Oct. 5, 2001
By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Writer
HOUSTON - Barry Bonds finally has an October memory worth keeping.
By redirecting a belt-high fastball from a 22-year-old rookie reliever named Wilfredo Rodriguez, the man who is arguably the best ballplayer of his generation may have accomplished more than just tie a 3-year-old record for home runs in a season.
With one home run, Bonds may also have begun turning perceptions of him 180 degrees. It's hard to say which was the more impressive feat.
Before Thursday night, Bonds was having one of the greatest offensive seasons in baseball history. But near the end of a four-game stretch that would try anybody's patience, he put one punctuation mark on it and left himself room for several more. Afterward, flanked on a stage by daughter Shikari and son Nikolai, he said he hadn't even begun thinking about No. 71.
"I don't really care. I just want to win," he said. "I want another shot at the postseason."
Called arrogant and aloof, criticized sometimes even by his own teammates, and often dismissed for his failure to deliver in all five of his forays into the postseason, Bonds hammered his name into the record books with the kind of resilience many doubted he had.
What made the feat special was the tough road Bonds had to walk to earn it. Unlike Mark McGwire, he had to compile his home runs in the crucible of a playoff race. For nearly all of the four games after he hit home run No. 69, Bonds saw fewer strikes than a roomful of teamsters - 12, to be exact, in his 19 trips to the plate. Opposing pitchers appeared to be under a mandate: If you're going to get beat, let it be anybody but Barry.
On Sunday, after Bonds lacquered the Padres for home runs in the two previous games, he was walked twice and hit by a pitch. Just before Tuesday's opener of this three-game series, he practically begged the Astros pitching staff to throw him something - anything - to hit.
"I don't want to get cheated by them not making good pitches," Bonds said. "I want their best."
What he got for his trouble was more of the same - until that singular moment in the ninth Thursday night.
"It's hard to just keep taking pitches all the time," Bonds recalled. "You don't get any opportunities. You feel like you're losing your swing."
Yet Bonds refused to give in. He refused to taunt his opponents or put added pressure on his teammates. He relied on his father, former major leaguer Bobby Bonds, and his godfather, San Francisco great Willie Mays, for advice. And once he held a share of the most treasured season mark in sports, Bonds repeated what they told him.
"Stay patient. Stay patient. The main job is winning," he recalled. "The best thing they told me is that if I keep doing my job, eventually it has to come."
It did - at the end of a run in which the Giants won eight of their last 11 and remained within striking distance of Arizona in the National League West race.
As impressive as the shot into the upper deck in right in Enron Field was, more impressive might have been the scene that followed it.
Earlier this season, when Bonds deposited his 500th career homer into McCovey Cove at Pac Bell Park, the only member of the team waiting at home plate to congratulate him was the bat girl. This time, his teammates came streaming out of the dugout. When he went to the outfield to start the bottom of the ninth, the relievers came out of the bullpen and threw another party for Bonds.
"That really touched me," Bonds said. A moment later, his grin widened. "But some of them got off some cheap shots in the rib cage. After some long years of frustration, they finally got at me."
Earlier this season, Jeff Kent publicly questioned Bonds credentials as a leader. As opponents began pitching around Bonds, it fell to Kent more and more to pick up the slack. Slowly, almost grudgingly, both learned to adjust to their roles. As the Giants kept winning, a mutual respect developed between them.
"We've been running on a little bit of adrenaline because of Barry," Kent said. "He just continues to impress. We've watched him in amazement all year long."
Bonds' teammates had the best seats in the house to watch him fight through one of the most frustrating stretches of his career with patience and grace. The rest of us looked on from a distance. Bonds is a changed man, to be sure, but exactly how much different remains to be seen.
The fans in Enron Field demanded a curtain call on this night from an opponent they once loved to boo. They screamed, "Barry! Barry! Barry!" until he came out a second time, to a standing ovation, rewarding Bonds for playing the game the right way, even when their hometown Astros did everything to ruin his chances.
But Bonds allowed the echoes of those cheers to ring only so long. He was already looking ahead to the Giants' three-game series against the Dodgers at home this weekend and the chance to get back to the playoffs.
He finally had one October night to remember and liked how it felt. Now, he wanted a few more.
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org