Even when Barry Bonds is occupying the on-deck circle, he looks like a home run waiting to happen.
The future Hall of Famer, who holds the single-season record for home runs, has racked up more than 40 of the ultimate hits this year. But more important, the 6 ft., 2 in., 230-pound slugger is close to exceeding the lifetime home-run total - 660 - of his godfather, Willie Mays.
Not far away after that: Babe Ruth's milestone of 7l4 home runs and Hank Aaron's 755. Barring injuries, and afforded the mental comfort of a contract with the San Francisco Giants that extends through 2006, Bonds may have no trouble surpassing both Ruth and Aaron. Reportedly not to be taken seriously is a statement he made during this year's All-Star break that he's not interested in Aaron's record.
Yet it's been a difficult year for the left-handed hitter: His father, Bobby Bonds - with whom a 6-year-old Barry practiced in the Giants outfield before home games in the 1970s - died in late August after a series of medical emergencies. Having missed multiple games because of his father, the younger Bonds is no longer a lock for this year's National League Most Valuable Player award - a title he has earned an unprecedented five times.
Still, in his late 30s, Bonds has developed more consistency and become more of a threat to pitchers than during the so-called prime of his career.
"He's like no hitter I've ever seen," says Giants Manager Felipe Alou. "When I played for the Giants in the late l950s and early l960s, I was considered a pretty good big-league hitter. But Bonds is on an entirely different level."
Over the years, a number of National League managers have said there is no way to pitch to Bonds that will give the opposition an edge. The consensus seems to be that the best chance of getting Bonds out is to move the ball around against him: Never throw him the same pitch twice in a row. Also, walk him in run-scoring situations when first base is open.
Last year, when the Giants lost the World Series to the Anaheim Angels in seven games, Bonds batted .47l, including eight hits, eight runs scored, six runs batted in, and four home runs.
"Naturally he doesn't need much help," says Giants batting coach Joe Lefebvre. "But if I notice that he's overstriding a little or maybe dropping his elbow occasionally, he wants me to tell him."
When Tony Gwynn was winning multiple National League batting championships for the San Diego Padres, he kept a little black book on opposing pitchers that he updated constantly. Lefebvre says that Bonds does the same thing - only he carries his book in his head.
Lefebvre also maintains that people who think Bonds doesn't adjust on every pitch are looking at only the physical side of the man. Mentally, Lefebvre asserts, no hitter in baseball is more into what the opposing pitcher is doing.
"Right now I doubt if there is a more disciplined hitter in baseball," he says. "There is a readiness about a hitter like Bonds when he's at the plate that only players and coaches who have been in the game a long time can see."
Lefebvre also provides an explanation for why Bonds is usually nowhere to be seen on the field before game time, when his teammates are stretching: It's likely that Bonds is either using the team's indoor batting cage to tune his swing or hitting ball after ball off a batting tee.
Still, Bonds hasn't always shown such focus. Reportedly when he was younger and wouldn't always listen to older and wiser heads, "even numbers" that would result in a particular milestones sometimes got him into trouble. For example, he'd have 19 home runs, and in his haste to make that figure 20, he'd start reaching for pitches outside the strike zone. For the league's veteran pitchers, Bonds suddenly became a free lunch.
Bonds also had a stubborn streak earlier in his career that made him reluctant to take advice from the Giants' coaching staff or even from his father, who would sometimes call on the phone with a suggestion or two.
And no story about Bonds would be complete without mention of his ongoing feud with the nation's media. It began years ago when Bonds was a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates and claimed, on more than one occasion, that he had been badly misquoted. Years later, the discontent has yet to vanish.
Rude to the press, often insensitive to his teammates (many of whom choose to deny it), devastated over his father's death, Bonds is known for turbulent emotions - but those close to him are reluctant to put the anger in perspective. Yet some people conjecture that this is how he motivates himself and keeps his body's mental speedometer at l00 miles per hour.
Indeed, Bonds believes that he meets any obligation he has to fans by his play on the field.
"Barry knows something about hitting that the rest of us don't, stays in shape year round, and watches a lot of film of opposing pitchers," says Manager Alou. "The kind of skills Bonds has ... you can't teach. At the same time, I don't know anybody on the Giants who works harder between games."