Bonds begins pursuit of hallowed mark
Slugger enters season 21 homers shy of tying Aaron's record
SAN FRANCISCO -- Welcome to the show. It has been two years in the making, but here it is. Barry Bonds is on the cusp of breaking one of Major League Baseball's most cherished records.When the Giants open the season at AT&T Park against the Padres on Tuesday, he'll be sitting on 734 home runs, 21 behind Hank Aaron's all-time leading 755. Bonds will turn 43 on July 24, and by most projections he probably won't reach the hallowed mark before then. "It's like when you were young and you ran a six-minute mile," Bonds said in a recent exclusive interview with MLB.com. "And now that you're older, if you just get through the mile, you still feel a sense of accomplishment. That's how I feel. Whether it's six minutes or not, as long as you get through the mile, it's a good thing. Exactly." As he takes on this next mile, Bonds has a long string of milestones behind him. Bonds hit No. 661 to pass his godfather, Willie Mays, into third on the all-time list on April 13, 2004. He hit No. 700 on Sept. 17, 2004, and finished that season at 703. He's only hit 31 since then, playing in just 14 games during the 2005 season and passing Babe Ruth into second place at 715 last May 28. Between the end of the 2004 and 2006 seasons, Bonds had surgery on his left knee, three surgeries on his right knee -- including one to eradicate a serious bacterial infection -- and surgery on his left elbow. Considering all the allegations of his steroids use and an ongoing federal investigation into whether he perjured himself before a grand jury when questioned about the topic, the road toward 755 has been challenging, to say the least. Yet Bonds is going where most athletes fear to tread. Last season, he came back to play 130 games, most of them as San Francisco's everyday left fielder. This year? The slate is clean. "I hurt myself when I was 40," said Bonds, referring to the end of his run of four consecutive National League MVP seasons in 2004, during an earlier interview. "The things I'm doing now I should have been able to accomplish when I was 40 or 41. But I started getting hurt at 40. From 40 to 41 I missed a whole season because of those knee surgeries. From 41 to 42 I tried to come back, limping almost the whole season on a bad leg. "Now, at 42 years old I'm trying to get back and do what I was trying to do from 40 to 41. You've got to be kidding me! I'm going to try to do it. I'm going to give it my best shot. But only God knows how it's going to turn out. If I get the record, maybe it'll be the worst thing that ever happened to me. If I don't, maybe it will be the best. Maybe I would be more liked. Only God knows for sure." The Giants are banking on Bonds doing it and that's why they ultimately re-signed him to a one-year contract that guarantees $15.8 million and could balloon to as much as $20 million if he reaches easily attainable incentives. Peter Magowan, the club's managing general partner, knows that few athletes have played at a championship level in any professional team sport well into their 40s. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in basketball and Gordie Howe in hockey. Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Jesse Orosco and Greg Maddux have done it in baseball, but they were all pitchers and none had suffered debilitating injuries. Bonds is establishing new ground for position players. Among power hitters, Mays, Aaron, Ruth, Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams were all done at Bonds' age. Carlton Fisk, who retired at 45 in 1993, hit 18 homers the year he turned 43 and played 106 games for the White Sox as a catcher. Aaron, like Bonds, had some of his most productive years as a slugger from ages 36 to 40, hitting 223 homers during those five seasons. But Aaron hit only 10 homers at 42 as a designated hitter. Bonds hit 214 homers from 36 to 40 -- including the single-season record of 73 in 2001 -- but set a record for a 42-year-old last season with 26. Running again like a six-minute miler this spring, Bonds hit .297 (11-for-37) with three doubles, five homers, 10 RBIs and six runs scored in 15 Cactus League games, a performance that didn't surprise Magowan. "I thought he would do as well as he has done, which means better than last year," Magowan said before camp broke in Scottsdale, Ariz. "He's in better shape. Last year at this time, he'd be sitting on a stool and that's about all he could do because he couldn't run. To me, he just looks physically much better." Bonds appears to have trimmed down a bit, although he says he still weighs about 240 pounds. He has adjusted his vaunted training regimen to include a lot of upper-body lifting and plenty of aerobic work for his legs and to build stamina. During the spring, it was still a couple of workouts a day sandwiched around his baseball activities. And when he roamed to the foul line to grab a couple of line drives on the fly and stretched a few singles into doubles early on, suddenly he opened some eyes. "Now finally feeling good again and trying to recapture what was lost, that's the real challenge," Bonds said. "Knowing that the chances of doing that are not really good, but it's still something that's a real motivating factor for me." But does Bonds think he can do it? "Good chance," he said with a laugh. "You've got to believe in it whether it happens or not. You've got to play like you have a good chance." Maybe they're kidding themselves, but some Giants officials believe the old Bonds, the pre-injury Bonds, will re-emerge. This is a guy who had his second consecutive 45-home run season back in 2004, the last year he was completely ambulatory. The way Bonds has hit this spring, they think, 40 homers again is a possibility. But that remains to be seen. Brian Sabean, unlike Magowan, wasn't expecting the metamorphosis. "I'm pleasantly surprised at the way he's played and I think he'd probably say the same thing," Sabean, the Giants' longtime general manager said last week. "There's a big difference in how he feels and how he's responding as opposed to last year. Anything is possible as far as his numbers or his run production is concerned. The earlier he's locked in, the sooner he'll get the record out of the way." Bonds certainly picked it up during the latter part of the 2006 season, and even playing on a gimpy leg and with a bum elbow, he finished the year tied for the team lead in homers, led the NL in walks with 115 and topped the Major Leagues with a .454 on-base percentage. But he calls that performance a sleight of hand. "I was lucky," he said. "I know my body. I know what I can and can't do. I always tell me friends, there's some things I can do and there's some things I can't do. And there are a couple of things I'm not going to do. And that's just that." As far as Bonds being liked more by the public if he doesn't surpass Aaron, that thought seemed to have been a passing fancy. Bonds always affords a slice of how he's feeling on any given day. Ask him the next day and those sentiments might be completely different. It is the amalgam -- the sum of all those discussions -- that counts. "It matters, but at this point, it's kind of late in the day, don't you think?" Bonds said about his image. "Maybe after I'm retired and out of the game for a while, things will change. I look at a situation like George Foreman. He retired from boxing and everything for him changed. I just want to get there. Maybe somewhere down the road it'll be the same way for me." Asked again about his pursuit of Aaron, Bonds tied it all up with a neat bow. "I'm not going to think about it at all," he said. "I'm just going to go out there and play my game. If it happens, it happens. If it gets in the way, it gets in the way. But I hope that it doesn't." Once again, welcome to the show.
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.