It's unfair to call this a "rivalry." But many fans of every team in baseball want – no, need – their home nine to destroy the Giants each and every time they come to the ballpark. That is, as long as the biggest Giant of all is there, with #25 on his back, three feet of body armor on his front arm, and god-knowswhat in his medicine kit.

It's as simple as the good guys versus the bad guys, or in this case, one really bad guy and his 24 accomplices. And hey, if you're the type who likes the bad guys, you relish this moment. Maybe you rooted for the Iron Sheik in WrestleMania, or for Tony Montana in Scarface. Either way this is the main event of 2006, a chance to holler even louder and more profanely than before, to pull out the "A" material that you've had on the shelf while relative nobodies like Willy Taveras or goody-goodies like Jason Bay patrolled the grass near your section.

The other 24 guys wearing orange and black on their gray road uniforms are just the sideshow in yet another circus stop. And this one kicks off a crucial 10-day road trip, with only 18 games left to play in their fast-vanishing season, little time left to make the pass between where they are now and a postseason berth.

The story of 24 Giants

This team is built to fall apart, it's only question of when.

Perhaps feeling that his 41-year-old star leftfielder needed a set of teammates as comfortable and well-worn as his clubhouse recliner, Giants GM Peter Magowan assembled a rather curious roster. Steve Finley (age 41), Moises Alou (39), Omar Vizquel (39) and Mike Matheny (36) were brought in over the past two years, each replacing younger players at the time. Felipe Alou, at seventy years old, officially qualifies as a father figure even to these well-aged ballplayers. However none of this bunch is signed past 2007, making the team's core – and very identity – easily dissolvable if the star exits stage left after this season.

The only youth on this team is in the rotation, which is as solid as they come in the National League. Jason Schmidt and our old friend Matt Morris are bringing along a healthy brood of young hurlers: rising stars Matt Cain (21) and Noah Lowry (25) will headline the Next- Generation Giants. Cain in particular has thrilled recently with a 2.45 ERA and eight quality starts in 11 chances after the break. Another potentially nice addition to this rotation renewal is 24-year-old lefty Jonathan Sanchez, a recent call-up who is 3-0, with nearly as many strikeouts (26) as innings pitched (30).

However, this youth and vibrancy in the opening innings of the game is betrayed by withered arms in the closing frames. 39-year-old Mike Stanton is the closer, by virtue of outlasting the embattled Armando Benitez rather than outperforming him. The very rich Benitez, with eight blown saves in only 25 tries, has been perhaps the most-reviled closer in baseball outside of our own beloved Isringhausen. Like Izzy, he's down with a leg injury, and few fans are crying about it. Our old friend Steve Kline helps keep things interesting for the Giants in a setup role, and we can only hope that he agrees to a few radio interviews while he's in town. However, for the most part, the bullpen has been a source of woe for this team.

Another regret for the Giants: none of the emerging young pitchers we mentioned may eclipse the rising star of 22-year-old Francisco Liriano, who was traded nearly three years ago by Magowan – with now-dominant closer Joe Nathan and the unfortunately named Boof Bosner – to the Minnesota Twins for catcher A.J. Pierzinski. All three players are with Minnesota's major league team, contributing to their improbable pennant drive, while Pierzinski underperformed and was jettisoned after one tumultuous year. Hey, as Jocketty can tell you, they don't all turn out to be winners.

2006 started out badly for the oldsters, with disjointed play and many trips to the infirmary for Ben-Gay and advice on the health of their prostate, to say nothing of the constant distractions caused by certain chases of certain historical milestones in the first two months of the season. However, the team has been on a 19-9 tear since its low point in the standings on August 14 to today, bringing their record to 73-72. They have moved from a point at which manager Felipe Alou literally laughed off any questions about reaching the postseason, to being 2.5 games back in the wildcard race, with only the Padres and Phillies to jump over.

However, for the 24 guys in the shadow of the biggest Giant on this team, even an improbable trip to the playoffs will only brighten the contrast between their relative anonymity and number 25's infamy.

The Story of Number 25

Two, three years ago, "Barry Bonds" was an instant debate, just add water. Or beer. Is he the best ever? Can he beat Babe Ruth? Can he beat Aaron? And the most fascinating question of them all, will you root for him if he does? Many questions like this are interesting at a distance, but as Bonds got closer and as the road he traveled got muddier and as the probable became inevitable, the answers we gave got uglier and more automatic. Debate was gone. "Barry Bonds" now just produces pure animal reaction – hate him or hide from him, except for the untainted few who love him.

Well, he beat Babe Ruth, but the event was barely acknowledged by MLB, who I suppose felt they had done enough merely by allowing him to play the games while an investigation into his particular brand of personal training continued. When it came time to stand in on the issue, the commissioner of baseball choked up on his bat and he slapped at the pitch weakly. After months of questioning on the subject that persisted through the winter meetings and into spring training, with Bonds on the doorstep of knocking a baseball god down one monumental pedestal, Bud Selig issued the following statement: "Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's record. We don't celebrate anybody the second or third time in." Foul. Neither he nor any other official of this behemoth of sports/entertainment that we call Major League Baseball was at the games when Bonds hit numbers 714, and days later, 715.

To be fair to the busy schedule of a busy, busy businessman like Mr. Selig, it took Bonds eleven games in twelve days, traveling to three cities, before he tied the dead legend's mark; five more games and seven more days to pass him in the record book. It's difficult to remake arrangements, postpone conference calls, leave items to pile up in your "In" box for nineteen days in a row.

To be fair to baseball fans and historians – one and the same in most cases – this was the main event of 2006, and Selig's animal reaction was not to embrace Bonds or to fight him, but to flee from him.

We have to forget for a moment the hysteria about who caught the ball, who eventually bought the ball, and for how much less he paid than for other historic balls in the last twenty years. We have to forget how the publicity around the feat was hijacked well beforehand by enterprising private citizens and their weighty, expensive books – Jose Canseco and the intrepid reporters of the San Francisco Chronicle – which robbed Selig of the ability to set the stage to his liking. We have to forget congressional inquiries and grand jury trials and ongoing meanderings of special investigators, to understand this fundamental failure of leadership that threatens to rob us of any satisfaction, any ability to finally forgive or bury Bonds for what he has done, and what he is still doing.

Bud chose not to be there. He doesn't know first hand how much hotter the lights were when the Giants took the field, or how loud was the buzz of the crowd between innings in the quiet times of the game. He wasn't there to see how differently the fans in San Francisco treated him, roared for him, apologized for him during those weeks. The Giants had two games in Milwaukee May 3rd and 4th, twenty minutes away from Selig's office, with Barry possibly two at bats away from history; our Commissioner sent his regrets that he could attend neither.

Baseball fans are still simmering in every town Bonds plays in, even after this milestone was passed. We can speculate that if Bonds perseveres with his mission, and carries it to the AL next year to DH his way toward Aaron's inscrutable 755, he will get the same treatment in each of that league's cities, possibly breaking Ty Cobb's major league record for most stadiums to be booed in over the course of a career. At the same time, Bonds will give shape and definition to this number for a new generation of fans who had not seen Aaron or anyone else come near it. At 33, I am a part of that generation. His name, his hormone-swelled head, and the loneliness of his many solo home runs are now emblematic of this quest, an antihero's journey.

Barry Bonds – and his uncomfortable bedfellows the Asterix, the Syringe, the Cream and the Clear – will not go away, no matter how long Selig chooses to hide.

And if our commissioner someday comes out from hiding and renders some sort of decision, some sort of official engraving or removing of all of these "enhanced" feats from the record books, it will surely be lawyerly and unsatisfying. It will be driven by polls and marketing trends, not by his gut, not by core beliefs that can only be shaped and sharpened by exposure to the elements, to the real events of the game itself.

It couldn't be. Because he wasn't there.


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