04/06/2004 2:00 AM ET
Bonds does it again
Few make a difference quite like Giants slugger
HOUSTON -- You try to come up with a comparison in the world of sports and you're pretty much left with Michael Jordan -- somebody who changed the nature of an event just by showing up.
You witnessed it and felt it and tried to understand it again Monday night, what Barry Bonds does. It was the 2004 opener at Minute Maid Park, and for much of this evening, the game belonged to the Houston Astros.
But the moment belonged, as it so often does, to Bonds. Eighth inning and the Astros are up, 4-1. Roy Oswalt is cruising and you can see how he could be the Opening Day starter, even ahead of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. Oswalt is throwing 96 mph heat to spots and he is dropping that big vertical curve in for strikes. He is 43-17 in his relatively brief time under the big tent and you can understand why.
And then it is like the door that is left just slightly ajar, but seconds later is completely off its hinges. Two singles sandwiched around a strikeout precede Bonds to the plate in the top of the eighth. Ordinarily, this would be a mere bump in the road. Oswalt is not laboring. His velocity is not dropping precipitously. He has thrown just 97 pitches and this is not a particularly warm evening.
But the next hitter is Barry Bonds. You do not think in this moment about how well Oswalt is working or about how the Astros have largely dominated this game.
No. Because it is Barry Bonds, you think: "4-4, tie game." And on the first pitch, that's what it is.
Bonds turns on a fastball and hits it on a line to right. He has hit many longer, more monumental home runs, but this is a time for "How many?" instead of "How?" Richard Hidalgo retreats rapidly in right, but this ball has no hang time before it is in the seats. And Barry Bonds has 659 home runs, one away from third place on the all-time list, a position held by his very own godfather, Willie Mays.
The San Francisco Giants eventually win, 5-4. They win because they had Barry Bonds and the other guys don't. But the thing is, Bonds had already had an impressive night, even without the home run. In the second inning, he defied the infield shift, hitting the ball through the vacant left side and on out through the unguarded left field for a double. In the fourth, he hit a more conventional double, deep to left-center and eventually scored the Giants' first run. In the sixth, of course, he walked.
Oswalt was otherwise pitching superbly, but even before the home run, he simply could not retire Barry Bonds. There would be those who would second-guess Astros manager Jimy Williams for leaving Oswalt in the game. But Oswalt was pitching well enough that there seemed to be no compelling reason to lift him.
"Not for me," Williams said. "Not the way he was pitching tonight, not the way he's pitched in many games the last two years and certainly was showing that again tonight.
"For me, he was pitching a great game, the way I've seen him pitch before. He's pitched just like that and won the battle.
"I really think if Hidalgo had been at the wall he could have caught it. But he couldn't get there because it was hit so hard he couldn't have time to get back there."
Williams had visited the mound before the Bonds at-bat. He had typically inquired if Oswalt had enough left to get one more hitter and Oswalt had answered affirmatively. Oswalt later remembered the manager saying: "Don't let one guy beat you."
The reasonable belief here is that there was only one man in baseball who could have beaten Roy Oswalt Monday night. That was Barry Bonds. The home run pitch was a fastball, just on the outside corner. Bonds turned on it in a way that only he could.
"I thought I'd get a strike on him, and then he'd chase a breaking ball," Oswalt said. "He hit an outside pitch to right field. You don't see too many [left-handed] hitters do that. If it had been any further outside, it would have been a ball."
The ordinary expectations, the rules that govern the contest between pitcher and hitter are out the window when Barry Bonds enters the equation. It is distinctly possible that nobody else in baseball beats Roy Oswalt on this night, except Barry Bonds.
Somebody asked Williams if, when he went to the mound to talk to Oswalt, they had discussed how to pitch to Bonds. This was a question beautifully naive in its simplicity.
In response, the manager asked a question of his own: "How do you pitch to him?"
Exactly. A bit later, Williams suggested a tactic. "I think the best way to pitch him is behind him," the manager said. "Low, and behind him."
That might work. But only might. Barry Bonds wasted no time in the 2004 season in resuming his march along the long road of home run history. And in the process he reminded you once more that he is singular, unique, one of a kind. Soon to be third on the all-time home run list. And on the all-time list of difference-makers? Pick a very small number.
Barry Bonds powers homer No. 659 into the right-field stands. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.