one that some thought would never be broken. Unlike Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in 1961, and McGwire and Sammy Sosa in '98, there's no one else dueling with Bonds for the record (though Sosa, with 58, may again crash the 60-home-run barrier). And, unlike McGwire's Cardinals in '98, Bonds's Giants are in the playoff race, and he's expected to think wins first, not records.
Then there's the fact that home runs seem easier to come by these days. Baseballs have so much rabbit in them, and are wound so tight, that you can hear their hearts beat. They want to jump out of today's smaller stadiums. And expansion has made it easier for veteran hitters like Bonds, who are able to feast on the mistakes of pitchers who should still be learning their trade in the minors.
In his defense, though, most of Bonds's home runs are low-line drives that climb like a rocket. They have the power to go through a couple of time zones, if there weren't obstacles to stop them. He's got brawn and brains, too: a man built like a heavyweight contender who approaches most challenges the way an alligator approaches lunch.
And he's not getting just juicy pitches to hit. If the Giants have a lead and nobody on base, most opposing pitchers are content to pitch around Bonds and take a chance with whoever is hitting behind him. With 162 walks so far, he's likely to break Babe Ruth's major-league mark of 170 set back in 1923.
Despite Bonds's strained relationship with reporters, and sometimes with teammates, reserve San Francisco outfielder Eric Davis, Bonds's best friend on the Giants, sees him in a different light.
"Bonds is a great guy," Davis says. "We have had some great times together. He's great because, unlike most players, he's learned not to put pressure on himself. I mean, he knows what it takes to be successful.... And he doesn't just hit opposing pitchers' mistakes for home runs - he also hits some of their best stuff."
Bonds's manager, Dusty Baker, says the San Francisco left fielder deserves his spot among the best in the history of the game. "If someone were able to photograph all of baseball's great sluggers at one time," Baker says, "I can guarantee you that Bonds would be in the picture.
"What makes him so effective is his ability to recognize pitches quicker than anyone I've ever seen," Baker continues, "with the exception of Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. Most pitches Bonds reads like a book. Earlier in the season, people who aren't close to Bonds were saying that because Barry is 37, he wouldn't be able to keep up with McGwire's home-run pace. Let me tell you something: Bonds has a super body, and he keeps it that way. With him, 37 is just a number."
Whether the Giants' current $l0.3-million-a-year meal ticket (and the godson of Giants Hall of Famer Willie Mays) will be in a San Francisco uniform next year is another question. "If it were up to me, I would never let Bonds get away," Baker says. "He's my best player. On an individual basis, he can't be replaced. But I don't own the ball club."
Bonds doesn't just hit home runs. He's won eight Gold Gloves for his defensive prowess. And he's had 10 years in which he has driven in l00 or more runs. But if he insists on a guaranteed three-year contract for a reported $72 million, the Giants will probably ignore the howls of their fans, and be out looking for another left fielder this winter.