Monday, July 23, 2007

Hoping for the End To Come Quickly

Sports of The Times
July 24, 2007

San Francisco

Watching elderly athletes stretch seems to be in vogue these days. First there was the aching David Beckham on the sideline Saturday, then there was Barry Bonds in the dugout Sunday, and last night, Bonds was girding his ancient hamstrings before swinging a bat in earnest.

After a day’s rest, Bonds was back in the lineup, hoping to add to his 753 career home runs, 2 away from tying Henry Aaron’s record. He was facing Aaron’s principal team, the Braves, as the Giants began a seven-game homestand.

Everything was in place as the great man strapped on his copious body armor and flexed his thick muscles, one day short of his 43rd birthday. There were the kayakers out in the bay, there were the foot-soldier souvenir hunters patrolling the walkway behind right field, and there were the hometown fans, rooting for Bonds, who arrived in the clubhouse at 4:39 p.m. while most of his teammates were already out on the field stretching.

Bonds does not normally indulge in group stretching, but Manager Bruce Bochy seemed unperturbed, saying, “He always hits with his group,” meaning Bonds doesn’t miss batting practice.

Totally missing from the scene was Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, who had far more important things to do than sit around and wait for Bonds to deliver his record-breaking home run.

In his own dithering way, Selig has been going around for months with a sour look as Bonds approached the record — the public face of consternation, like the disapproving scowl on the mask of a skeptical character in a Japanese Noh theater morality play.

The plaintive whaddaya-want-from-me bleats from Everyman Bud have become the Greek chorus for all of us who believe that Bonds used steroids and other illegal pharmaceutical aids and masking agents, then told wild tales about it to a grand jury, and, besides, is not a very nice person.

A large cadre of people, including yours truly, maintain the position, “We know the deal,” but now there is not much left to do but hope for the inevitable No. 756, the sooner the better.

Selig himself is staying away from San Francisco this week. Given the exorbitant fares and swarms of passengers (Is there a rule that Americans have to wear shorts and clogs on airplanes? Are we really barbarians?) and frequent delays and the rather vicious lack of amenities on the airlines this summer, Bud is a wise man to stay home in Milwaukee and sign official documents, or count paper clips, or whatever he is doing. He will head to Cooperstown, N.Y., for the Hall of Fame inductions this weekend, and how nice for him.

I get to watch creaky athletes stretch. Nothing wrong with that, since wannabe jocks just may learn something. On Saturday night in Southern California, we watched Beckham pad out to the substitutes’ bench on his injured left ankle.

With ESPN having committed the annual gross national product of Ghana on camera crews, Beckham justified their investment by limbering up in the 65th minute, needing only 13 minutes of ankle-flexing and hip-swiveling and knee-raising to loosen up his 32-year-old body.

Then he scampered about the field for 12 minutes of minor action but was unable to avoid one zealous Chelsea sub who almost ruined Major League Soccer’s $32.5 million investment with one unnecessarily rough tackle. The stretching, however, had made Beckham loosey-goosey enough to walk away from that wreck.

Bonds, who is 11 years older than Beckham, was given a day off after two unproductive games in Milwaukee. Assuming that was not some body double wearing his No. 25 uniform in the dugout, he gazed at the antics on the field.

By this time, I was in San Francisco. The Giants’ game was on television, and the cameras caught Bonds doing some minimalist calisthenics for a potential pinch-hitting role. Using a bat as a prop, he squatted on the interior stairway, working on the hammies and all the other muscles that have mysteriously expanded in his athletic old age.

Given his magnificent baseball intelligence and superb swing, Bonds is a threat to hit a home run at any time. There was plenty of anticipatory drama in his every twitch. But even with two men on base in the eighth inning, Bochy played the percentages by using a right-handed pinch-hitter, with Mr. Balco himself right there, while my television screen gently wept.

Enough of this. What else do you do on a fine Sunday afternoon in July but take a stroll to North Beach and order up a plate of rigatoni and buy a book at City Lights and take a cable car and thoroughly enjoy being back in the city that calls itself The City. Mille grazie, Barry.

Now go stretch. And get this over with.



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