|Tuesday, April 9
Updated: April 10, 5:30 PM ET
Tony Gwynn's Book: Barry Bonds
By Tony Gwynn
Special to ESPN.com
When we played the Giants last season at Pac Bell Park, I saw Barry Bonds do something I have never seen a hitter do before.
Barry waggled his bat and got ready to hit as our pitcher was preparing to throw from the windup. But as soon as our pitcher got his arm in position to release the ball, Barry straightened up and gave up on the pitch. I thought, "OK, maybe he was just taking that one." But then he did it again on the next pitch.
That sequence indicated two things -- Barry was seeing the ball well, and he knew what was coming. This may sound crazy, but there are times when Barry knows what pitch the pitcher is throwing and where the pitch is headed before it leaves the pitcher's hand.
Many factors play into his ability to recognize the pitch -- the count, the situation, knowing what the pitcher likes to throw him. But when the hitter can do that, he has more time to decide what he wants to do. So when Barry got off to another hot start this season, I was not surprised.
The biggest difference between Barry now and five years ago is that he seems to be having fun. Before, he didn't like dealing with the media and people saying things about him.
Physically, he's a lot bigger than he was. His size is a factor, but not a big one. Watching him in a recent game, in fact, he looks smaller than he was a year ago. For him, getting stronger was important because it will enable him to play more games at age 38. Barry is also much more selective at the plate and smarter about taking a day or two off. Even if a game is on ESPN and people will be watching, he will still sit out.
As a hitter, though, not much has changed mechanically. You would think a player at Barry's age would lose bat speed. But that's not the case for a hitter with sound mechanics. And Barry is mechanically solid. He gets into his hitting position and holds it. Other players get into their position and can only hold it for so long before they get out in front and drift a little. But when Barry takes his hands back and sets his front foot down, he's in a balanced position.
What Barry does better than anyone in baseball is he "zones out" -- when the ball is in his zone, he does something with it. He doesn't foul it off or swing and miss. He usually hits it. Now the ball just seems to be going out of the park.
It's true that hitters get into a zone. It's easier for a hitter to get into a zone when he understands what he has to do every time he hits. And no doubt, Barry understands.
After a good hitter plays for 10 years, he starts to believe his mechanics are good enough and he can handle just about any pitch. He doesn't need to worry and keep reminding himself about certain keys, like staying back on a pitch. A good veteran hitter gets comfortable at the plate.
Plus, Barry has faced many of the same pitchers for a long time. He knows the opposing pitchers better than people think. He may never talk about it, but I'm sure he watches film and has a video library at home. He also has a library in his mind. He can pick up pitches and see little things other hitters can't see. Then he is able to put it together when he is standing in the batter's box.
Sometimes, if you go see the Giants play, you may not see him taking batting practice or stretching on the field before the game. He may be lounging around, trying to get some rest. He may be in the cage, or hitting off the tee, or hitting soft toss. He may feel like he doesn't have to hit in batting practice every day. He may only need 10-15 swings in the cage to get ready. Because he's not on the field, you may wonder if he's even playing. Then he may step up the first time and hit a home run.
How do you pitch to Barry? I wouldn't if I were a pitcher. Barry stands right on top of the plate. A pitcher may think he can get the ball in on him, but he can't. To get Barry out, a pitcher must try to trick him. But what makes Barry the best is that he can't be tricked. He knows when the pitcher wants to throw him a breaking ball down and in. He won't even sniff it; he spits on it. He will wait the pitcher out and make him throw a pitch to hit.
Last season all of his 177 walks weren't intentional. Pitchers tried to get Barry to fish and chase pitches. Hitters are hitters; they want to hit. But he will take a walk. He figures the hitter behind him will get something to hit. Barry is not a selfish player, saying he is going to hit the ball even if they don't pitch to him. He will walk, steal a base and score a run.
No matter what I accomplished as a hitter, I am in awe of Barry. I was when I played, and I still am. His numbers last season just don't add up. Nobody is supposed to be able to do that, except in a video game.
At the same time, I expect Barry to have the same kind of year this season. He wants a World Series ring, and the best way for him to get one is do the same thing he did last year -- take walks, steal bases and score runs. And when he finally gets something to hit, Barry will do his damage.
Tony Gwynn, who will take over as the head baseball coach at San Diego State next year, is working as an analyst for ESPN.