The sound of the crack and the arc of the ball off Barry Bonds's bat early Tuesday evening at Dodger Stadium -- loud and sharp, high and majestic -- said the San Francisco Giants' slugger was back. The way he spun out of the batter's box and ducked around the side of the batting cage -- was it a strut or a limp? -- indicated his knee, while old and brittle, was still capable of propelling that torso and those arms through the ball with ungodly force.
It was only batting practice, yes. But Bonds's return to the Giants' active roster -- and to the mass consciousness of a sport that still has not figured out how it feels about its most compelling figure -- is now a matter of days.
"We'll see how he is" Wednesday morning, Manager Felipe Alou said, after Bonds performed offensive, defensive and base-running drills on the field some four hours before the team's game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. "If he stays solid, no setbacks, [the front office] might let me have him."
General Manager Brian Sabean, whose team entered the night trailing the San Diego Padres by five games in the National League West division, said he wants to see Bonds take part in a simulated game Wednesday before making a decision. Minor league seasons are over, taking away the option of a brief rehabilitation assignment.
Team officials have not indicated when Bonds might be activated, but if it does not occur Wednesday night, there is a strong possibility it will on Thursday night in San Francisco, when the Giants return home to face the Chicago Cubs. Bonds declined to speak to reporters, except for a one-on-one interview with a reporter who serves as his mouthpiece on MLB.com.
"We've waited a long time," said Alou. "To wait another day or two or three . . . " He gestured with his hands, as if to say: The wait will be worth it.
So, in that Great Beer Hall in the Sky, Babe Ruth's happy hour, which has gone on for nearly 11 months now, is over. Down in Atlanta, Hank Aaron may be feeling a little nervous, too.
When Bonds steps into the batter's box for the first time this season in a real game, he will resume his chase of two of the most hallowed numbers in the game -- Ruth's 714 and Aaron's 755. Bonds's career home run total has been sitting at 703 since last Sept. 26, when he hit his final homer of the 2004 season, a week before season's end.
The chances of Bonds's reaching Ruth's record before the season ends on Oct. 2 appear to be remote, especially given the fact he is likely to be used as a pinch hitter, at least initially, upon his return. From 2000 to 2004, a five-year period in which Bonds averaged nearly 52 homers and won four National League MVP awards, he hit 11 or more homers in a month eight times.
However, Bonds is already under contract with the Giants for 2006 and has expressed his plans to return to the field -- and the home run chase -- if he is healthy.
The imminent return of Bonds brings one more reminder of this season's ugly subtext, the ongoing steroids scandal that at times has seemed to engulf the game. Bonds has been a major figure in the story since leaked grand jury testimony appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle last December, detailing Bonds's admission that he had unknowingly used substances resembling steroids.
Although Bonds was excused from March's congressional hearings into steroids abuse in professional sports, baseball officials watched his lengthy rehabilitation from afar, knowing that the next wave of steroids stories was only as far away as Bonds's return to the field.
In the Giants' clubhouse, there is yet another reason why Bonds's return causes a mixture of dread and anticipation: It also marks the return of what the players derisively call "the circus."
After ESPN reported Monday night, following a vigorous pregame workout, that Bonds could be activated in time to play Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium, media began trickling in from around the country to document his return.
On Tuesday afternoon, with Alou watching, Bonds underwent an even more vigorous workout, taking fly balls and grounders in the outfield for 15 minutes, followed by 20 minutes of batting practice, then three full-bore sprints from first base to third base. Bonds looked old and somewhat stiff -- like the 41-year-old man that he is.
Later, he took regular batting practice with his teammates.
In between, he moved almost silently between the dugout and the clubhouse, rarely interacting with teammates, surrounded at his locker by his entourage of personal trainers and publicists.
At one point, everyone in the clubhouse, including Bonds, paused to look up at a television, where an ESPN reporter was giving a live update on Bonds's status. Bonds watched with a sly grin on his face, as if he pitied the fool who attempted to get inside his head.
There are no logistical reasons why the Giants could not simply activate Bonds and have him on their bench in uniform during games, if for no other reason that to scare the opposing manager. With rosters having expanded since Sept. 1, he would not be taking the roster spot of a usable player.
Even if Bonds could no little more than take a monstrous swing and hobble out of the batter's box once per night, would he not be of some benefit to a team trying desperately to cling to playoff contention?
"Once the guy is active," Alou said, "there is going to be a lot of temptation." In other words, Bonds would not be able to help himself, and neither would Alou.
But Alou had seen Bonds take batting practice, taking note of every towering drive. Each one of those could be another run for the Giants, another notch up the all-time lists for Bonds. There's no reason to waste them now.