On April 1, 1989, the Pittsburgh Pirates' skinny left fielder strolled to the plate to lead off the bottom of the first inning of an exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles at Washington's RFK Stadium. Barry Bonds, who was beginning his fourth season in the major leagues, went 0 for 3 on a damp, chilly afternoon in front of 24,877 fans who could only wish they had a team of their own to root for, and a true villain to root against.
Sixteen and a half years, 40 pounds of muscle and 640 home runs later, Bonds returns to RFK Stadium today for a three-game series as a member of the San Francisco Giants and as a seven-time National League most valuable player, and it is a safe bet that neither Bonds nor RFK Stadium would recognize the other from all those years before.
While Washington now has a team to call its own -- the Nationals, in fact, are trying to remain in playoff contention, four games back in the National League wild-card chase -- Bonds, now 41, makes his return to Washington as the most compelling, controversial and accomplished player in the game.
Having returned to the field only eight days ago from a season-long stay on the disabled list, Bonds will be playing his first game away from the friendly confines of San Francisco's SBC Park, where on Sunday he clobbered the 705th home run of his career -- which ranks third on the all-time list, nine behind Babe Ruth and 50 behind Hank Aaron.
It also will be Bonds's first game away from home since baseball's steroid scandal, with him as one of its central figures, exploded over the winter amid leaked grand jury testimony, widespread allegations and intense scrutiny from much of official Washington, including President Bush and two congressional committees that launched separate investigations.
Although Bonds has not played here since 1989, there may be no place where he is less welcome than Washington.
"They're supposed to boo me," Bonds told reporters in San Francisco on Sunday when asked about the harsh welcome he is expected to receive on the road. Asked why, he said, "Because I'm good, that's why." Then, turning the taunts around, he said: "I'm coming to get them. . . . Bring it on, baby."
Bonds's brazenness is understandable. Although nine big leaguers have been suspended this season for steroid violations in the first year of baseball's tougher policy -- with the highest-profile violator, four-time all-star Rafael Palmeiro, having been chased practically out of the game -- Bonds has suffered no such direct hit.
"The fact that someone should write in the newspaper," Bonds told reporters Sunday, "is [that] I've never failed a drug test."
Bonds's strongest link to the steroid scandal remains the grand jury testimony, leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle and printed in December, in which he acknowledged that he unknowingly used substances that prosecutors believe to have been steroids. Bonds dodged one potentially damaging pitfall when his personal trainer, Greg Anderson, reached a plea agreement in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative grand jury case and thus avoided testifying.
"In the case of Bonds, we have no smoking gun. It's all speculation," said Gary Wadler of the World Anti-Doping Agency. "Many of us were hoping the Balco trial would be a way to move past the realm of speculation, but it never came to pass."
Bonds's involvement as a witness in the Balco trial also helped him avoid a potentially unpleasant trip to Washington in March, when the House Government Reform committee convened a panel of current and former baseball stars -- including Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco -- to testify about steroid use in the game.
Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the committee chairman, did not return telephone messages yesterday, but a committee staffer said, "It would not be appropriate for us to comment on Barry Bonds when we still have an active investigation going on."
Bonds's absence from the nationally televised hearing, his absence from the baseball diamond for the first five months of the season and his absence from the lists of steroid violators may have helped him to distance himself from the scandal. Even those who have been quick to condemn Palmeiro and others as cheaters tread carefully when it comes to Bonds, who was subject to the testing program throughout his stay on the disabled list.
"A lot of people say [Bonds's] records are tainted. [But] how do you know they're tainted? It hasn't been proven," said Nationals Manager Frank Robinson, who last month called upon baseball to "wipe out" Palmeiro's statistics after he failed a drug test. "Until something [about Bonds] is proven by someone, I don't point fingers, I don't throw darts at them. . . . He's had a terrific career. So give him his just due as being one of the best players that ever played the game, unless something else is proven different."
Tonight, when Bonds plays away from San Francisco for the first time since the scandal broke, he will see how much damage has been done to his public image by the constant speculation and inferences of guilt. But if Washington fans think they can rattle him, Bonds believes they will be sorely disappointed.
"What could they possibly say that will hurt my feelings?" Bonds said Sunday. " . . . To me, anybody who has to go out of their way to say something negative about someone else, they're in a lot more pain than I am."
Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.