April 10, 2004
OMETIME in the next three days Barry Bonds will most likely pass Willie Mays and assume possession of third place on the career home run list. He may tie Mays tonight in San Diego and then pass him tomorrow night against the Padres. My guess is that Bonds will surpass Mays in San Francisco against Milwaukee on Monday. Just a hunch.
Truth is, Barry Bonds, who has 659 home runs, doesn't really want to pass Willie Mays, whose 660 homers rank behind only Henry Aaron's 755 and Babe Ruth's 714. The force of this reality didn't hit me until this week, when I spent two days around Bonds and Mays.
Sportswriters cover record-breaking events as a matter of course. Most of the time, the holder of a milestone and the person surpassing it share the thinnest of connections, if any at all. For Bonds, however, Mays is more than a name in history whose home run mark he is chasing. Mays is in effect family, part of an unusual triangle of history that has shaped Bonds's life.
Bonds was born on July 24, 1964; his father, Bobby, was signed by the San Francisco Giants 11 days later at age 18. Mays was the Giants' 33-year-old center fielder in his 13th season with the team and became Bobby Bonds's mentor. Bobby began bringing Barry around the Giants' clubhouse at age 5.
The most insightful observation I have read from Bonds on the subject of why passing Mays would be so difficult came two years ago during a trip to Japan that he made with a team of major leaguers. Bonds told MLB.com then: "I love him so much. It's a hard subject to talk about. I was hitting them out this year, and then when I got to 600 and 610 I started changing my approach at the plate. Like let's do something different. I was trying to hit balls into the ground.
"Willie is the greatest player to me. Aaron is the greatest home run hitter to me. Willie is all the things I wanted to become. That I have become. He'll be the first one out on the field when I do it, probably. But our history is too long. When you're a little kid, and I'm very fortunate to have a dad who played baseball, those guys took care of me. Then you just marvel over the dude as your hero. It's not that easy. I don't know what I'm going to do. We'll see what happens when the time comes."
The time has come and Bonds is struggling. He hit a home run on Monday and has managed one hit in the three games since then. On Tuesday, facing Andy Pettitte and Houston relievers, he went 1 for 4 with a single and a walk. On Wednesday against Houston, Bonds was intentionally walked and struck out twice against Roger Clemens. On Thursday against San Diego — a team whose pitching he normally devours — Bonds went 0 for 4.
Mays has been inside Bonds's head for nearly a year, emphasizing the importance of Bonds's moving ahead of him. "This is not about me," Mays said Tuesday outside the visitors' clubhouse in Houston. "This is about history. We talked last year about that and he said, `Hey, I don't want to break your record.' I said: `Wait a minute, that's not my record. The record was here when I got here. It's just that you're going to be going forward.' I said, `You're going to be going for me, you go for Ruth and possibly, if you get a chance, you go for Aaron.' "
What will ultimately push Bonds over this psychological hump — possibly this weekend — is that Mays, who is his godfather, talks a lot of trash. He'll remind Bonds about all that he hasn't done. Mays used to chide him about never having won a batting title; Bonds stopped that when he won one in 2002. Mays talks about the World Series ring he won; Bonds is looking for his first. Mays is one of 15 players to have homered four times in a game; Bonds is not. Mays has won more Gold Gloves than Bonds has.
The prospect of being chided about something he can control will compel Bonds to pass Mays and begin his pursuit of Ruth. There is love and there is competition. For Bonds, his competition with Mays will prevail.
Mays is the only sports hero I had growing up who survived my teenage years and the cynicism of adulthood. Not because of his numbers, but because of his style. He was effortless and graceful in his greatness. Early on, I decided that the way Mays played baseball was how you should aspire to do everything — cutting grass, playing a solo or catching a fly ball. You have to be cool.
Before I left the Giants' clubhouse in Houston this week, I ended my conversation with Mays by telling him that Bonds might hit more home runs, "but he'll never be as cool as you." Mays laughed. "You can say that," he said. "I can't say that."
I'll say it. He'll never be as cool.