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Another Jog in Park for Bonds

April 06, 2002|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Once the baseball left his bat and cleared the right-field stands and he broke into his home-run trot, Barry Bonds had this odd blank look on his face. So what if his 10th-inning home run Friday, his fifth in four games, had just given the San Francisco Giants a 3-1 victory over San Diego in their home opener at Pacific Bell Park?

There are other factors to consider, Bonds said.

"It's early, and baseball is a long-distance run," he said. "I don't get too excited in the first quarter-lap. I get excited on the last lap when I'm ahead."

The way Bonds has begun, you cannot shake an eerie feeling that last season hasn't really ended for him and has instead folded neatly into this one. Home run-wise, you have to say he's picked up where he left off last year, when he set the major league record of 73.

In four games, Bonds has come to the plate 11 times and has seven hits, five of them home runs. He is hitting .636. He also has a slugging percentage of 2.091, which is pretty good when you consider Bonds broke Babe Ruth's record with a slugging percentage of .863 last year. Giant Manager Dusty Baker watched Bonds' 572nd career home run clear the wall and then said he almost knew it was going to happen.

"We kind of expect it of him," Baker said.

Even if his manager feels that way, Bonds doesn't. His home runs may be routine to others, but not to him.

"Surprised?" Bonds said. "Shock is more like it. I'm as shocked as anybody."

The latest blast by Bonds was on a one-strike pitch from left-hander Alan Embree, a former Giant, who hung a curveball over the plate. Embree said it probably wouldn't have mattered if he had thrown a fastball at the knees on the corner.

"I think everything looks in slow motion to Barry right now," he said.

Bonds said the hardest ball he hit all day was an out. On his first trip to the plate, he hit a drive to the deepest part of Pacific Bell Park, just to the left of the 421-foot sign, where Mark Kotsay leaped to snag the ball in front of the wall. Bonds walked on four pitches in the third, flied out tamely to left in the sixth and walked on five pitches in the eighth.

In the 10th, with Rich Aurilia on first after a walk, Bonds unloaded. While he circled the bases, the stunned Padre players slowly left the field. It was the first walk-off home run by Bonds since he hit one against the Philadelphia Phillies on Aug. 30, 1999. He crossed the plate and was mobbed by teammates, then he retreated to the dugout. After a few moments, he walked to the top step and waved to the sellout crowd of 41,714.

It was the end of a long day for Bonds and the Giants, who didn't get back into town until 2 a.m. after playing the Dodgers Thursday night in Los Angeles. But that didn't stop Bonds from enjoying the opening day ceremonies.

"On opening day, you can probably sleep one hour and still do a good job," Bonds said.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, the pregame ceremony turned out to be a virtual Bonds love fest. Before the first trays of garlic fries from the concession stands could get cold, eight former winners of the most valuable player award honored Bonds as he received his fourth MVP award. Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Reggie Jackson, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Jeff Kent, Vida Blue and Kevin Mitchell sat with Bonds in folding chairs arranged in a semicircle between the pitcher's mound and home plate.

Bonds turned to acknowledge a new flag on display beyond the center-field wall. Black with orange trim, it had the number 73 in a white circle. He cradled the MVP plaque and thanked the fans of San Francisco.

"Those 73 were for you," he said.

The fans must have believed him. When his name was announced during the player introductions, the cheering was so loud, no one could hear anything after "Batting third, left field ... "

But if he has fans in the seats, Bonds also has plenty in other places. Banks said Bonds' swing is the best he has ever seen by a left-handed hitter.

"Ted Williams had a great swing, Rod Carew had a great swing, but this kid, he is so powerful, the ball just goes off his bat," Banks said. "The sound of it is so different. It's a loud sound. He's just remarkable.

"Gosh, what a player. If they had pitched to him last year, he might have hit 90 home runs. What a player."

Bonds, who says he doesn't feel any pressure to hit home runs and has no idea if he has a flair for the dramatic, denied it when asked if he uses steroids. He also said he isn't sure if he's in the same zone as he was last year. All he was certain of late Friday afternoon is that he was tired.

"I don't like to play extra innings," he said. "We don't get paid for overtime. All I was really trying to do was get the hell out of here."

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