SAN FRANCISCO — This is the way Barry Bonds wanted to leave the game of baseball a decade ago, standing in left field one final time at AT&T Park, watching the sellout crowd stand up, screaming until their lungs hurt, giving him the final send-off in a San Francisco Giants’ uniform.
Finally, he got his day, 11 years after his career ended a year earlier than he wanted, with San Francisco celebrating one of its all-time greats, the Giants retiring his number and giving him a party that he’ll forever remember.
“The park means more to me than the number,’’ Bonds said to a handful of reporters two hours after the 75-minute ceremony, munching on a chocolate-chip cookie. “Because I built this park. That’s all. When I walk into this ballpark, I know whose house it is. It is our house as a unified city, but I know who did that.
“Willie [Mays] never played here. [Willie] McCovey didn’t play here. None of them played here.
“I played here, so when I walk into the ballpark, I might have my chest out, my head’s a little big, yeah, I did that.’’
It was vintage Bonds, never, ever lacking in confidence, full of braggadocio, calling himself a “six-tool’’ player because of his intelligence, traits that made him baseball’s all-time home run king.
Sure, it will be argued, that performance-enhancing drugs also helped create baseball’s home-run champion, with Bonds hitting 762 homers, seven more than Hank Aaron. Yet, he was a Hall of Famer before there were any suspicions of steroid use, before anyone knew of BALCO, before all of the federal government investigations.
Willie Mays, who even wonders whether it should be Bonds, and not himself or Aaron, as the greatest living ballplayer today, reminded the sellout crowd that Bonds belongs in the Hall of Fame alongside him. The crowd of 41,209 erupted, and all of the Giants and Pirates players who were standing on the top dugout steps watching the ceremony, cheered right along with them.
“I wish [the Giants] would give him a statue across the little bridge over there,’’ said Mays, who has his own statue in front of the entrance to AT&T Park. “Let him have it. Let him have the honor, because I might not be here forever. I might be gone.
“I want him to have his kids say, 'That’s my daddy over there.’
“Give somebody the honor who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.’’
And yes, Mays implored the Baseball Writers Association of America, please put Bonds into the Hall while he’s alive to see it.
“On behalf of all of the people in San Francisco, and all over the country,’’ Mays said, “vote him in.”
Really, in many ways in this glorious evening, this was Bonds’ own Hall of Fame ceremony, as if he were standing behind the podium with his own Hall of Fame class in Cooperstown, N.Y., and not at AT&T Park.
This was his Hall of Fame day, where the sellout crowd kept chanting his name, reacting as if he just broke Aaron’s home-run record once again.
Bonds’ former managers, Jim Leyland and Dusty Baker spoke in reverence of Bonds. Former teammates Bobby Bonilla and Kirk Rueter talked about the glory days. Giants president Larry Baer and former owner Peter Magowan regaled the crowd about the greatest free-agent signing in Giants history, signing Bonds to a six-year, $43 million deal in 1992.
The happiest moment of Magowan’s ownership, he said, was the day he signed Bonds even before he officially became the owner, having to sign an agreement that would pay Bonds his contract even if the Giants’ sale collapsed.
“But the saddest,’’ he said, “was when we fired Barry.’’
It was not technically a firing, but rather the simple decision not to bring Bonds back after the 2007 season. Bonds hit 28 homers and drew a league-leading 132 walks that year, with a .480 on-base percentage and 1.041 on-base-plus slugging percentage.
“I really thought someone would sign Barry,’’ Magowan said Saturday, sitting on the Giants’ bench before the game. “It never happened.’’
Simply, no one wanted the baggage that came with him, the scrutiny, the media circus, and the constant sideshow.
His career ended prematurely, before he could obtain 3,000 hits, hit 800 home runs, and perhaps win a World Series, which has long pained Bonds, but this was a night that helped heal many of the wounds.
It wasn’t so much the jersey retirement, the words from Mays or the stories from everyone from former Dodgers All-Star closer Eric Gagne to video-board messages from New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (heavily booed by the crowd) to Golden State Warriors All-Star Steph Curry (wildly cheered).
It happened after R&B artist Johnny Gill sang the national anthem, Bonds rode around the outfield with his family, and with Giants starter Ty Blach throwing his warm-up pitches on the mound, Bonds ran out to left field one final time. He wanted to wear his full uniform, but only had time to wear his jersey, as the stadium shook with delight watching Bonds stand in left field one last time.
“I thought it was a great idea,’’ Bonds said, “because I wanted to be in left field one more time. And I felt it was appropriate to run out onto that field. I probably ran faster there than in my career. That’s where everybody saw me, and that’s where I thought people should see me last.’’
It was the closure Bonds so badly wanted when the Giants said good-bye, and every other team shunned him, ending his career one year earlier than he was wanted.
“I don’t deny it, I wish I had one more year,’’ Bonds said. “The way it happened was not right. But it’s OK. I’m definitely OK with it. You never heard me say anything nasty about it.
“I gave everything I had out on that field. I wish I had the opportunity to do it a different way, but if this is OK the way they did it because I tell you right now, I’m one little happy person right now.’’
Bonds, 54, a special assistant in the Giants’ organization, will mostly be out of sight now until that day he gets elected into Cooperstown. He’ll still show up occasionally at AT&T Park. He’ll keep riding his bicycle up in the streets of San Francisco. He’ll spend a week or so with the Giants in spring training camp, attend fundraisers, but has no interest in returning to the field as a coach.
His number will stand forever, right between Mays (24) and Juan Marichal (27), knowing that it was inevitable one day his number would be retired.
“I knew it was coming at one point,’’ he said, “nobody’s wearing it. What are you going to do, keep it in hide-and-seek forever? I kind of figured at one time it’s going to happen. But when, it wasn’t my decision to make.
“But what they did was fantastic. And how they did it was first-class.’’
Now, the only baseball dream left is a final resting spot in Cooperstown, along with the other legends of the game, hoping it happens while Mays still is alive to see it.
“It would mean a lot to anybody,’’ Bonds said. “All of the years I worked. Everything I’ve done. Sure.’’
Bonds has four years left on the ballot to be elected into Cooperstown, but he insists he’s not worrying about it. If it happens, he’ll be overwhelmed, maybe even be as emotional as he was Saturday, speaking about his late father, Bobby Bonds, and his mother, Pat, and siblings.
If it doesn’t, he’ll always have this evening, and a number that will stand forever, belonging to him.
“I can always look up there, see No. 25, and be proud,’’ Bonds said. “This means more than you’ll ever know. Thank you for making my dreams come true.’’
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