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More than just numbers to these struggling sluggers

August 05, 2007|From the Associated Press

Barry Bonds strolled into the clubhouse late and in no hurry to get dressed. First he had to glance up at the TV to see if Alex Rodriguez had hit home run No. 500.

The pair of sluggers were on different coasts Thursday, each struggling to reach historic numbers. And what a struggle it has become.

A-Rod couldn't stop hitting home runs in April, but can't seem to get the big one he needs now. Bonds has had an even harder time going after an even bigger number in his chase of one of the greatest records in sports.

"I think the enormity of the moment is certainly on his mind," Giants batting coach Joe Lefebvre said. "It's a huge moment. How many guys can you say have ever been at this point in their career?"

That would be one, two if you count Aaron's home run off Al Downing 33 years ago that got him past the Babe and into the record book for what seemed, at the time, would be forever.

The 500 club is a lot more crowded, with 21 players already inducted and one sitting only one swing away. But A-Rod would become the youngest member yet at the age of 32, and it seems like the enormity of the moment has been weighing on him, too.

Rodriguez managed to get two hits in the Yankees' 13-9 loss to the White Sox, but in a series where balls were flying out of Yankee Stadium in all directions, he didn't come close to adding to the total.

At least he got some hits. A-Rod had gone 22 at-bats before a second inning single broke the longest hitless drought of his remarkable career.

"I didn't try to do too much," Rodriguez said. "Back to work tomorrow."

For Bonds it was back to work at Dodger Stadium, where he has endured more than his share of abuse over the years. Earlier in the day, the Dodgers held a steroid awareness clinic for about 100 Little Leaguers, with skinny center fielder Juan Pierre offering himself as proof that you don't need to use chemicals to make the big leagues.

Of course, even Little Leaguers know that Pierre hasn't hit a ball out of the park while wearing a Dodger uniform, and has trouble even throwing the ball to second base from the outfield.

Bonds, on the other hand, is the greatest slugger the game has known, or at least he will be sometime next week when he'll be back in San Francisco and in more of a frame of mind to break Aaron's record of 755 home runs. There, fans will stand and cheer their hero instead of greeting him with loud boos and sometimes even worse.

"Barry, how did your head get so big? What happened?" one fan yelled loudly as Bonds took batting practice before Thursday's game. "Why were you so skinny on your rookie card? I don't get it."

Bonds usually thrives under such circumstances, and felt so good this week that he started all three games. He's hit 29 home runs in Dodger Stadium, but the short, compact swing that made him a superstar seems forced in recent weeks.

Bonds hit only .186 in July, and is 6-for-33 with one home run since hitting two in Chicago on July 19 and giving everybody false hope that both his chase of the record and the circus surrounding it would end soon. His final night at Dodger Stadium ended early when he was pulled for a pinch runner in the seventh inning with just a single and two walks to show for his effort.

Lefebvre blames the slump more on age and aching legs, but someone who has watched Bonds up close and personal this week thinks it might be something else.

"I'm sure that maybe pressure has something to do with it," Dodger catcher Russell Martin said. "I'm sure he's never wanted to hit a home run more in his life, so I'm sure there's got to be something involved in it because his approach does look a little different."

Most players, of course, will say they don't try to hit home runs and that most come from just making solid contact while trying to hit line drives. But with each at-bat, Rodriguez and Bonds seem to be trying to put something extra on the ball and make the pressure go away.

"Not many hitters will say they're trying to hit home runs -- because when you do, you barely hit one," said Mark Hendrickson, who held Bonds hitless on Wednesday. "It's just probably hard because he's trying to get it done and get it over with so that he and the team can get back to some kind of normalcy."

How Bonds feels about it is hard to say because he would rather not say. Even more than Rodriguez, he would like to set the record at home, where the Giants return Monday night after three games in San Diego.

The game, he insists, is still fun. But everything around it seems to be wearing on him.

"The actual going and playing is fun," he said. "Answering the same thing every day is boring."

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