SAN FRANCISCO — In 1998, Arizona manager Buck Showalter considered Barry Bonds such a threat that he had him intentionally walked with the bases loaded.
And that was three years before Bonds broke the single-season home run record. Now more than ever, the San Francisco Giants’ slugger is confounding managers and pitchers alike.
Just what do you do with the guy?
As Yankees manager Joe Torre discovered last weekend, pitching Bonds even close to the zone could mean yet another homer. Walking him, intentionally or not, puts a runner on base and is likely to incur the wrath of fans eager to see history.
While certain game situations dictate a team’s approach to Bonds, it can still be a tough call. Those who challenge Bonds say pitches to him must be perfect or close to it.
“Even as an opponent sometimes you just go ‘Wow!’ He doesn’t miss a mistake,” said Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Ben Sheets, who gave up a three-run homer to Bonds earlier this season.
“He’s a freak of nature. You see what his numbers are,” said Arizona’s Brian Anderson, also one of Bonds’ victims. “He’s so strong and so good he could be the best player to ever suit up in this game.”
One of the season’s most interesting matchups with Bonds ended last weekend with a thud.
Roger Clemens plunked Bonds on his protective elbow gear in the third inning of the Giants’ interleague finale against the New York Yankees.
Last winter, Bonds said he was looking forward to facing the Rocket, a six-time Cy Young Award winner. Then, a week before the game, Clemens stirred the eagerly awaited showdown with a statement that seemed to hint at the plunking.
“I will introduce myself pretty quick,” Clemens said, to “that big old piece of plastic he has on his elbow.”
Bonds wouldn’t comment afterward on the controversy, which was probably best. As for Clemens, he said Bonds crowds the plate. Thus ended the showdown between the two future Hall of Famers.
Bonds hit 73 home runs last season, breaking Mark McGwire’s single-season record of 70 set three years before.
He also surpassed Babe Ruth’s records with a .863 slugging percentage and 177 walks. Overall, he batted .328 with 137 RBIs and a .515 on-base percentage, the best of any NL player in the modern era.
This season, Bonds had 22 homers going into this weekend’s interleague series against the neighboring Oakland Athletics. He had walked 79 times, putting him on pace to break his own record.
Overall, Bonds entered the weekend with 589 home runs for fourth place on the career list behind Hank Aaron with 755, Babe Ruth with 714 and his godfather, Willie Mays, with 660.
A’s left-hander Barry Zito was set to face Bonds on Sunday, but insisted he was not going to sit around for days fretting, in his words: “Ohhhhhh, Barry.”
“Guys like Barry, they don’t have scouting reports,” Zito said. “You’ve just got to mix it up against him.”
Dodgers reliever Jesse Orosco is one of the few pitchers who has done well against Bonds, partly because the two share that mutual respect, and they’ve seen each other so many times through the years that neither is intimidated.
Bonds is 3-for-23 against Orosco with nine strikeouts.
“The guy is dangerous. I know Barry loves the challenge. I do too. It brings out the best in us.” Orosco said.
For a younger pitcher, beating Bonds is the perfect badge of initiation. In Eric Gagne’s case, simply handling Bonds — and the Giants who hit behind him — helped give him the job as the Dodgers’ closer.
“I wanted to face him,” Gagne said. “That’s why you play baseball.”
On April 11 in a tight game against the Giants at Pacific Bell Park, Los Angeles manager Jim Tracy decided to leave Gagne in against Bonds rather than going to Orosco.
“He threw a couple of balls to Bonds, so we went ahead and walked him. Then Eric struck out Jeff Kent and got Reggie Sanders to fly out. Eric had responded to the challenge.”
The Dodgers went on to win, 4-3.
Showalter, fired by the Diamondbacks in 2000 and replaced by Bob Brenley, didn’t want the challenge back in 1998. Better to walk Bonds with the bases loaded than worry about a grand slam.
In his case, the strategy worked.
With an 8-6 Arizona lead, Showalter intentionally walked Bonds with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Brent Mayne followed, lining out to right field, and the Diamondbacks beat San Francisco 8-7.
“I know it was a little unorthodox, but I just felt it was the best chance for us to win a baseball game,” Showalter said at the time. “It was a choice between one of the great players in the game or a very good player. It was a tough call.”