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COMMENTARY / ROGER KAHN

Bonds Not Necessarily Chip Off His Godfather

October 25, 2002|ROGER KAHN | Special to the Times

If I had to use a single word to describe Barry Bonds, that word would be forbidding. He marches toward home plate expressionless and menacing, armed with his magic maple bat and a tiny cross dangling from one ear. Is he inwardly singing "Onward Christian Soldiers?" I don't know. Possibly nobody knows.

Bonds looks as if he means to mash the pitcher and the baseball; chances are splendid that he will. Bonds hits homers more frequently than he smiles in public. He essentially ignores the media. His motto might come from a war cry, also forbidding, from American Revolutionary days: Don't tread on me.

Why, some wonder, can't Bonds buy a round for the boys (and girls) in the press box, in the manner of his great predecessor, Babe Ruth? Why won't he throw them good quotes in the style of another great predecessor, Reggie Jackson, the human quote machine? Bonds is as cold and remote, some say, as is his godfather, Willie Mays.

At this point, to use a phrase I learned from Joe DiMaggio, the Doge of San Francisco, I have to say, "Stop right there!" Mays may be remote to strangers, dunces and bigots -- his life has not been easy -- but if you earn Willie's trust and friendship, you will have won a jewel of extraordinary worth.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 30, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 11 inches; 420 words Type of Material: Correction
Willie Mays -- Hall of Fame outfielder Willie Mays never led the National League in runs batted in. It was reported incorrectly in a Sports chart Friday that he led the league in RBIs five times.

Willie and I go back 48 years, to spring training, 1954, when the New York Giants, coming off a fifth-place finish, looked dreary. Mays was far away, finishing an Army stint, but he would be discharged early in March. Meanwhile, the Giants' establishment was assaulting me with such extravagant descriptions of Mays' talents that I finally composed a skeptical feature for the late and sainted New York Herald Tribune.

"Willie is 10 feet nine inches tall," I wrote. "He leaps 15 feet straight up. Nobody can hit a baseball over his head. Willie throws sidearm from the Polo Grounds to Pittsburgh. Willie's speed is deceptive. The best evidence indicates he is one step faster than electricity...." Creative folk at the Trib illustrated the piece with a cleverly distorted photo that made Mays appear gigantic.

I had my laugh, and then, after a long flight -- prop planes in those days -- Willie walked into the Giants' camp in Phoenix. The one word for what happened next is sunburst. The Giants weren't gray anymore.

Manager Leo Durocher, with his sure sense of drama, kept Mays out of that day's intersquad game until the fifth inning. Willie squirmed and paced in the dugout. When Durocher sent him in to pinch-hit, Willie hit a 420-foot home run. He stayed on to play center field and an inning later ran an Arizona mile toward right, speared a line drive, whirled and doubled the runner at first.

The inning after that a big country boy named Joe Cephus "Cash" Taylor blasted a tremendous wallop to dead center. Mays galloped perhaps 75 feet straight back and caught the ball over his shoulder, a simply amazing catch. "May I point out," said the late Chub Feeney, the Giants' general manager, "that Willie doesn't like airplanes much. He's playing at this level on zero hours sleep."

Sal Maglie, the great pressure pitcher said, "Hey, with the kid back, all I gotta do is keep the ball in the ballpark." As he spoke, Sal smiled. Like Bonds, Maglie did not smile in public every day. So it finally turned out that in my skepticism I had been correct. Willie really was 10 feet 9 inches tall.

After a bit the Giants and the Cleveland Indians flew to Las Vegas for an exhibition and then the Giant group was invited to a big hotel for free food and entertainment. Willie and I sat in a small theater where Robert Merrill burst into "Vesti la giubba," the gorgeous aria from Pagliacci, where the clown sings of having to make people laugh although his own heart is breaking. Merrill gave it full voice and all his passion. When Merrill was done, Willie turned to me amid the cheering. "You know," he said, quite moved, "That's a very nice song."

Horror awaited us. We drifted into the casino, where Monte Irvin and Whitey Lockman were fighting a one-armed bandit and Maglie, glowering like a movie mafioso, was losing at blackjack, 50 cents a game. Mays moved toward a dice table and after a while I said, "How you doing, Will?"

His eyes sparkled, as they would when he joked, and he said, "I'm just learning the game." Abruptly a short, thick-shouldered thug of a man said, "Get your friend away from the dice tables."

"What?"

"You heard me. Get him away from the nice tables. We don't want him mixing with the white guests."

"Do you know who is?"

"Yeah. I know who he is. He's a ..... Get that ... away from the white guests."

Soon we were shouting. The man using the racial epithet was armed. At length I said slowly, "I am now going to reach for my wallet."

I did and pulled out my press card.

"I want to thank you," I said, very agitated and still speaking very loudly, "for giving me a great story for the Sunday New York Herald Tribune."

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