Ball Boys

The return on this Bonds: a lot of interest, very little payoff

Barry Bonds, the San Francisco Giants' outfielder/malcontent/ball basher, is here today. He leads the free world in home runs this season with 40. He's been here for the past two days, taking aim at the short right-field porch at the Ballpark in Arlington. The wall is a mere 325 feet down the line. If you stand at home plate, take a few steps, then fall over, you've already made it beyond the wall. It's perfect for Bonds. Or should be.

I think Bonds' bat is broken. He hasn't come close to launching one over the wall in either of the first two games of this three-game stint. In fact, he's mustered only one home run in his last 18 games. Worse still, during his stretch in Texas, he hasn't worked a hit from the Rangers. Not a double off the wall or a single to the gap or blooper over the infield. Nothing. Is that even possible? Just the week before, Jerry Narron's hurlers surrendered 18 hits and 11 runs in a loss to Colorado. At home. On the road, away from their joke of a field, the Rockies are 27th in the majors in hitting, which is only slightly better than you or me or my grandmother might do if we put together a team and filled out the roster with a few chimps and a rancid banana.

Do you ever wonder how many Rangers pitchers can fit into a VW Bug?

Baseball has been Barry, Barry bad to Fair Game.
©2000 S.F. Giants/Stanton
Baseball has been Barry, Barry bad to Fair Game.

"I marked this series on my calendar before the season began," says Mark, a Dallas native, spitting tobacco juice while sitting in the right-field stands during batting practice. Mark is wearing a black No. 25 Giants jersey with "Bonds" stitched across the back in white lettering. "Then Barry got going with his homers, and I thought, 'Yeah, that'll be a series to get a few balls.' But he hasn't done anything. In batting practice yesterday, he hit a few. Today. Today he's gonna do it."

I think so, too. Which is why I'm here. Yesterday, during BP, I observed these fools with their gloves and their fishing nets waiting patiently in the outfield for a memento from Bonds. It was ugly. Like watching drunken ballerinas perform Swan Lake. Lots of pirouetting, some leaping, plenty of crashing, not much catching. It was all wasted motion. These guys were doing it all wrong. They had no idea, no plan.

That's when I decided to make a go of it. I'm smart. I'm athletic. (I love me.) I played outfield in Little League. Why not? I'll get a Bonds ball, pay someone to get an autograph for me (reporters aren't allowed to solicit signatures), then hawk my prize and abscond to some tropical island with a bushel of money and a gross of condoms. Beware, my little island bee-yatches, I'm coming. Madness will surely ensue.

First, I needed some pointers. I went to the Rangers clubhouse and enlisted the help of Frank Catalanotto. He plays outfield, and he's bright. "Well, Bonds hits them pretty far," Cat mused. You could see him searching his outfielder database, determining the best way to attack. I'm destined for a ball. "He can really unload. What I would do, I would go as far out as I could"--yes, yes...tell me--"and I'd wait."

Brilliant. The man is a master strategist.

Right now, the Rangers are taking batting practice, which gives me time to size up the competition. At first, I'm worried. Dan, a security guard, tells me a lot of these guys waiting for home-run balls are regulars. This is what they do. They come out, stretch, bring their gloves and hunt for balls. I have no glove, and I haven't stretched since eighth-grade gym class. Pulling a hammy would be unfortunate, but I press on.

The dangerous ones, I come to understand, are the ones you wouldn't suspect. The teen-agers and kids. They have no mercy, no morals. They're a bunch of rabid anarchists. Chief among the miniature rebels out here is a nice-enough boy named Matt. I say "nice enough" because he doesn't have me fooled. He may be 10, but he's got that killer me-first instinct. He informs me he's part of a camp group touring various major league parks. He's already gotten a ball--stole it from the glove of another kid while the camp group was in Houston.

"That's allowed," he says.

"Nuh-uh," I retort.

"Uh-huh," he counters, one-upping me.

Damn. The kid is good.

He says "elbows and pushing are allowed, too." He says this with an evil stare, like Chuckie in the flesh. He says he wants a battle, but I'm not scared. Most people would shy from fighting a little kid. I'm not most people. Last year, at Six Flags, I was readying myself to step into the front car of a roller coaster. Just then, a 12-year-old stole my seat and refused to move. I sat behind him. When we got off, I did my best George Costanza: I took the hat from his head and kicked it down the stairs. Really. My friend was mortified. I was proud. This Matt kid doesn't know what he's getting into.

In preparation for war, I remember my training.

"What you need to do," said Dallas Morning News scribe Gerry Fraley, a master of dirty pool, "is use your body. The kids won't expect that. They'll be looking for the ball; that's when you use the body. Everybody forgets, but that catch Drew Pearson made? Everybody looks up here, at his hands, but he pushed off with his base. He used the base. Use your base."

Yes, Obi-Wan.

Armed with base-using knowledge, I'm ready, though I wish I had a tin of eye-black and some camouflage.

The Rangers have left the field. The Giants are starting to trickle out. Soon, I'll realize my destiny, elbow that Matt kid something good and be off for the island and sordid affairs.

Except for one thing. I'm foiled. The Giants are taking batting practice inside today. The pansies can't stand the heat. Then, during the game, Bonds doesn't come close to knocking one out. Even though Kenny Rogers is on the mound, doing his best to help the Giants work back into the pennant race. Even though Rogers serves up homers to Rich Aurilia and Eric Davis. Eric Davis for chrissakes. The man started out playing sandlot ball with the Carthaginians. Bonds is an underproductive bastard. As the game ends, I contemplate kicking him. I would, too, if not for him being bigger and stronger and tougher. He's lucky.

What's worse, the next night, the very next night, Bonds unloads, going deep twice. Conspiracy theories begin to form. Surely someone got to him--told Bonds of my island fantasy, made it worthwhile for him to tank in Texas. I'm certain it was Matt.

Plan B: Track down the 10-year-old con artist and rip a home-run ball from his glove. That's allowed.

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