Barry Bonds on a national scale is an extremely controversial figure. Oftentimes, when researching about him you will only come across debates on whether or not he should be in the Hall of Fame. It comes from a place of hatred, a man who cheated the game, they say. That he brought no joy to baseball, he is a mean grump who did not care for the media. They focus on the steroid era Bonds and tell you nothing about his story, a Bay Area story.
I often think about how Barry Bonds is perceived by the national media and think to myself “If they could realize how important he is to the Bay Area, to San Francisco, maybe they could understand”. For being one of the best baseball players of all time, the best home run hitter, juice or not, his story is rather unknown.
This is a shame. The story of Barry Bonds is so complex, interesting, and beautiful that seemingly could only have ever been thought up of in a Hollywood studio. Ironically, it would be Los Angeles’s rival city, San Francisco in which this fairytale baseball story takes place. This is why Barry Bonds means so much to every single Giants fan, and the entire Bay Area.
Childhood and Upbringing
To understand Barry Bonds you must understand his upbringing. This was a boy destined for greatness. His father was a San Francisco Giant legend. Bobby Bonds was a three-time All-star, three-time Gold Glove winner, and a great Giant. His skill was just short of being Hall-of-Fame level, never surpassing 10% of the vote. However, every single Giants fan from that era will remember Bobby Bonds as an incredibly talented baseball player.
Then you have Barry’s godfather, the greatest baseball player to ever put on a Giants uniform and maybe the greatest player of all time, Willie Mays. Twentyfour-time All-Star, twelve-time Gold Glove winner, NL Rookie of the year, two time MVP (he was robbed several years), and World Champion Willie Mays. One of the best players and an even better human being was the godfather and role model to this young boy Barry.
At ages six through eight Barry would hang out in a locker room full of legends and Hall of Famers. The pitchers Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal are two of the best and most unique pitchers of all time. He had Willie McCovey, Chris Speier, and Tito Fuentes, all amazingly talented San Francisco Giant legends. Some of the greatest people and players would be those who Barry Bonds grew up around.
However, even by his own admission he initially did not want to play baseball. He just wanted to be a kid in the suburban town of San Carlos. A person who does not get enough credit in Bary’s story, unless you speak to the man himself, is his mother. Patricia Howard was the woman who actually pushed Barry to go to his first little league game. She was and still is Barry’s best friend. She was the balancing force of the pressure that his dad Bobby would put on him. Without the caring heart of Patricia, we may have never gotten the legend that is Barry Bonds.
Barry would attend Serra High School. Serra is one of the best schools for sports in the Bay Area, they constantly produce world-star athletes such as Barry Bonds, Tom Brady, etc. This was just another part of Barry’s story of planting his roots in Bay Area folklore.
Between the San Francisco Giants’ blood running in his veins, his role models all being Bay Area legends, and growing up and going to school in the Peninsula, Barry Bonds is the Bay through and through. Even if he had never come back to the Giants he would be a Bay Area legend; however, he did and that is why his story means so much to us.
Getting an Education
While Barry was drafted by the Giants in 1982, the team was not in a good financial place. The ownership group of the Giants was failing the team and the Bay. They failed to offer their second-round pick, Barry, anything that would even remotely seem reasonable in terms of a contract. So Barry went off to Arizona State University. There, he would constantly hit over .300, hit tons of home runs, and steal loads of bases. He was a machine in college.
His formal education led him to be drafted sixth overall by the Pirates in 1986. In his first game, Barry would go 0-5 with three strikeouts. The story goes that he called his Dad saying he must not be ready. Bobby responded by asking him if anything had changed like the pitch speed or the way one hits. Barry replied no, and realized he was ready. The next game he would hit a double and work a walk in a 4-0 win against his blood rivals the Dodgers.
Over the next seven seasons, Bonds would earn his first two MVPs, narrowly losing the 1991 MVP by a couple of votes. He would also collect three Gold Gloves and three Silver Sluggers. Bonds refers to this time as getting his Ph.D. In traditional career paths, you go to graduate school after college, and that is how he viewed his time in Pittsburgh. He used it to master the game before his decision prior to the 1993 season to come back home to the San Francisco Giants.
Before we get to the call that would forever propel and change the San Francisco Giants franchise, we have to discuss what occurred in that offseason of 1992. As previously mentioned, the Giants ownership had not been doing well. In the offseason of 1992, the owners decided that they wanted to up and move the team to Tampa Bay. The historical franchise of the Giants moving away from their San Francisco home, their Dodger rivals, and off to a retirement city in Florida.
It seemed hopeless, it was anything but a done deal. The Bay Area would only be saved by a last-minute bid by an ownership group headed by Peter Magowan and Larry Baer. The bid would be accepted and the Giants would stay in San Francisco. Literally moments away from losing their team, the Giants now had a better-funded and more competent ownership team who would make one of the greatest decisions in Giants’ history.
The call to Barry Bonds from the Giants ownership group that offseason was just a few weeks later. They simply asked Barry if he would like to come home and they were received with a resounding yes. See, Barry always wanted to be home. Even by his own admission the ownership group could have said anything as long as he was offered to come back. His dream was to be a San Francisco Giant like his dad, like his godfather, and to live out his life as a player in the Bay.
The Giants went from moving to Tampa Bay to landing the biggest free agent, maybe in the history of baseball. However, it was not just any free agent. It was Barry, it was the man who grew up a Giant, a Bay Area native through and through. To be a fan at that time, that feeling of having Bonds come home, I cannot even imagine what it felt like and meant to them.
The cherry on top would be that his father, Bobby Bonds, would be his hitting coach. Not only would he get to play for his childhood team, the team that raised him, he got to work hand-in-hand with his father.
The Candlestick Era
Barry would step up to the plate in front of his fellow Giant fans for the first time on April 12th of 1993. In that first at-bat, Barry would launch a monster homer, vital to the 4-3 win over the Marlins. This would set the tone for his entire career as a Giant. That season he would once again win a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger, and an MVP. He hit 46 home runs, had a whopping 123 RBIs, batted .336, and stole 29 bases.
The Giants would miss the playoffs going 103-59. Back then only the winner of the two divisions in each league made it to the playoffs. This would be the best record anyone would ever have in the divisional era to miss the playoffs. However, while frustrating, Giants fans were just happy to have their team and their legend in Barry.
Over the course of those 7 seasons at Candlestick, he would collect 6 All-star appearances, 5 Gold Gloves, 4 Silver Sluggers, and the one MVP. Barry was a bonafide superstar. He was the child of everything San Francisco Giants. That stardom is what propelled the Giants’ ownership to be able to push forward with and privately finance a stadium in China Basin.
The New Stadium 2000-2002
The Giants would build what many claims to be the most beautiful park in all of baseball, Pac-Bell Park at 24 Willie Mays Plaza. In the first game there against the rival Dodgers, Bonds would once again have a flair for the dramatic. Grabbing a 1st inning RBI and homering to the deepest part of the yard in his second at-bat.
The following season Bonds would go on his historic run to hit a record 73 home runs in one season. He would have an OBP of .515 benefited by the fact that he was walked 177 times during that season. He had become the scariest batter to face in the history of baseball during this stretch. He had solidified himself as one of the greatest to ever play. Barry was joining his dad, as an all-time Giant great, and his godfather, as a baseball legend.
In this three year span he would win two-MVPs, three Silver Sluggers, hit 168 home runs, and have an OPS of 1.295. However, Bonds and the Giants would fail to secure the one thing that would be forever missing from the Bonds era. A World Series trophy.
In the 2002 postseason Bonds was on fire. The Giants beat the Braves and Cardinals to advance to the World Series against the Angels. Bonds hit 8 home runs in 17 games, batted .356, and had an OBP of .581. The Giants led the series 3-2 going into game six. The score was 5-0 going into the bottom of the 7th, that is when Dusty Baker made a pitching change, and as Russ Ortiz headed off the mound, Dusty flipped the ball to him. The Giants would proceed to give up 6 runs over the next two innings to lose the game 6-5. They would go on to lose game 7 and the world series.
2003 and Beyond: The Bonds Era
After the World Series loss, I view the remaining years of Bonds’ career as really the Bonds era. While the team made the playoffs in 2003 and were competitive for the remainder of his career, the reason you turned on the TV and went to games was for the show Barry was putting on. He would win another two MVPs, Silver Sluggers, and All-star appearances in 2003-2004. However, his biggest accomplishments were the milestone, and record-breaking home runs he would be hitting.
April 12th, 2004, opening day for the San Francisco Giants against the Brewers. I was in the leftfield club section with my entire family. I was only about to turn 8, but my parents, ex-season ticket holders and lifelong Giant fans, had already instilled and taught me what Barry meant to our team. It was the Bottom of the 5th with the Giants down two-runs, two runners were on and there were two outs. Bonds gets to the plate and as Jon Miller, the Hall-of-Fame voice of Giants Radio would put it “Bonds swings A HIGH DRIVE, THERE IT GOES, #660 HEADED TO THE COVE, AND THAT ONE IS WET!”
On that swing Bonds had tied his godfather Willie Mays for third all-time in home runs. To this day that memory is burned into my head. I would pick no other Bonds home run to be a part of over that one. My two favorite players of all time, the two greatest Giants of all time, godfather and godson, sharing for a single day third place on the all-time home run list. Willie Mays coming out giving Bonds a huge hug. This is what Bonds meant to Giants fans.
In the following years, Barry would go on to hit #700, break Ruth’s record of #714, and finally break Hank Aaron’s record of #755. Every time Bonds got near a milestone it was must-watch TV. Honestly though, every time Barry hit it was must-watch TV. There may never be another hitter like him ever again in the game.
While Barry still wanted to play and just came off a 1.1045 OBPS season with 28 HRs, no one would sign him. Collusion or controversy, Bonds still had something left to give the game, but no one would take him. 2007 would be his final season.
The Media vs Bonds
Bonds never had a good relationship with the media. He often ignored them and wanted no part of interviews or discussions. This may be a large part as to why Bonds is not in the Hall Of Fame. While Bond’s steroid suspicion is obviously another big part, the writers had no problem putting guys like Ivan Rodriguez and Jeff Bagwell in the Hall. Both of which had just as much suspicion, and like Bonds, never tested positive.
By his own admission Bonds is introverted and socially awkward. In his interview with Renel Brooks-Moon, the voice of Giants baseball at Oracle Park, and long-time friend of Bonds, he compares himself to techies in Silicon Valley. He claims that while at the top of his field, and having a fluent understanding of baseball, he struggled with talking, communicating, and expressing himself. He always wanted his play to simply do the talking and wanted nothing to do with the media.
This is where Giants fans can see through all that is written about Bonds in the media. While he was sometimes a jerk to teammates and the media, this is the only side of Bonds national fans get to see. People in the Bay Area got to see the joy Bonds played with every day, they got signed balls, waves, and hellos from him at the park every day. People like my late-grandmother, who was a teacher, got to meet his wonderful mother, Patricia, and got to benefit from donations that he gave to schools in San Francisco. We Giants fans got to see the good and the bad of Bonds’ personality, not just the headlines that were written by national media.
Bonds has had one major gig in coaching after his play career. He was the hitting coach for the Miami Marlins. Christian Yelich on the Sequence Podcast claimed that Bonds changed his entire career with some tips and a wonky drill. There are also stories, similar to his playing days, of him sitting on the bench and calling out every single kind of pitch that would be thrown before the pitcher ever released the ball.
Bonds’ mind for the game, specifically hitting, may not be matched by anyone on this planet. He now works with the Giants as a special assistant. Giants players rave about how much he has taught them and how incredible it is to work with him, even in small amounts of time. Barry still has so much to offer the game.
Barry will always be a Giants legend. He was recently put on the Giants Wall-of-Fame and his and his dad’s number 25 was retired last year. He will always be a legend, a true Bay-Area born and raised folklore. The stories that he gifted so many of us to be able to share with our kids and grandkids one day is truly special.
The only thing to complete the legacy now is to put him in the Hall of Fame and to do so while his godfather, Willie Mays, is still able to go and see it happen. If the man Barry does not deserve it, at the very least his story does.