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Bonds makes nice with Pirates, fans at PNC Park's season opener

| Monday, March 31, 2014, 4:09 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Former Pirates MVPs Dick Groat (left) and Barry Bonds (center) present center fielder Andrew McCutchen with his 2013 National League MVP Award before the home opener against the Cubs on Monday, March 31, 2014, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Barry Bonds acknowledges the crowd between Dick Groat and Andrew McCutchen during a ceremony before the Pirates' home opener against the Cubs on Monday, March 31, 2014, at PNC Park.

The question did not catch Barry Bonds off guard. He had to know it was coming, and he probably plotted an answer before he walked into PNC Park on Monday morning.

Twenty-two years after Bonds bolted from Pittsburgh to find greater fame, fortune and infamy with the San Francisco Giants, the Pirates invited him back for Monday's season opener. It was Bonds' first appearance here since the 2007 season.

“It was time for some healing,” president Frank Coonelly said. “Coming off a 94-win season and having our first MVP (Andrew McCutchen) since Barry, it was time to honor the past as we celebrate the now and the future.”

A few minutes before he went on the field, Bonds was asked what kind of response he expected to hear from Pirates fans. Boos? Cheers? Indifferent silence?

Bonds may have formulated his reply by himself during his red-eye flight from California or he might have been schooled by a public relations handler. Either way, Bonds gave a peculiar answer.

Bonds tried to make the question not apply to him in particular. Instead of saying, “I expect ...” Bonds referred to the others — Jim Leyland, Dick Groat and Jack Wilson — on the dais with him.

“We had some good times here,” Bonds said. “I would expect a cheerful (response). We were baseball players here and tried to win championships. Unfortunately, we came up short. That's all we did. We loved the fans here, and we loved playing here in this organization. We did the best we could and we hope they appreciate it.”

There's never any doubt Pirates fans appreciate Leyland, Wilson and Groat. Leyland was a no-nonsense manager who guided the team to three division titles. His departure in 1996 was viewed as a protest to ownership's tight-fisted payroll strategy.

Wilson was liked for his boundless energy and optimism, even as the Pirates foundered through one losing season after another. When he was traded in 2009, it was seen by some as a salary dump. Groat, the MVP in 1960, is one of the few remaining ties to that magical season.

“This is my hometown, and I've always thought this is the greatest city in America,” Groat said. “The fans cheered me, whether I was wearing a Pirates uniform or a Cardinals, Giants or Phillies uniform. I'm home. This is my place.”

Bonds won two MVP awards during his seven seasons with the Pirates. He was a first-round pick who exceeded all the hype. He could hit, run and play the field better than anyone in the league. But he also had a sour public persona, including a nasty spring training spat with Leyland that was caught by television cameras.

After signing with the Giants, Bonds collected five more MVPs. He also became the game's home run king, though suspicions grew that he used performance-enhancing drugs.

Bonds left the game with his reputation in tatters. Last year, he was named on just 36 percent of Hall of Fame ballots, well short of the level needed for induction.

Perhaps there still is time for Bonds to repair his legacy. The Giants asked him to be a guest instructor in spring training this year. Monday, he and Leyland traded compliments.

“In my opinion, Barry Bonds is a Hall of Fame player. I don't think there is any question about that,” Leyland said.

Noticeably thinner than he was at the end of his playing days, but still flashing a broad smile, Bonds called Leyland “one of the best managers in all of baseball.” And, as for that messy departure as a free agent in the winter of 1992 ... hey, it was nothing personal, Pittsburgh.

“I loved it here,” Bonds said. “I wanted to be here for my whole career, but, you know, things changed. It's a honor to be back here. It's nice.”

Bonds still lives in San Francisco, where he hears nothing but applause when he turns up at AT&T Park. He watches baseball, but admitted his television isn't often tuned to Pirates games.

“I followed them a little bit when they were in the playoffs, but not much,” Bonds said.

With that, it was time to go onto the field for the pregame ceremony. As Bonds was introduced as a presenter for McCutchen's MVP award, there was a roar from the sellout crowd of 39,833.

There were plenty of boos. There were plenty of cheers.

Bonds smiled and waved. The grin was still there as he made his way up the tunnel to where a couple of team officials waited to guide Bonds to owner Bob Nutting's suite. Bonds' happiness at being back in Pittsburgh, it seemed, was genuine. If nothing else, he at least seemed at peace.

“It feels good to come back to where it all started,” Bonds said.

Even if he was in town for only a few hours. Bonds watched a couple of innings of the game against the Chicago Cubs, then zipped back to the airport to catch a flight back to San Francisco.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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