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Baseball bracing for Bonds’ return

WashPost: Sport unsure how to promote slugger’s chase of Aaron, Ruth
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

When baseball's collective body gathers this week in Detroit for its annual All-Star Game, it will be without the game's preeminent star — although, much as he has for this entire season, at the dawn of what is being called baseball's Post-Steroid Era, Barry Bonds in absentia will cast a long shadow over the proceedings.

And in another month or so, when the injured Bonds might be ready to resume his assault on one of sport's most hallowed records, baseball will be confronted with a problem for which it still does not have a solution: how to promote and manage the game's most historic and controversial figure at a time when history and controversy could come together like never before.

With Bonds, 40, out of the picture this season, nursing a knee injury that has required three surgeries in the past seven months, baseball has been able to shift the focus largely away from the steroid scandal that — with Bonds at its center — exploded this winter and spring, and toward a handful of compelling on-field stories, such as the unlikely rise to first place of the relocated Washington Nationals.

But the reprieve could be over by next month. San Francisco Giants officials believe Bonds, who last season won an unprecedented seventh most valuable player award, could be ready to get back on the field by mid-to-late August. And at that point, everything changes.

If Bonds returns in August, he could pass Babe Ruth for second place on the all-time home run list by the end of the season. Bonds enters his 20th big league season with 703 career home runs — roughly 37 percent of which have come since the 2000 season. Ruth, widely considered the greatest slugger in history before Bonds's late-career surge, hit 714 in a career that ended in 1935.

And if all goes well, Bonds could turn the 2006 season into a march toward the biggest milestone of all — Hank Aaron's all-time mark of 755 career homers, arguably the most sacred record in all of sports.

Were it anyone but Bonds on history's doorstep, many believe, baseball might be preparing for an extended, glorious celebration like the one that greeted Cal Ripken's breaking of Lou Gehrig's consecutive games record in 1995. But with Bonds, some believe, baseball's strategy in the wake of the steroid scandal has been to ignore him in hopes he might go away.

"It makes for an awkward moment for baseball right now," said longtime NBC and HBO commentator Bob Costas, author of "Fair Ball: A Fan's Case for Baseball." "It clearly is not a 100 percent feel-good moment, like past baseball milestone achievements have been. And I'm sure that official baseball, no matter what they say, is at best ambivalent about him."

Official baseball, of course, denies that.

"No one in baseball is happy to see Bonds out," said Major League Baseball spokesman Rich Levin, speaking on behalf of Commissioner Bud Selig, who declined to be interviewed. When it was pointed out that baseball has enjoyed mostly steroid-free media coverage in Bonds's absence, Levin said: "If [Bonds] was playing when the season started, [the steroid story] would have kept going a little longer. But who's to say it wouldn't have died down the way it has to this point?"

Still, despite Bonds's seemingly imminent return, there has been very little discussion of late within MLB's offices about how to market the slugger's resumption of the historic home run chase.

"This is a question I haven't had in awhile, and that hasn't been discussed in quite some time," said Kathleen Fineout, MLB's director of marketing communications. "What would happen from Major League Baseball's perspective is, we would acknowledge [Bonds's] milestones in the same way we have recognized other milestones."

Asked if Bonds's involvement in the steroid scandal — in grand jury testimony leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle and published in December, Bonds acknowledged unknowingly using substances fitting the description of steroids — has tainted the sport's marketing plans, Fineout said it had not.

"It certainly hasn't changed our thinking in terms of acknowledging the record should he return and eventually surpass the record," she said. "But any additional promotional sponsorships regarding that record chase would involve the player, the club, Major League Baseball and our corporate sponsors. And those would not go into the discussion phase until he was closer to the record."

In other words, said Chronicle sports columnist Ray Ratto: "Baseball is going to have to promote him [while] holding their noses. Unless . . . they lead him away in handcuffs, they're going to have to fete him as if he really hit all those home runs — which, of course, he did."

However, major corporate sponsorship of Bonds's record chase may be out of the question. Within a week of the Chronicle's publication of Bonds's reported grand jury testimony, MasterCard, one of MLB's biggest corporate sponsors, pulled out of a title-sponsorship deal it had been negotiating with the league in preparation for Bonds's home run chase.

Marketing experts believe attaching a corporate name to Bonds at this point is too risky, given his public perception and any unknown revelations about steroids that may still come.

"If you promote the breaking of the record under the guise of innocent until proven guilty, but then 10 years down the road it's proven definitively that he used steroids," said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd., "you can't un-ring the bell."

"He comes off as huggable as a cactus," said Jim Bloom, vice president of marketing for Intersport Inc., and a former marketing director for the Oakland Athletics and Toronto Blue Jays. "I think that's more of a detriment than the steroid allegations. And I'm not sure Barry cares about [corporate sponsorships] anyway."

Although Bonds to this point has not been a target of the federal grand jury probe into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), his personal trainer, Greg Anderson, is one of two men who have been indicted for allegedly participating in a steroid-distribution ring. And some who have followed the investigation closely believe the grand jury may indict Bonds on tax-evasion or perjury charges, based on its decision this spring to hear testimony from an alleged former girlfriend of Bonds.

Aside from the potential legal pitfalls confronting Bonds, there also is a question of whether he will be able to perform at his previous level upon his return. Although he has defied the standard norms of aging by posting his best seasons in his late thirties, Bonds will turn 41 July 24 and has never missed this much action in one stretch during his career.

"When he comes back," Giants General Manager Brian Sabean said, "we don't know what level of play he's going to be at, or how many games a week or month he's going to be able to play."

Bonds would need to perform at a level close to that of recent seasons to be able to collect the 53 homers necessary to break Aaron's record by the end of the 2006 season. Bonds will be a free agent at the end of that season, although he said recently that he hopes to play in 2007 — preferably for the Giants — if he is within reach of Aaron's record.

At this point, the Giants say they have no plans to discuss a contract extension with Bonds beyond next season.

The Mirror Has Two Faces
Like that of MLB, the Giants' own relationship with Bonds is complex. The franchise owes much of its financial success to him, as Bonds's star power has made the Giants one of baseball's top draws since its new stadium, SBC Park, opened in 2000 — which is a good thing for the club, since the privately financed stadium reportedly carries a $20 million annual mortgage.

"The honeymoon for the new stadium," Ratto said, "was extended by four years because of Bonds."

However, even within the Giants organization it can sometimes be a chore to deal with Bonds and his superstar baggage. In the clubhouse, he is a separate entity, his corner locker adorned with a leather recliner and buffered by a separate locker belonging to one of his personal trainers — whom the team hired in order to be within MLB rules prohibiting non-employees.

Teammates who hope Bonds's powerful bat can salvage the Giants' season — the team, which has finished first or second in its division for eight straight seasons, is foundering in fourth place in the National League West division — also worry privately about what his return will mean for clubhouse unity.

"I want to have him back as soon as possible," said pitcher Noah Lowry. "He's a legend on this team. He's definitely going to help us out." However, when asked about the perception of Bonds within his own clubhouse, Lowry said: "I don't have a comment on that. I don't want to get in trouble."

Supporters and Detractors
For his part, Bonds has all but stopped talking to the media, issuing updates about the progress of his knee on his Web site. Even his spokesperson, Rachael Vizcarra, declined to answer questions about Bonds, instead referring a reporter to the Web site.

"I've talked to him," Sabean said, "and he's as determined as ever to come back now. He's getting antsy."

Although the team insists it is directing and monitoring Bonds's rehabilitation, parts of it are occurring outside the organization's influence, sometimes to embarrassing effect — such as when it was reported that Bonds has continued to train with Anderson, the personal trainer under indictment by the federal grand jury.

"We don't approve of it," Sabean said when asked about Anderson's involvement. "But how do you prevent it?"

Likewise, Bonds's relationship with his fans in the Bay Area — always a trusted pocket of support for the slugger, even during the most trying of times — is growing increasingly complex as his absence gets longer. Fans who stood behind him during the steroid controversy of the winter and spring are beginning to question what is taking him so long to get back on the field.

Brian Murphy, a morning show host on all-sports KNBR in San Francisco, said callers to his program were running 2-to-1 or even 3-to-1 in support of Bonds last December, when the BALCO story hit, and in spring training, when a defiant Bonds sparred with the media during a memorable news conference.

"A lot of people thought the Chronicle shouldn't have published the testimony. They wanted the media to leave him alone," Murphy said. "You can call it denial, I suppose, and that's what it was."

But now, Murphy said, the ratio of positive-to-negative callers is closer to 1-1, or perhaps even tilting slightly against Bonds.

"People are beginning to say, 'What's going on with this guy? How long can a knee rehab take? Is there something else going on?' " Murphy said. "They're growing more and more sour on him, because his worst qualities are exacerbated by the off-field stuff, and his best quality — turning on an inside fastball and blasting it out of the park — we're not getting to see."

Murphy, who also holds Giants season tickets, attended the game on Oct. 5, 2001, when Bonds hit his 71st and 72nd home runs, breaking Mark McGwire's single-season record. The atmosphere that night, he said, "was bedlam."

"But that was 2001," Murphy said, "a lifetime ago for baseball fans, because of the way the steroids scandal has changed everything. That atmosphere will never be created again."