Friendly Turf

By Ray Ratto
Updated: August 10, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO – The Escalade pulled into the left field parking lot at 4:35, and Barry Bonds transferred himself from the car to a cart that took him into the private ceremony celebrating the Giants’ 50 years of outfielders. He hugged the team’s principal stockholder, Sue Burns, and then disappeared inside for the catered festivities.

On the way out of the tent a half-hour later, a sole reporter got close enough to him to ask why he had returned, and he said simply, “It’s home.” The perfect answer for the audience he was actually reaching – the paying customers.

This was Bonds’ first appearance at the old factory since the unofficial end of his career — Sept. 21, when Peter Magowan announced that the Giants were going, belatedly, “in another direction.”

Much has not happened to Bonds in the intervening months, most conspicuously a contract to play for another major-league baseball team. He had become a reluctant civilian, knowing he had game left to give but learning in time that the market for his game had dried.

Thus, when it was learned by Comrade Schulman that the Giants had extended him an invitation to return for Saturday’s outfielder fete before the Giants-Dodgers game, there was some question whether he would attend.

Yes, this was the place of his most glorious moments, but it was also the place where he first learned someone didn’t want the use of his gifts. The idea of going where he wasn’t wanted seemed a difficult choice to those who like to speculate on his thought processes.

On the other hand, a form of peace would have to be reached at some point between his playing career and his post-playing career, and there would be few better opportunities to hear again the cheers of the 40,000 who never forgave him because in their minds there was nothing for which he needed forgiving. He was their guy, and they were his, and the judgments of the rest of the world could go hang.

This was not originally supposed to be a Bonds-fest; the idea for the outfield thing was part of a greater 50th anniversary salute promotion, held weirdly enough in the club’s 51st year.

But Bonds was the late added attraction who became the centerpiece. He came to say hello to his old constituents in his new guise as a guy who wears his jersey over a collared shirt. So while the fans saluted Jackie Brandt and Von Joshua, applauded Terry Whitfield and Dave Kingman, roared their approval for Jeffrey Leonard and Brett Butler, they were all waiting for Bonds.

He was the second-to-last player introduced on a roster of 26 former Giants who ringed the infield dirt, waving to the crowd as he met Willie Mays (the last one introduced) in left-center, he got the standing ovation he could always bank on, even in the most tumultuous of times. This was his Switzerland, and it is hard to imagine a time when it won’t be.

His name was chanted long enough to draw him into a brief speech on the field, and he hit the right note for the audience when he said, “It feels odd for me not to be in uniform, and the Dodgers are … right … there. You heard me, Torre (to which the Dodger manager doffed his cap). I beat you before, and I’ll beat you again. I haven’t retired.”

Of course, that’s why he always owned these folks — because he recognized the moment and knew how to maximize it. Elsewhere, what he offered might not have sold, but he wasn’t playing for anyone outside the building he liked best.

And, it should be added, the building that liked him best. In a park that routinely crushed power hitters to the point that power hitters don’t want to come here, Bonds bent the park to his will in ways that won’t be done again for a long time

Then he left the field, headed up to the broadcast booth to do a turn with Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow (a typically charming spin even though the Dodgers did score the first of their runs and though he did refer to Aaron Rowand as “Scott”) and then left through a phalanx of loitering reporters to sit next to Burns in the owners’ field seats to watch the game.

He hugged Magowan along the way and later sat and chatted with him, leading to the assumption that they had reached a rapprochement, and then became an undeclared but very real ex-player.

Of course, being an ex-player isn’t the same as being out of the game, and while he doesn’t seem the coaching or managing type, those aren’t the only positions open to a man with a name and lots of disposable income.

Why, a more diabolical mind might wonder if perhaps he’d like to own a piece of the club. He gets along famously with Burns, there are always shares to be had, and Bud Selig’s right eye would pop right out of his head if he had to consider such a question at an owners meeting.

It would have been a grand question to ask, but he was well-protected by a police escort and ballpark security.

There would be no statements beyond what he gave to the crowd and to Kuiper and Krukow in the booth. He was cordial but never stationary, so nobody could ask any bothersome questions about there being no team for him in 2008, or the Hall of Fame, or the performance enhancement question, or maybe getting a chunk of the club, or anything else.

He put in 3 1/2 innings and then said his goodbyes, once more getting a standing ovation on his way up the aisle to the car. His first goodbyes, we suspect, and not his last.

He may not have announced his retirement, and he may never do so despite the mounting evidence that he has played his last game, but he looked very much at home as a piece of Giants history. He called it “home” most of all because he intends to be back.