SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Barry Bonds casually strolled into the dugout for his pregame preparations with cameras clicking at his every move – even his brief stop at the water cooler.

The San Francisco Giants activated their star slugger from the 60-day disabled list Monday after Bonds had months of rehabilitation on his troublesome right knee, which needed three operations since Jan. 31.

He was in the starting lineup in left field and batting cleanup in the opener of a three-game series against the NL West-leading San Diego Padres.

“Everybody knows what he can do,” said San Francisco shortstop Omar Vizquel, anticipating his first game with Bonds after Vizquel spent the past 11 seasons with the Cleveland Indians. “Personally, I’m one of those players who came here to watch him play. Finally, the moment has come. Being on the field with him is going to be exciting.”

Bonds has changed his stance about playing this season so many times that nobody could keep track of his true intentions. During spring training, he predicted he might not play again until 2006, though he had been more upbeat recently about a return.

Now that he’s healthy, Bonds will give it a go for the season’s final three weeks, determined to gain ground in his quest for Hank Aaron’s home run record – and help the struggling Giants to a respectable finish.

This was to be the 41-year-old Bonds’ first time facing major league pitching in almost a year. He has 80 homers against San Diego, his most against any club.

“We’re going to approach him like he’s been playing all year,” Padres manager Bruce Bochy said. “Watching batting practice, it looked to me like he was ready. … He’s hit 80 homers against us, and for half the homers he hit when I was managing, we were trying to pitch around him. He just doesn’t miss.”

Bonds is third on the career list with 703 home runs, trailing only Babe Ruth (714) and Aaron (755). Bonds’ last homer came against the Dodgers last Sept. 26, a solo shot off Jeff Weaver – one of seven homers Bonds hit last September.

Carlton Fisk’s 53 homers are the most any player has hit after turning 41, and that is exactly the number Bonds needs to break Aaron’s record.

“It’s going to be hard, because he hasn’t played in one year,” Giants’ Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda said. “I don’t care how good you are, baseball is a game of conditioning and timing. But, knowing him – he’s so strong mentally – you never know. We’ll see what happens. It’s going to be very, very interesting to see.”

Shutters were clattering by the dozen with every move made by No. 25, from the time he walked alone into the dugout for batting practice, three bats in his left hand and a glove in the other. Bonds wore black tights under his uniform pants to keep his muscles warm.

Rubber chickens returned to the ballpark souvenir stands for the first time this season – for fans to wave if and when Bonds is walked. A few boats were in McCovey Cove beyond right field, with fans aboard hoping to catch a home run.

Bonds entered 6-for-19 with three homers against Adam Eaton, San Diego’s starter in the series opener. Many doubt the seven-time NL MVP has enough time to make a difference in the team’s slim playoff chances, considering the Giants began the day seven games back in the division race with 20 remaining.

But his presence has certainly boosted optimism among at least some of his teammates.

“I’ve been around some really great players,” Vizquel said. “A player like Barry brings a lot to a team – emotional energy, positive thinking.”

Bonds’ timing in the batter’s box has never been a concern for manager Felipe Alou, though the skipper expects Bonds to be a half-step or so slow in left field at first. Alou is leaving it up to Bonds – as has always been the case – to decide whether he plays in day games following night games.

“He does not have to hit home runs,” Alou said. “It is the fact that he will be in the lineup. Not only will the people attending the game be watching but people all over the world will be watching.”

Will they walk him? Will they test him by pitching to him? Alou figures Bonds will play enough the rest of the way to get close to 80 at-bats, but that number could be cut in half if he is walked at the rate he has been in past seasons.

Bonds batted .362 last season with 45 homers and 101 RBIs and walked a major league-record 232 times on the way to his record seventh MVP award.

“If they pitch to him, he’s going to swing a good bat,” Alou said. “I’d pitch to him if the game doesn’t mean anything. … The fact he told me to leave it the way it is, cleanup,’ tells me he’s ready to compete out there.”

A handful of people lined the portwalk just outside the stadium below the right-field arcade hours before batting practice began – yet the only glimpse these fans got was of the grounds crew hard at work watering the field.

The game was not projected to be a sellout unless the Giants sold a huge number of walkup tickets, thus explaining the late arrival of many scalpers outside the ballpark.

“To have him in there will be huge,” Giants pitcher Brett Tomko said. “Obviously, there’s a big difference he can make. Even if he’s not in the lineup, pitchers have to be wondering, What if?”‘

For general manager Brian Sabean, this was an important stretch to gauge how Bonds performs after a long layoff and get a better idea of how his team might shape up for 2006, the final year of Bonds’ contract.

“I expect we’ll have a better chance to win games, especially against right-handers,” Sabean said. “He has the ability to affect the team and provide a snapshot for the rest of the season and next year.”

AP-ES-09-12-05 2112EDT

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