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Ross Newhan ON BASEBALL

Bonds Does Nothing to Lower Great Expectations

April 03, 2002|Ross Newhan

In what was his spring mantra, his attempt to reduce expectations in the aftermath of his season for the ages, Barry Bonds liked to say that it went so far beyond anything he had done before that he didn't want to think about it, that he simply wanted to let it go.

"In some ways, I feel that last year was something I'm not," Bonds said on a recent Arizona afternoon. "I hit more home runs than I ever have, did some things I never have, and it would be nerve racking to try to figure out how to do it again. It was the equivalent of two seasons for me, and to think I can do it again is unrealistic."

The 53,356 fans who were at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday might disagree.

All Bonds did in this first game of 2002 was pick up where he'd left off in 2001.

All he did was raise the expectations, bury the Dodgers and provide evidence that even a pace suddenly projecting to 324 home runs might not be unrealistic.

The four-time most valuable player created that interplanetary projection by slugging two home runs--he also had a run-producing single while driving in five runs--as the San Francisco Giants, with their 9-2 victory, provided a pain of another kind for the still rehabilitating Kevin Brown and sent the Dodgers back to the drawing board.

It wasn't the opener Dodger Manager Jim Tracy had envisioned, but even he could only admire the performer and performance most responsible for the defeat.

"The man in left field did his fair share of damage," Tracy said of Bonds. "The more you watch him, the more you reflect on what he's done, he's beginning to make a case for himself that he's arguably the best player ever to play the game. I was sitting there today, trying to think of something he can't do, and there's really nothing you can think of."

In a resumption of his 2001 assault, Bonds left even teammates feeling as if ... well, as first baseman J.T. Snow said, "It may be unfair to keep expecting this, but we're at a point where we almost do. He's in another league. In fact, he tends to make the rest of us feel like we're in Little League with the shots he hits--the regularity and distance. We barely get them over the fence in batting practice, and he's hitting them 20 rows deep."

Batting practice? Bonds was back doing it in Game 1.

He hit a three-run, opposite-field homer into the left-field pavilion off Brown in the second inning, singled in a run off Brown in the fourth--after narrowly missing a home run with a towering drive to the foul side of the right-field pole--then recalculated on an orbital shot off Omar Daal in the seventh, driving it on the fair side of the same pole and into the loge seats.

Bonds didn't leave the plate until the ball had landed, admiring his work, and why not? He was only the 10th player to reach the loge level as Dodger Stadium begins its 40th season. He is also only the 25th player to hit two home runs on opening day.

The next 161?

"I don't predict the future," Bonds said. "My only expectation is to stay healthy."

He said this while standing in the Giants' dugout, surrounded by cameras and reporters.

The Giants, hoping to reduce the individual requests for interviews as they did during the second half of last season, will hold a similar news conference for Bonds before tonight's game against the Dodgers.

Bonds is resigned to the inevitability of what awaits him this year but wishes he could escape it.

Of course, when you hit two home runs on opening day and are coming off a season in which you eclipsed Mark McGwire's single season record with 73 home runs while also breaking Babe Ruth's single season records for slugging percentage and walks, the demands are only going to escalate.

"This is crazy," Bonds said, fighting for breathing space in the packed dugout. "I know it's part of it, but I really don't want to go through it again. It was really hard to stay on that high for six months, like I did last season. It takes a toll. I'm 37 going on 38 and trying to play like I'm 25. I mean, I'm proud to have done what I did [last year] and happy to have done it in San Francisco, but if I hit 30 or 40 home runs this year, I'll still feel that I've have had a consistent year."

As he embarks on a five-year, $90-million contract, Bonds seems more in his prime than his twilight. He is probably bigger and stronger than ever, having continued to follow a rigorous off-season workout program that left training partner Gary Sheffield gasping.

The distance of his loge-level shot Tuesday was one example of Bonds' continuing quickness and strength, but the opposite-field drive against a light wind on a 93-mph fastball by Brown might have been even more impressive.

"Most of his pitches sink," Bonds said. "This one stayed up. I don't think he wanted it there."

San Francisco Manager Dusty Baker sat at his desk later, compared Bonds to stars of the Henry Aaron, Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky magnitude and said, "The man has 569 homers. We're past the point of surprise. He's awesome. We have to feel blessed that we're here to see it."

Those 569 home runs leave Bonds only four behind Harmon Killebrew, sixth on the all-time list. At his recent pace, Aaron and his 755 seem increasingly possible, but Bonds dismisses the prospect. On one hand he hopes to keep the confidence and momentum of those 73 homers in his "mental Rolodex" but, on the other, he would like to elude the accompanying distractions.

He continues to insist that he is more interested in the elusive ring than Aaron's record.

"It's not how you start but how you finish," he said, when asked again about his impressive start Tuesday.

"The ultimate finish for me would be a World Series."

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