The Giants legend on his fans, philanthropy and return to the spotlight in San Francisco. “I’m a hometown boy,” he says. “One thing about the Bay Area—we don’t turn on each other.”
Story By Jesse Hamlin | Photos By Michael Short
Barry Bonds was standing on the tidy little baseball diamond across McCovey Cove from AT&T Park a few Saturdays ago, looking fit in jeans and an untucked pink shirt, the sun glinting off his famous dome as he signed balls for girls and boys in the Junior Giants program that nurtures thousands of bat-swinging Bay Area kids.
The home run king—who officially returned to the San Francisco Giants as a special advisor and community ambassador this spring, a decade after his controversial departure from the team and Major League Baseball—was in a mellow mood. He chatted amiably with the youngsters and snapped cell-phone photos with his own three grown kids, Nikolai, Shikari and Aisha.
Bonds invited the trio to join him for a photo shoot at the Barry Bonds Jr. Giants Field, which looks out to the bay and up to the green bleachers of the stadium dubbed the House That Bonds Built. The field is one of many projects funded by the Barry Bonds Family Foundation, which raises and gives money to local children’s hospitals, community centers, reading and other programs that help African American families and others who can use the help.
Bonds started the Foundation in 1993, the year the homegrown slugger joined the Giants—following in the proud footsteps of his father, the late Bobby Bonds, and godfather, Willie Mays—and lifted the team’s fortunes. While his hitting prowess, polarizing persona and legal problems made news over the years, Bonds’ philanthropic work and unannounced hospital-room visits have largely been under the radar.
“Barry has raised a lot money for underserved kids in the Bay Area, done a lot in the community, and I really don’t think people know that,” says Amy Wender-Hoch, founder of the Wender Weis Foundation for Children, who was watching the champ interact with the kids on the field.
That’s why her namesake nonprofit is giving Bonds its Inspiration Award at its annual Holiday Heroes bash at AT&T Park on December 5. Previous honorees include 49ers legend Joe Montana and skating star Kristi Yamaguchi.
“We want to celebrate some of the great work Barry has done for kids and families,” adds Wender-Hoch, who’s seen Bonds in action at various events and “the way he lights up when he’s with kids.”
In addition to contributing to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital—the Bonds Foundation funded the renovation of the playroom at the Parnassus campus, and a patient room at the new Mission Bay facility bears his name—Bonds started a college fund for the children of Bryan Stow, the Giants fan brutally beaten in the parking lot at Dodgers Stadium in 2011 and left disabled. He visited with Stow and his family numerous times.
He’s done these things “because you care about something, something matters to you,” he says. “Like I tell my kids, you do what’s in your heart. UCSF Hospital matters to me, my Link’n’Learn program for education matters to me. Because I couldn’t read, reading programs matter to me. That’s why I do it. If something touches me, I’m all in.”
The reward, Bonds continues, is the feeling he gets when a kid with leukemia in the Barry Bonds room at high-tech UCSF “sits in his bed and says ‘thank you’ because he gets to be next to his parents, or can order food online, or see his friends because he can’t go to school. That’s thank-you enough for me.”
Relaxed, funny and reflective, Bonds seemed far removed from the aloof and sometimes surly star portrayed in the media during his playing days. (“I was working then,” he says with a smile.) His once-contentious relationship with the press has grown warmer the last few years. He’s been getting great ink since returning to baseball, as a hitting coach for the Miami Marlins in 2016 and now in his new role with the Giants. With his obstruction of justice conviction overturned in 2015, the time was right for his homecoming.
Back when Bonds was reviled in other cities, “the Giants and their fans stood behind him, decrying the hypocrisy of targeting Bonds when the whole sport was infested with steroid abuse. The 43,154 fans who witnessed history loved him unconditionally,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer Henry Schulman this past August on the 10th anniversary of Bonds’ record-breaking 756th home run.
Bonds puts it this way: “I’m a hometown boy. One thing about the Bay Area—we don’t turn on each other. Baseball had its own turmoil. I know it’s put on me. Whatever. I won my case, it’s over. The city, the people, appreciate what you do on that field. And I worked really hard. And everybody knows what I did. You can’t fake that.”
Bonds was welcomed home to the Giants in July, when he was enshrined on the Wall of Fame on the ballpark’s King Street façade, alongside plaques honoring his father, godfather and other Giants veterans. The club is also expected to retire his number, 25, down the road.
Joining his father and Mays on the Wall of Fame “is a dream, it’s a dream,” says Bonds, who stays in shape by cycling, a passion he pursues with the same intensity he brought to baseball, riding many miles a week and pushing himself until it hurts.
“Willie came in ’58, my father in ’68 and I came in ’93. And we covered the entire outfield. We have been entertaining San Francisco since the Giants stepped foot here. What we accomplished is unmatched in any sport anywhere in the world. All I wanted to do was play the outfield with my godfather and dad. I completed that circle.”
Bonds muses that if he’d taken No. 26 for his jersey, following Mays’ 24 and Bobby Bonds’ 25, they’d be three in a row. But he chose 25 to honor his father.
“It’s good, because when 25 goes up there one day, my father goes with me. I always admired his career, his intelligence in baseball. He taught me everything I know.”
In his new job as special advisor to Giants CEO Larry Baer, Bonds will go out into the community, connecting with fans and sponsors—as the great Mays continues to do—and work with the club’s minor league hitters.
Before, “I had this one job in uniform, where you could never tell me what to do because I knew 1,000 percent more than you,” says Bonds. “Now I have this new role, where I really feel like I am working for a boss. I listen to him and go out and do whatever he tells me do. And it’s kinda cool. I enjoy it.”
Asked about the public perception of him when he was in uniform, Bonds replies: “I didn’t embrace the press the way I probably should have, like [Michael] Jordan and Muhammad Ali embraced the media. Not all of us are built the same. Me, I wanted to go to work, and leave me alone. I didn’t know how to do that.”
He takes half the blame for creating “the monster,” his old public image. “I should’ve been a smarter person, a better person than that. But I was young. That’s the part I’m disappointed with myself about. I have to accept that.”
These days, you’re likely to see Bonds bicycling around the city or the hills of Marin, or at public events like the big benefit concert at AT&T Park last month for victims of the devastating North Bay fires, where he introduced one of the bands.
Bonds saw the fire firsthand, at Mayacamas Golf Club near Santa Rosa, where he was participating in the Ronnie Lott-hosted UCSF Medical Center Celebrity Golf Classic. When the fire came roaring over the hill, Bonds drove several carloads of people to safety, including former NFL wide receiver Willie Gault.
That, Bonds says, “was a movie I didn’t want to be in.”