Bonds can count on Zito's support
Lefty said he will stand in the way between slugger and media
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- There evidently is more to this relationship between Barry Bonds and Barry Zito than meets the eye. Zito said this spring that he asked to locker near the left-handed slugger for better reasons than to one day tell his grandchildren about it."I'm certainly going to protect Barry," Zito said. "He'd protect me at whatever cost. I've learned that in the short time I've been around him. "I know all these beat writers. With me there, they won't be able to attack him as they would if they had Barry alone. They know they may have to answer to me, or might feel repercussions regarding interviews now. If he wanted me to blackball somebody, I'd probably do it." Those are heady words, and they have never been spoken about Bonds by a teammate, particularly one of the stature of Zito, who is a former American League Cy Young Award winner. As a free agent this past offseason, the southpaw signed a seven-year, $126 million contract, making him the highest paid pitcher in Major League Baseball history. "He's a terrific dude," Bonds said when told that Zito was prepared to cover his back this season. "Great players have a tremendous amount of respect for each other. We're just going to have a lot more press on our side. It's going to be fun. He's a great pitcher, man." With Bonds on the brink of overtaking Hank Aaron for the all-time Major League home-run lead, the Zito-Bonds relationship adds a new dynamic to the Giants' clubhouse. At Scottsdale Stadium, the two have adjoining lockers in the far right-hand corner of the room. They also share the empty stall between them. At AT&T Park, the four lockers to the right once reserved for Bonds and his personal trainers will be shared by Bonds and Zito. Since Greg Oliver and Harvey Shields no longer work for the team, they don't have access to the facilities. Zito said that when he agreed to terms with the Giants, he approached Peter Magowan, the team's managing general partner, and suggested that he dress near Bonds. "I brought it up to them that if they wanted to put me by Bonds, I'd be more than willing to," Zito said. "I thought that would be fun. It's a treat for me to be around this guy every day." Zito better get used to the tumult. At 734 homers, Bonds is 21 behind Aaron's 755, and as he gets closer, the media mob will grow larger. The Giants are planning this year to have Bonds speak at a press conference prior to the first game of every road series with the hope that he will be left alone after that, unless something noteworthy happens in a particular game. Then there are always the off-the-field intrusions that seem to encroach on Bonds and the Giants every season.
Last year, as Bonds chased Babe Ruth for second on the all-time homer list, Bonds was beset by an ongoing federal investigation into whether he committed perjury about his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs. The stories dovetailed for almost half a season. Bonds hit his 715th homer on May 28 in San Francisco against the Rockies, ending that phase of the situation.Two months later, a federal grand jury empanelled to, in part, investigate Bonds, ended its 18-month term without the U.S. Attorney's office in San Francisco seeking an indictment against him. A week later, the case was handed to another grand jury, and it is still pending. The stories kept the Giants' clubhouse hopping. Zito, accustomed to the relative tranquility of life across the bay at Network Associates Coliseum, may be in for a rude awakening, as both the chase of Aaron and a looming decision about whether or not to indict reaches a zenith. "If I can take any of that burden off him, I will," Zito said. "I don't know how I would do that. With me being just a few lockers over, maybe [reporters] will come to me instead, knowing I have this media-friendly vibe and I'm right there listening." Bonds and Zito said their relationship started to grow in recent years, when the A's played the Giants during Spring Training, the preseason Bay Bridge Series and Interleague Play. This past offseason, the two worked out at UCLA, with Bonds standing in the batting cage against Zito as he tinkered with his motion and mechanics. "He came out to throw, and I stood there at home plate for him and watched his delivery," Bonds said. "I hung out with his parents. They were there all the time, too. He's young. He has all that energy and stuff." Zito saw the side of Bonds that most people don't: he's funny, glib, intelligent and has a trough of knowledge about the game he plays. Zito, 28, said he understands why Bonds has to protect himself, because he has learned the same lessons. "He doesn't necessarily have to let people see that side," Zito said. "When anybody jokes around and becomes friendly with people, he becomes vulnerable. You definitely want to trust the people you show that side to and know that they're not going to violate that side. So he just plays it safe." So far, so good. It's been a relatively quiet spring for Bonds, who said he'll cover Zito's back, too. "It's a new form of competition having him around here," Bonds said. "You want to do well for the guy."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.