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GIANTS PIRATES
San Francisco Giants Barry Bonds (30) hits a home run off ittsburgh Pirates releiver John Grabow in the seventh inning Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2004 in Pittsburgh. Catching is Pirates Jason Kendall.(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

It's hard to fathom now - after all, Barry Bonds just might be the greatest who ever played - but in the spring of 1986, the Pirates weren't just sitting around waiting for him to get to Pittsburgh.

Weren't spending hours a day wondering about how this kid with Class AAA Hawaii was doing.

Weren't thinking about the Arizona State product who was the Pirates' first pick - sixth overall - in the '85 June draft.

"The team was going through a massive overhaul," said Bob Walk, a pitcher on that '86 Pirates team. "There were some players they had to get rid of and some players they had to take a look at and try to decide what to do with. It wasn't so much that we were waiting for Barry as it was that the team had to create a place for him to play."

And so Bonds played the first two months of that season for Hawaii in the Pacific Coast League. In 44 games, he hit .311 with seven home runs and 37 RBI.

He didn't finish the 44th game. Syd Thrift, then the Pirates general manager, was in Phoenix to watch Bonds. In the sixth inning, Thrift leaned into the dugout and told Hawaii manager Tommy Sandt: "Take him out of the game. He's going to Pittsburgh."

"I don't know if he's ready for the big leagues," Sandt told Thrift, "but he's too good for this league."

Sandt then took Bonds into the Hawaii clubhouse and told him about the promotion.

"He acted like he couldn't believe it," Sandt said. "I told him, 'Aw, you'll be all right. Someday you'll make a million dollars a year.' "

Sandt paused.

"I was a little off on that last part," he said with a laugh.

At any rate, Bonds, after only 71 games with Class A Prince William in 1985 and those 44 with Hawaii, was on his way to the major leagues.

The Pirates' wait - however brief - was over.

"Heck," said Rich Donnelly, then the Pirates' bullpen coach, "back then we were so bad, we were just hoping anybody would get here."

On May 30 that year - a Friday - Barry Bonds did get here. And he would turn out to be not just anybody, either. He would be somebody - and then some.

Just not right away.

"When he got here, he was worse than anybody we had," Donnelly said. "When he first came up, teams were walking people to get to him."

"But because we stunk, if he stunk, it didn't matter," Walk said. "He was put out there to play - sink or swim."

Bonds played May 30 against Los Angeles, batting first and playing center field. In his first at-bat as a Pirates player, he popped to shortstop and finished the game 0-for-3.

He played again the next day and got his first major-league hit - a double off left-hander Rick Honeycutt.

He played again the next day and went 0-for-2. But he drew three walks and scored three runs.

Three days later in Atlanta, he began his pursuit of Hank Aaron when he hit his first big-league home run, off Craig McMurtry, while going 4-for-5 with three runs scored and four RBI.

It was a start.

"That year we had to tear it down and then build it back up," said Jim Leyland, a rookie manager in Bonds' rookie season. "You knew he was going to be a main building block. You wanted to break him in, watch him and not let him get buried."

Bonds played virtually every day that season. He wound up batting .223 in 113 games with 413 at-bats. He had 26 doubles, 3 triples, 72 runs scored, 48 RBI, 65 walks and 36 stolen bases.

Oh, yeah. And 16 home runs.

"He didn't really light the world on fire right away," said Sandt, who became a Pirates coach in 1987. "But you knew he was going to be somebody you could build a team around."

One thing that stood out was that Bonds most likely wasn't going to be the Pirates center fielder of the future.

"He was a horrible center fielder," Walk said. "That was a big surprise - how bad a center fielder he was."

"He couldn't read the ball right," Donnelly said.

Plus, Bonds didn't have a strong arm - his only shortcoming.

The next season, though, Andy Van Slyke became a Pirates player and Bonds became a left fielder. Bonds' career was about to take off.

In 1987, Bonds and Van Slyke began a defensively airtight partnership in the outfield that would last through '92 - when Bonds left for the Giants via free agency.

Because Van Slyke was a standout center fielder, Bonds could cheat toward the left-field line. He made it almost impossible for an opposing player to get a ball into the left-field corner. And the duo of Bonds and Van Slyke made it equally almost impossible for an opposing player to drive a ball through the gap.

They didn't go out to dinner - "The only time Barry and Andy talked was when Andy called Barry off a fly ball," Donnelly said - but they had mutual respect for each other's ability.

"I still have the utmost respect for Barry," Van Slyke said. "My respect for Barry hasn't changed an iota."

In '87, Bonds batted .261. Still batting leadoff, he hit 25 home runs, stole 32 bases, scored 99 runs and drove in 59 runs.

He was on his way.

Three years later, hitting fourth, Bonds batted .301. He hit 33 home runs, stole 52 bases, scored 104 runs and drove in 114 runs.

He won the first of his six Most Valuable Player awards and the first of his eight Gold Gloves.

He would become a star. And then he became a superstar. And now?

"He's a step above that," Sandt said. "He's a celebrity."

"There has been nobody in this great game of ours - not Babe Ruth, not Mickey Mantle, not Willie Mays, not Hank Aaron - who has had a bigger impact on opposing managers over the last five years than Barry Bonds," Leyland said. "You can say what you want, but arguably he's the best who ever played."

And Bonds began the journey to that status May 30, 1986, in Pittsburgh.

"He knew he was good," Donnelly said. "And he told people he was good. And he is. He knows he's the best player who ever played - and it's like he knew that all along."

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