PITTSBURGH -- They are teammates and they are friends, but what the Pittsburgh Pirates' Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds feel runs deeper than friendship.

They feel they are brothers.

In good times they laugh together, in bad they cry together. This year there's been mainly laughter for the Pirates, currently three games in front of the New York Mets in the National League East.

They have battled opposing pitchers and their own front office until they have come to be regarded not as individuals but as an entry. Make them 1 and 1A in your program.

They have thrust themselves into the forefront of the National League's most valuable player race, leaving the likes of Darryl Strawberry, Ryne Sandberg, Will Clark and Kevin Mitchell in their dust.

Bonds or Bonilla, which will it be?

"I'm not going to get drawn into that," said Manager Jim Leyland. "Probably the perfect scenario would be if they could be co-MVPs."

"I was with Willie McGee in his MVP year," said Andy Van Slyke, the Pirates outfielder. "He hit .353 and the amazing thing was, he had 47 infield hits. McGee's year didn't even compare to Barry's."

Perhaps not, but Bonilla's does.

Bonds is hitting .309 with 25 home runs, 92 RBI, 87 runs and 43 stolen bases. Bonilla is at .287, leads the league with 30 homers and 97 runs, and has driven in 90 runs. You pick.

Bonds carried the Pirates in the first half into first place; Bonilla is keeping them there in the second half. "What I did the first half he's doing the second half," said Bonds. "He's the guy who is going to take us to the World Series."

And what does Bonilla say?

"All I tell him is, 'Please, please, take me to a World Series.' "

Bonilla does not want to cast a shadow over Bonds's season. All year he has been his biggest supporter, one who told the world that Bonds would surpass everyone's greatest expectations, if only they could wait for him to find a reason to excel.

The Pirates gave him that reason this winter when they refused to negotiate with either Bonds or Bonilla, instead taking both to arbitration and then beating them. Both got substantial raises over 1989, Bonds drawing $850,000 for 1990 and Bonilla $1.25 million, but both fell far short of the game's top-paid players.

That lit the fire within Bonds and united Bonilla and Bonds against the world. "We were both really upset," said Bonds. "Not about losing. Our feelings were hurt more than anything else. They had told us that Andy Van Slyke, Jose Lind and we were going to be the franchise players, then they won't even talk to us. It was like they lied to us."

The two decided to show them."We were out on the golf course," Bonds said. "We started talking, like where are we going to get a better job than this. It isn't like you can't live on half a million or a million dollars. I sure wasn't ready to go back to school."

Bonds says the two would like to play the rest of their careers together, although they have not discussed that. And he said they have not decided about leaving Pittsburgh when they can obtain free agency, Bonilla after next season, Bonds after 1992.

"We're just waiting to see what they do with us," said Bonds.

Meanwhile, the front office can smile because its strategy, while alienating two franchise players, may have produced a pennant.

Bonds has openly said he believes he should be the MVP, but softens his stand: "If I don't win it I won't be discouraged because I've had an MVP season for myself. I showed people that I'm capable of doing it. I've never let down in my confidence because if you don't believe in yourself no one else will. I'm just glad Leyland has given me the opportunity to show what I could do. I was always discredited by reporters and everybody else as a leadoff hitter, even though I was the best leadoff hitter in the National League.

"I'm just glad, if I was going to be compared to Bobby Bonilla and Kevin Mitchell in arbitration, that I was given the chance to drive in runs like they do hitting fourth or fifth."

Bonilla, who bats fourth to Bonds's fifth, meanwhile continues to tread softly, not pushing his way into Bonds's show.

"It's not something I'm concerned about," said Bonilla. "I've been basically kind of quiet. I don't want to take anything away from him. He's worked so hard, done so much because he set out to prove people were wrong about him.

"I do not want to take the focus away from him. This is his year. He was the number one pick. He was what this franchise was waiting for. He can be and is the franchise player.

"Me? I was a free agent. I even got drafted away by the White Sox. BB's the man. Nobody plays left field like BB, nobody hits left-handed pitching like he does."

Bonds came out of Arizona State with the reputation of being hard to handle, a kid who had not reached his potential. He also came out the son of Bobby Bonds, which was a huge burden in some ways.

"In college they said I never lived up to my potential. That was put on me from day one. But no one knows what potential is," he said.

This bothered him so when he came into professional ball he backed away from questions about his father. He felt he first had to establish his own identity. He also had to grow up.

The identity he has earned through a season as a dominating player. The maturity has come with it. He can talk about his father, about his career, about his successes and disappointments.

He calls his father his best friend today, but recalls that as a child there were times he looked upon him as his worst enemy.

"You just didn't understand," he said. "He wasn't home. Then when he was home he was tired and didn't want to do anything. I didn't realize that he had to travel, that he played night games and then would sleep late. We used to love it when he would take us to the arcade, to play pinball and go into the batting cages. Only we couldn't understand why he didn't do it as much during the season.

"I played ball. I wanted to play ball with my dad but he had a career. I wanted him at my Little League games. He couldn't come. He had his own job."

As he developed, of course people asked him whether he could match his father as a player, and it bothered him. "I'm not competing with my dad," he would answer. In fact, he has formed a bond with his father. "My goal is to put my father and my statistics in a league no father-son can ever reach."