MORGANTOWN — He may have been the greatest baseball player of all-time, if you are willing to forgive and forget the steroid charges, but certainly Barry Bonds was among the most complex of ball players.
As baseball begins again, and as he turns 56 years old on July 24, it seemed a perfect time to look back at the greatest Pittsburgh Pirate since Roberto Clemente and to remember that his Pirates' years were the beginning, not the peak, a time when he had to grow into himself.
Unlike many baseball writers, I was fortunate enough to be a beat man covering not only Barry Bonds, but such other Hall of Fame talents as Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken Jr., Ozzie Smith and to be there when Derek Jeter made his major league debut, just as I was for Bonds.
By far, though, Bonds was the most interesting study as the son of a star player, the god son of Willie Mays, a sometimes moody, driven athlete who bubbled over with talent.
So it was I returned to the earliest days, shortly after Bonds had been selected by the Pirates as a first-round draft pick out of Arizona State, to a day I drove to Lynchburg, Virginia, and sat poolside at Harvey's Motel as this brash first-year minor leaguer talked about life growing up under those circumstances, his goals and his dreams, and to compare now what he had to say then with what he turned into.
To begin with, he wasn't impressed that he was a ballplayer's son and felt that had little or nothing to do with what he had ahead of him.
"If you can play, you can play," he said that day. "There's lots of kids who don't have famous fathers who can play."
In other words, he was laying the groundwork to lay claim to his own accomplishments, asking not to compare him to his father, who had combined power and speed, just as he did, but to accept his success or failure as his own.
Even at this stage of his career, a few weeks into it, he felt misunderstood.
He pointed to an incident that was passed off as immaturity, a time he popped up with the game on the line, then lost it, slamming his helmet into the dirt and casting his bat away angrily. It was enough of a scene that his manager, the former catcher Ed Ott, felt he had to talk to him about his reaction.
But that day, Bonds felt his anger was not misplaced. He wasn't mad about failing, he said. He wasn't mad at himself at all.
"I wasn't mad I popped up," he said. "I was mad the pitcher wouldn't challenge me."
Put that in your mind for a minute, for this is a man who became the most feared hitter in the history of the game, a man who pitchers wound up challenging less than anyone. As impossible as it is to believe, he walked more than any hitter ever and in one season he drew an incredible 232 walks, 120 of them intentional.
"I never had any respect for any pitcher," Bonds said, at a time when he had less than 20 professional games under his belt. "It doesn't matter who he is or what his name is. If my Dad taught me anything it is to always think you're a better hitter than he is a pitcher. So I can't stand when a pitcher won't challenge me. I can't see a pitcher being that scared of you or thinking you are that much better than me."
He would, however, come around to having respect for certain pitchers, especially the two Atlanta left-handers Tom Glavine and Steve Avery who handled him and the Pirates in the early 1990s and kept them from reaching the World Series. Bonds, would often sit out a game when Avery pitched.
That first interview was revealing because it showed that Bonds was the kind of person who would speak his mind, which many took for cockiness or even rudeness, but it was just Barry Bonds being Barry Bonds.
You accept a person for what he is, whether you like him or not, and that was Barry Bonds.
There was a day in 1991 when Bonds explained why he would not give into any kind of political correctness or simply saying what the interviewer wanted to hear.
"I talk the way I do because honesty bothers people," he said. "I could say what people want to hear and be happy, but that wouldn't be me. People don't want to hear you say you're good but I'm not downgrading anybody else. I'm just saying what's in my heart."
He was an open book, but people refused to read it and he knew that.
"People just don't know me and they won't," he said. "You can try to figure me out, but you won't."
And that is just what happened throughout Bonds' career, a career that saw him hit a record 762 home runs, bat .298, steal 514 bases and win seven Most Valuable Player Awards to go with eight Gold Glove awards.
The talent was undeniable. He could do things others wouldn't dare dream they could do, so naturally blessed was he.
Dr. William Harrison was the eye doctor that the Pirates used when Bonds was there, part of general manager Syd Thrift's unique approach to baseball, and Harrison admitted that of all the people he tested, no one's vision came close to Bonds and that well may have been what made him the hitter he was.
"Sometimes I see the ball as soon as it leaves the pitcher's hand, sometimes as it comes out of the glove," he once told me. "Sometimes I can see the rotation of the curveball as soon as it pops out of his hand."
That was why, when you watched him hit at his best, he almost never flinched at a pitch as it came plateward. He seldom checked a swing or even just made a brief move suggesting he might swing when he wouldn't. He knew fastball, curveball right away, strike or ball, if it was a hittable pitch or one he should lay off.
"There are days when I come to the ballpark and know I'm going to hit a home run. It's the atmosphere around you. It's you wake up some days in a good mood and some days in a bad mood. You almost know how the day will go," he said.
With his career, most of the days were good ones.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel