It did my heart good to see Barry Bonds become Major League Baseball's all-time leading home-run hitter last week. Oh, I know, I know, he's probably done steroids, he's a jerk to the media, etc. etc. But I'll always have a soft spot for Barry. You see, I knew him before he got big. (Fill in your own steroid joke here.)
Back in 1986, I was living in Pittsburgh, editing the city magazine. The Pirates were the worst team in baseball. The glory days of the 1970s "We Are Family" teams were long past. This was the era of Sixto Lezcano and "Joggin' George" Hendrick. Attendance at the hideous Three Rivers Stadium had dropped to nothing. (The joke was that if you called the ticket office and asked what time the game was, they'd reply, "What time can you get here?")
But in 1986, the Pirates drafted Bonds, a young phenom out of Arizona State. That winter, I interviewed the late Syd Thrift, then the Pirates' GM. Thrift was a mix of P.T. Barnum and Colonel Tom Parker — a fast-talking, larger-than-life kind of guy — so when he told me that the kid they'd drafted was going to be one of the greatest players who ever lived, I took it with a grain of sodium chloride.
"He's an exercise fanatic," Thrift said. "Keeps himself in amazing shape. Doesn't drink, smoke, or chew. And when we tested his hand/eye coordination, it was literally off the chart — the highest score I've ever seen. This kid sees which way the seams are moving on a fastball. It's like it's in slow-motion for him. He's going to Cooperstown. Book it."
What I booked was a flight to Scottsdale, Arizona, where I spent three days hanging out with Bonds for a Pittsburgh Magazine cover story. I watched him exercise like a maniac. (He had a body like Tiger Woods — cut and chiseled.) I watched him toss baseballs in the air and hit with them with an eight-pound sledgehammer. (Try that some time, when you're feeling perky.) We cruised around town at night in his beat-up old Porsche, picking up fast-food, meeting his college teammates, shooting the breeze. He was a delightful young man. Very bright but shy. I liked him.
I haven't spoken to him in 20 years, but I can't help but think there's still a nice kid somewhere in Barry's big head — and that Syd Thrift sure knew what he was talking about.