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Original Issue

Giant Step

After enduring three knee operations, and sidestepping several scandals, Barry Bonds is back in his clubhouse easy chair. The baseball world remains riveted

Last Thursday afternoon Barry Bonds finally returned to the field, playing--like a kid who can't scrounge up enough pals for full teams--a make-believe game. He saw 21 nibbling pitches from Giants righthander Kevin Correia, took 14 and turned one into an elegant, parabolic home run into the rightfield bleachers at SBC Park. He ran the bases, and the most dramatic moment of the stultifying 35-minute exercise came when, chugging from first to third on an imaginary base hit to right, Bonds pulled up abruptly after rounding third. A low rumble was heard from the hundred-odd onlookers, but Barry's surgically repaired right knee was just fine.

A half dozen photographers and five times as many reporters studied Bonds with the scrupulousness journalists once reserved for the reviewing stand at Moscow military parades. (I was embarrassed to find, in my own notebook, the following: "B sits in dugout, unbuckles belt, unbuttons pants. Peels off jersey, dry-fit shirt. Wearing sweat-stained gray undershirt, says, 'Jesus Christ, I feel like I can't breathe.' Camera shutters click.") One newspaper account reported the workout by making a lengthy allusion to Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

Everyone finally stopped waiting for Bonds on Monday, when Bonds made his unsimulated return to the Giants' lineup. He played leftfield and went 1 for 4 against the Padres at SBC and did his best to tune out the hubbub--something he was unable to do in spring training. "You wanted to bring me down," he told the press last March, four months after the San Francisco Chronicle reported that he told the BALCO grand jury he unknowingly took steroids thinking he was ingesting flaxseed oil, and three days after an ex-mistress publicly accused him of being a tax cheat. "You've finally done it." He seemed worn down, on the brink of disaster. His personal trainer, Greg Anderson, was under indictment for conspiracy to distribute steroids. So was BALCO founder Victor Conte, to whom Bonds was linked through Anderson. The Feds were reportedly using the threat of jail to get Anderson and Conte to talk about Bonds.

Those storms have long since passed, and as usual the forecasters were wrong. Anderson and Conte copped pleas without having to testify. A big-name slugger has been brought down, but it was Rafael Palmeiro. When Bonds strolled back into the Giants' clubhouse, he was the Barry of old--talking little with teammates, hanging with his two personal trainers (neither of them Anderson), lounging in his black leather recliner in a secluded corner of the clubhouse.

Though he chafes at being a superstar, Bonds followed an aggressive timetable for his return. Since January he has had three right-knee surgeries, the last of which, on May 2, treated an infection that had doctors concerned for the long-term health of his leg. He is back now rather than next spring because both he and his club were getting antsy. "It's a holistic thing," says Giants vice president Larry Baer. "It's for Barry's sense of competitive fire and frustration at not being on the field, it's for our ability to check and see what kind of recovery he'll have. Is he a 140-game guy next year? 120? 100?"

Once they get an idea of how much Bonds can play, the Giants--who in 2004 picked up Bonds's $18 million option for next year--will determine the extent to which the club, which is languishing seven games out of first, can build around him. Bonds's greatest challenge this month will be reacclimating himself to the every-day rigors of the game. His power seems intact and his swing no worse for wear (manager Felipe Alou happily observed that Bonds was not favoring his right leg while uncorking BP home runs last week), but his body clock is in mid-February. "The hitting is going to be easy," Alou said on Friday. "The spring training part is the other part: running, outfield play, running back and forth from the outfield." Alou worries most about Bonds, at 42, sliding on the bases, stopping and starting in the outfield and standing for nine innings, especially during chilly night games.

The manager is right to be concerned. Despite Bonds's copernican view of self, his occasional boorishness and his proximity to the BALCO mess, he remains undeniably compelling. Without him standing out there on a cold night in September, a game isn't half as exciting.

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