SAN FRANCISCO — A little before 8 p.m. on Saturday night, a ripple went through the press box at AT&T Park. The great man was going to speak.
This was Barry Bonds’ night. The Giants were retiring his jersey, No. 25, and the whole of the San Francisco baseball establishment, it seemed, was on hand to mark the occasion. There were Willie Mays and Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda and Gaylord Perry, five Giants who had previously reduced the stock of available jersey numbers. Bonds’ first MLB manager (with the Pirates), Jim Leyland, was on hand, and so was his last, Bruce Bochy. Bonds’ mother, two of his siblings and his three children took part in the pregame ceremony, too, and there were taped congratulations from the likes of Joe Montana and Stephen Curry.
Really, just one element had been missing: a Barry Bonds interview. Then word bounced around the room. Bonds was up in the broadcast booth, and might just have a moment to resume pleasantries when his TV stint was done. Perhaps 10 of us scurried up a flight of stairs, and after about 15 minutes, Bonds came striding down the hallway. He was eating a cookie, still looking dapper in black suit and silver tie.
Surly Barry Bonds has long ago ceded the microphone to Charming Barry Bonds, and this was the charming version, all the way. He gently teased writers who once tormented him, and were tormented by him. He talked lovingly of his father, and said it was Bobby Bonds he’d think of when he saw that No. 25 hanging just beyond the left-field foul pole. He insisted he doesn’t care one bit about whether he is voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He used the word “awesome” a lot.
But toward the end of the interview, the cookie gone, Bonds dropped his guard. I asked him how he feels when he returns to AT&T, knowing the role he played in building its history, and the old bravado returned.
“The park thing is more to me than the number thing, because I built this park,” Bonds said. “That’s all!”
Those last two words came out as a hearty laugh, as if he couldn’t hold back the truth.
“Now when I walk in this ballpark, I know whose house it is,” Bonds continued. “It’s our house as a unified city. But I know who did that. Willie (Mays) never played here. McCovey didn’t play here. None of them played here. I played here. So I know who did that part. So when I walk in the park, yeah, I may have my chest out, my head’s a little big or whatever. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I did that.’”
More than a decade after his final MLB at-bat, Bonds remains the most complicated Bay Area sports hero of his era. He was a generational baseball talent, but he muddied the issue by filling himself with steroids, then steadfastly denied it after the whole world knew it was true. He was hostile to reporters and dismissive of fans, but could light up a room with a smile whenever he wanted to.
All of these images returned with Bonds, to confound us once again. It feels like we’ve been debating his legacy since before he retired. Should Barry Bonds be in the Hall of Fame? Should there be a statue of Barry Bonds outside of AT&T Park? And, this week’s permutation, should the Giants retire Barry Bonds’ jersey?