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Bonds' Baggage Is Heavy Lifting

May 21, 2006|Tim Brown

Mike Murphy is 64, so his step isn't as sure as it was in McCovey's day. His shoulders roll a bit at the top.

He can lug a suitcase, stack an equipment bag and haul a laundry basket with most of the young guys, though, as he once did for Mays, Marichal and Cepeda. As he does for Bonds.

The sweat comes a little faster, and that makes his glasses slip to the end of his nose. But it's no bother. He'll leave them there.

He has picked things up for a living since 1954, and for the Giants since four years after that, from the day they moved from New York.

So, on a Wednesday afternoon in Houston, this trip from the visitors' clubhouse to the playing field isn't any different from most. A flight down, a stretch of flat ground, and then a short flight up. He cradles a bag of baseballs, maybe 40 pounds' worth, peers over the top of it and trundles toward the top step.

"Murph!" a young man from behind him shouts. "Hold on."

"Nino!" Murphy answers, the Spanish word for child, which Murphy uses to mean "son."

Pedro Feliz, the Giants' third baseman, arrives and yanks on the bag of balls.

"I got it," he says.

"I got it, Nino."

"No, Papa Miguel, come on," Feliz pleads. "I got it. I got it. I got it. Por favor."

Murphy relents and sets it down, but stubbornly clings to one of two straps stitched into the bag's side. Feliz grabs the other.

Together, laughing and chatting in a half-English, half-Spanish thing, they tote the balls to the field for batting practice.

At a rather awkward moment for baseball and the Giants, the emphasis becomes Barry Bonds and his murky career, Bonds and his gloomy moods, Bonds and his tranquilized stalking of Babe Ruth.

Baseball is investigating, and so is another federal grand jury, and no one can be sure when the Internal Revenue Service might arrive, but many in baseball's highest offices have a hunch it will.

Unlike Hank Aaron's run at Ruth, and Mark McGwire's and Sammy Sosa's march on Roger Maris, and Bonds' chase of McGwire, this is no parade.

What this feels like is penance.

What this looks like is a low, dark cloud over Bud Selig's summer. And sometimes, in the Giants' clubhouse, it looks the same way. In an otherwise normal locker room, you'd swear the lights dim when Bonds appears with his posse of dawgs, aides, valets and cameramen.

Most days, he greets no one. No one waves or greets him. Reporters stare. One afternoon last week, Bonds and pitcher Matt Morris curled through a sea of reporters from opposite sides of the clubhouse. When they abruptly pulled up, no more than a foot from a full collision, there was no acknowledgment. Each turned a shoulder and continued on his path, strangers on a subway platform.

Maybe this explains why Giants pitchers did not retaliate against the Astros a day after Bonds had Matrix-ed himself away from four Russ Springer hardballs, only to wear the fifth. Maybe they agreed with Springer. Maybe they wouldn't mind an intrasquad game themselves.

But, in the dead weight that is the Bonds story, and in the strain to put Bonds and what he's done into sensible historical context, neither dismissing what he did before he met Greg Anderson nor validating what he did after, there apparently is baseball being played out there. Just baseball. Just guys playing together and existing together and, once in a while, believing in one another.

And that is why Murph and Nino are important. It was their playful struggle, the generosity of friendship, the forgotten demarcation of player and equipment manager in a place where some players couldn't hit the hamper with night-vision goggles and a smart bomb.

Barry Bonds, along with a few players like him, used to define baseball. He had every talent, every plus tool, every reason to play hard. We don't have to let him define it anymore, just because he stands out in front of a sad era of equally insecure and deceitful peers.

What we could have instead is the story of a young man leaving the Dominican Republic, advancing through the minor leagues, finding a bighearted man on his first day of big league camp, and helping that man hang laundry and hoist bat bags in his sixth big league season. Maybe, after some time.

"He's always been like that, ever since he got here," Murphy said. "I guess he took a liking to me. And he's like a son I never had."

After six minor league seasons, Feliz finally summoned the nerve to tell the public relations department it had spelled his name wrong since the day he signed.

"Not Felix," he said, tracing the mark of Zorro with his finger. "It's with a Z."

When Feliz returned to minor league camp, Murphy slipped him some bats, a pair of uniform pants, some jockstraps and whatever else might help the kid get back to the big league clubhouse. And now Murphy gets a card with a Dominican return address every Christmas, and a smile from February to October. And every once in a while, Feliz will tell him, "Papa Miguel, I hit a home run for you today."

Standing in the dugout after batting practice, Feliz is wary.

"This isn't going to take too long?" he asks.

It's going to be about Bonds, he seems sure. Something about Barry the cheater or Barry the absent teammate or Barry the whatever-today's-story-is.

When it's not, he smiles and he sits.

"Oh, Papa Miguel?" he says. "Doing for him? I think I was born like that. Anything I can do to help him out, I want to do. Miguel is a special guy. He's taken care of me since I met him the first time. I respect him a lot. He's an honest person. He should have the best, because he is the best.

"I wish I can do that for everybody. That everybody can feel good about something. I would like to be that kind of person."

So you can relax, Murph. After your lifetime spent raising and picking up after ballplayers, Nino's got it. Really, he's got it.

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