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Love Me, Hate MeBarry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero
By Jeff Pearlman
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Jeff Pearlman
All right reserved.
In the insular world of Major League Baseball, there is no greater sin than disrespect. Most players can tolerate inflated egos. They can tolerate boredom (a job requirement). They can tolerate pain, indifference, softness, absentmindedness, excessive brutality, disregard for the rules, large men dressed as sausages, 12-minute renditions of the national anthem.
Disrespect, however, is the ultimate no-no. You don't show up the opposing pitcher. You don't spit on an umpire. You never act the coward.
That was the word running through the dugout of the San Francisco Giants on the night of October 4, 2001. Coward. Actually, it wasn't the only word. Some preferred pussy. Others, chicken-shit. Wuss, wimp, softie. Pick an adjective -- any derisive adjective -- and it was applied to Houston Astros manager Larry Dierker. With good reason.
For nearly three full games, Dierker had refused to allow his pitchers to face Barry Bonds, San Francisco's left fielder and powerful number three hitter. In any other series at any other time, few Giants would have batted an eye. Throughout the past few seasons, Bonds had been pitched around more than any mansince the game's inception in the 1880s. One hundred seventeen walks in 2000. A major league record 172 (and counting) in 2001. It was a running joke among the San Francisco beat writers. How many hittable balls will Barry see today? One? Two? Three, if he's lucky?
Now, circumstances were different. With his solo blast against the San Diego Padres less than a week earlier, Bonds entered the series at Houston's Enron Field needing one home run to tie Mark McGwire's single-season record of 70. It was a mythical year for Bonds, who had to somehow overcome the death of a close friend and, along with the rest of America, the devastation of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Just weeks earlier in -- of all places -- Houston, the FBI had informed Bonds that someone had threatened to shoot him. Keep hitting homers -- and you die.
How had it come to this? Once a spindly 185-pound leadoff hitter, Bonds had reinvented himself as the second coming of Babe Ruth. Three years earlier he had been an afterthought in the race between McGwire and Sammy Sosa to break Roger Maris's single-season home run mark. Now he was altering the modern definition of power hitter. Entering the series, both teams had six games remaining. The Giants were two back of Arizona in the National League West, and Houston was tied with St. Louis in the National League Central. No matter. Few thoughts were on the playoff races.
This was about history.
In anticipation of a magical moment, more than 250 media outlets requested credentials for the Giants-Astros series. All three games were sold out. Aware that opposing pitchers were fearful of going down as the guy who allowed a historic homer, Bonds used his pre-series press conference to try to goad Dierker and the Astros into presenting him with hittable baseballs.
"I've played against Houston a long time and I've never known them to bypass anybody," he said. "They have too many quality pitchers on that side, back to Nolan [Ryan] and Mike Scott and all the rest of them. They have pride, too. They have always been up for the challenge. When you look at some of the other teams, you can probably say, 'Sure, they won't pitch to you.' But when you look at a staff like [Houston's], it would be kind of odd if they [pitched around me]."
Of course, the Astros were no more likely to pitch to Bonds than were the Mets, the Braves, the Brewers, or any other major league team. But with just six games remaining in the season, Bonds wanted Dierker to take the bait. Needed Dierker to take the bait. This record meant everything to Bonds. It was a symbol of unparalleled greatness -- of being the absolute best in a sport steeped in legend. Throughout the early portion of his career, Bonds was often overshadowed by the legacy of his father, Bobby Bonds, a talented major league outfielder whose stardom was derailed by alcoholism. Even later, in forging his own identity as a multiple MVP winner, Bonds struggled to separate himself from Ken Griffey Jr., baseball's other megawatt star. This, too, induced bitterness. Now, the opportunity was at hand for Barry Bonds to elevate his status to an all-time, one-of-a-kind icon. He did not simply want the home run record. He craved it.
Before the first game of the series on October 2, Mike Krukow, the Giants color commentator, was walking behind the cage during batting practice when he bumped into Harry Spilman, Houston's hitting coach. The two had been teammates with San Francisco in the late 1980s, and maintained a friendship. Spilman flashed a disappointed expression. "Sluggo ain't pitching to Barry," Spilman said in reference to Dierker. "Your guy ain't gonna get squat to hit."
To Krukow's dismay, Spilman was right. In that night's 4-1 San Francisco win, Bonds saw 17 pitches (in five at-bats), only five of which were strikes. The next evening was even worse. In the Giants' 11-8 triumph, Bonds saw 18 pitches, four of which were strikes. After the games an enraged Bonds retreated to the clubhouse, where Willie Mays -- traveling with the team to witness history -- calmed him down. "You'll get your chance, Barry," Mays told his godson. "Just be patient." So dire was the situation that Bonds's 10-year-old daughter, Shikari, took to holding a poster that read PLEASE PITCH TO OUR DADDY!
Though Dierker remained steadfast in his belief that pitching to Bonds was foolish, few in the ballpark agreed. As it became increasingly clear that Bonds would not be allowed to hit his 70th, the hometown fans turned on their skipper. Dierker, a former Astros pitcher and TV commentator whose uniform number, 49, had been retired by the franchise, was booed whenever he walked to the mound or stuck his head out of the dugout. "Larry didn't realize the significance of how much Houston fans were baseball fans, not Astros fans," says Jose De Jesus Ortiz, who covered the team for the Houston Chronicle. "He thought everyone was saying, 'We're filling this stadium to see you not give up the 70th home run.' It was actually the opposite."
Excerpted from Love Me, Hate Me by Jeff Pearlman Copyright © 2006 by Jeff Pearlman. Excerpted by permission.
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