EVEN AS Josh Hamilton sent ball after ball soaring into the Bronx night during the All-Star Home Run Derby on July 14, the thoughts of two gentlemen sitting in the Yankee Stadium bleachers were with another slugger, one whose presence hung over the proceedings like some half-remembered ancestor. WHERE'S BARRY*, read the large sign the friends held aloft. It was a fair question.
Just one year ago Barry Bonds started the All-Star Game at AT&T Park and received several standing ovations from the home crowd—because he was on the verge of passing Hank Aaron's career home run record, yes, but also because he remained, at 42, one of baseball's most skilled hitters. At season's end he had 28 home runs, a major-league-best .480 on-base percentage and, he felt, the profile of an attractive free agent. Of course, Bonds's strength never was gauging what others thought of him. The Call didn't come over the winter, and it still hasn't, even though Bonds's agent, Jeff Borris, has been informing teams that his client would accept the major league minimum salary. Prorated, that would amount to slightly more than $150,000, roughly the cost of taking a family of four to the new Yankee Stadium.
There are many reasons Bonds is unemployed. Teams are scared by his legal issues (he was indicted on federal perjury and obstruction of justice charges last November and will face trial next March), and team executives say that Bonds's performance no longer outweighs the distractions he'd bring to a clubhouse. "You stomach them if [a player] is an ultraelite performer," says one personnel executive. "But he's no longer ultraelite." Rangers designated hitter Milton Bradley, no stranger to controversy himself, says of Bonds's predicament, "If I've got baggage, he's got a whole set of Louis Vuitton."
I realize it's difficult to summon sympathy for Bonds, with his creams and his clears and his surly persona. Still, in a sport where teams happily take late-career chances on outcasts like John Rocker and men of advanced age like Julio Franco, there should be a locker for Bonds somewhere (especially since he'll essentially work for free: Borris has said Bonds will use his prorated salary to buy tickets for underprivileged children). An AL team could install him as a DH, sparing us all the sight of him staggering around the outfield like a pirate on double peg legs, but no team in that league is a perfect fit. The A's badly need offense (they rank 24th in runs), and Oaktown has long been a haven for outcasts and misfits, yet after going through Frank Thomas and Mike Sweeney this season, G.M. Billy Beane has probably had enough of aging, brittle sluggers. Toronto's DH's are hitting .209—but the physical demands of standing for two national anthems before games might push Bonds to a dark pharmaceutical place. Detroit's designated hitters have been only slightly better than the Blue Jays' (.212), but introducing Bonds to a clubhouse that houses Gary Sheffield could create a level of bad chemistry that has not been seen since Sylvester Stallone starred in 1993's Demolition Man with Sandra Bullock. The Yankees might have been a customer for Bonds's services, but they did their part to define the word desperation last week by signing Richie Sexson.
As unlikely as it may seem, the best match might be the venomless Diamondbacks. Their offense finished April ranked second in the majors in runs scored but plummeted to 18th by the All-Star break. Their record has tanked accordingly: 20--8 after the season's first month, 28--42 since. Arizona ace Brandon Webb suggests that his team's offense, one of the league's youngest, has started to suffer from its inexperience and would benefit from the presence of a cagey veteran. Webb didn't blink when I asked him if Bonds could be that veteran, even if he might now be a subpar leftfielder. "I think he could definitely help us out," Webb said. "Maybe even in a pinch hitter role. He'd be the cheapest, best pinch hitter you can get, for sure."
But what about that time-honored rap against Bonds, that he's a clubhouse distraction? Nonsense, say Webb and Arizona righthander Dan Haren, who is close friends with Barry Zito, one of Bonds's Giants teammates last year. "[Zito] said that he enjoyed his time with [Bonds] and that he's a good teammate," says Haren.
Beyond that, Bonds has strong Arizona connections. Back when he had a full head of hair and yet a smaller hat size, he played his college ball at Arizona State, whose Packard Stadium is just a 20-minute drive from Chase Field. Bonds is also familiar with the local real estate market: He allegedly gave $80,000 to his former mistress, Kimberly Bell, to make a down payment on a Scottsdale house. And if the feds continue to keep the heat on him, well, at least it'll be, you know, a dry heat, right?
Yet joining Arizona, or any other franchise, seems unlikely. "I am not optimistic that it will happen," Borris told me, and he doesn't think a lack of contact from 30 major league G.M.'s is a coincidence. "The only logical conclusion," he said, "is that there is a grand conspiracy against him to keep him out of baseball." Borris has the players' union looking into the possibility of collusion, a charge that commissioner Bud Selig denied last week.
But if baseball teams are independently rejecting Bonds on moral grounds, who are they kidding? Pro sports are filled with athletes who have been charged with worse crimes than Bonds, as well as with athletes who are known to have taken performance-enhancing drugs. No, the most likely reason that Bonds remains at home in Los Angeles is the same reason NFL coaches don't go for it on fourth down as often as they should: It's easier not to, safer to play the percentages and not make a move that could propel you toward a championship but also might stir up some tough questions or make life easy for second-guessers.
And what is Bonds's take on all of this? I would have liked to have asked him, but Borris told me, "He's not talking on this topic right now. I'll call you if that changes." I'm not going to wait by the phone. Neither should Barry.
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If teams are rejecting Bonds on moral grounds, WHO ARE THEY KIDDING?
ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER