Barry Bonds remains center of attention in return to alma mater

Mar 29, 2017, 2:55 PM | Updated: 4:49 pm
Arizona State alumn Barry Bonds chats with media about his time at ASU prior to the Devils Tuesday ...
Arizona State alumn Barry Bonds chats with media about his time at ASU prior to the Devils Tuesday evening matchup against UNLV at Phoenix Municipal Stadium on March 28, 2017. (Photo by Blake Benard/Cronkite News)
(Photo by Blake Benard/Cronkite News)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Displaying a wide smile, Barry Bonds leaned against the dugout at Phoenix Municipal Stadium as local media members surrounded him.

“I’ve never seen media like this,” he joked.

Bonds had seen even more media members, including many familiar faces, at San Francisco Giants spring training last week before returning to his alma mater Tuesday to throw out the first pitch. Arizona State honored him with a pregame tribute video and framed jersey, and the controversial baseball legend imparted advice to this generation of Sun Devils.

“Any time you get to come back to your old alma mater it’s awesome,” he said. “This place in here is better than some major league stadiums. Their locker room? I was like, dying.”

Bonds’ presence in the locker room was a jaw-dropping moment for ASU players and coaches, especially for those who saw Bonds in his prime. He threw the first pitch right down the pipe to fellow Junípero Serra High School alum Hunter Bishop.

ASU head coach Tracy Smith said Bonds sat on the bench and provided wisdom throughout the early part of the Sun Devils’ 5-4 victory over UNLV. Bonds had a flight to catch before the game was over.

“That’s one of, if not the greatest to ever play the game,” Smith said. “It’s one of the reasons that I think this place is so special — some of the folks that have passed through this institution and played on this team who come back and pass on their knowledge and experiences.”

Bonds’ baseball career was atypical. He is widely considered one of the best in the game but also was a much-debated figure in baseball’s steroid scandal.

His confidence has been a constant. ASU players said they asked Bonds if he had ever done certain drills, and his response was, “I’m the best. I don’t need that.”

Bonds has plenty of opinions regarding the state of the game. He said he’s not a big believer in analytics and that, regardless of the technology available to today’s players, the game is the same.

He also believes college baseball is too important an experience to pass up.

“I think college is way better than getting drafted out of high school. I don’t think you’re ready,” Bonds said. “I think the life obstacles you go through and growing within the game itself, the college experience is the way to go.”

Although his experience in college was complicated and his relationships with teammates tenuous, Bonds still earned his place on the Sun Devil Baseball Wall of Honor. Among his favorite memories at ASU was a 23-12 victory over a talented Oklahoma State team in 1984.

Today’s ASU squad is hovering around .500 and still trying to find its identity, but Tuesday’s win over UNLV was special with Bonds in the building. Sophomore Tyler Williams hit a two-run home run that ended up being the difference in the game, a fitting path to victory on a night honoring the home run king.

“Knowing that Barry Bonds is there, you just want to show him a little somethin’ somethin’,” Williams said. “In all seriousness, I was just glad to be in the right spot in the right time.”

The winning pitcher, Connor Higgins, said he was “ like a giddy little schoolgirl” when he met Bonds.

“I’m more happy about shaking hands and taking a picture with Barry Bonds than that game we just played, honestly,” Higgins said. “That’s my childhood hero growing up. It was the coolest thing ever meeting him.”

His history is checkered, his name evokes controversy and he’s a topic of great debate, but Bonds remains a consequential figure in the world of baseball. When he talks, people listen, and the media has listened even closer in the final years of his Hall of Fame eligibility.

But what Bonds seemed to care about most on Tuesday was the advice he provided for the young players who idolize him. His role now, especially as a special advisor to the San Francisco Giants — is one of a teacher.

“I went to school in baseball and mastered it,” Bonds said. “Now I’ve got my PhD and it’s my turn to teach.”

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