SAN FRANCISCO – Barry Bonds’ return to the San Francisco Giants feels a bit like a shotgun wedding.

As much as they might have wanted to part ways this winter, the Giants couldn’t find another cleanup hitter as dangerous as Bonds. And the slugger struggled to find a better place to break Hank Aaron’s home run record than his longtime home.

Bay Area fans have stood by him through all of his off-field problems in a city where as a boy Bonds bounced around the Giants’ clubhouse hanging on his godfather, Willie Mays, and late father, Bobby.

Bonds is despised and booed almost everywhere he goes aside from San Francisco’s waterfront ballpark, though swarms of people still roll in the gates to see No. 25 step into the batter’s box.

For a superstar player Giants owner Peter Magowan said would no longer be the focus of the franchise if he came back, Bonds is still going to be the centerpiece all right.

How could he not with the attention he brings, only 22 homers shy of passing Aaron? No matter that Bonds generates more than his share of bad press, too, because of constant steroids questions and the chance he could be indicted by a federal grand jury on perjury charges.

Magowan probably wishes now he’d kept his mouth shut about Bonds. San Francisco, which hosts the 2007 All-Star game, might never have had any legitimate bidding competition at all with other teams, despite Bonds’ side saying every organization had interest.

With the posturing and games played by both parties throughout the negotiation process, Bonds wound up getting almost exactly the kind of pay day he had hoped for: $16 million for one year and the opportunity to make $20 million with bonuses, right in line with his 2006 salary of $18 million. No way Oakland or San Diego or anyone else was going to offer that much.

“I’m seeing guys sign for stupid amounts of money and they’re not even premier players,” San Francisco shortstop Omar Vizquel said. “They’re average. You see a guy like Barry Bonds who’s been in the record books forever and is an MVP, he’s going to get paid.”

They reached agreement Thursday night, with final language of the contract still being worked out and the 42-year-old Bonds needing to take the obligatory physical. He is coming off surgery on his left elbow and had three operations on his right knee in 2005 that limited him to 14 games.

Bonds will earn double the money of any of his teammates next year. So much for the seven-time NL MVP being a bargain in this year’s fertile free agent market. His defense is no longer at the Gold Glove level, but Bonds was running better late last season and still exhibits some of the best hand-eye coordination at the plate ever seen in his sport.

“I think with him searching for the record to become the home run king, the Giants were going to be able to accommodate Barry and his contract,” Vizquel added. “He brings a lot of enthusiasm and excitement to the ballpark. With the All-Star game being in San Francisco, they really wanted to put up a good show for the fans and see him hit the record at home and retire as a Giant.”

That’s what Bonds has long wanted.

He made one main request to his representative, Jeff Borris, and that was to sign with a playoff-caliber team. Yet even with Bonds, the Giants will have a tough time contending in a division with the greatly improved Los Angeles Dodgers, two-time defending NL West champion San Diego Padres and up-and-coming Arizona Diamondbacks.

“Obviously the Giants took a little bit of a jump with the signing of Barry,” Colorado Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said Friday.

In a rare move, a hefty-looking Bonds turned up at this week’s baseball winter meetings in Florida and made brief appearances in the lobby, becoming a bigger figure than the giant dolphin atop the Disney Dolphin Hotel.

“That was pretty weird,” Vizquel said, “but he wanted to get something done.”

Bonds knows he might end his remarkable career without the championship ring he has always coveted; he fell six outs short in 2002 against the Angels. But wearing the crown of home run king would help take the sting out of not having a World Series title.

San Francisco was committed to getting younger, but has shown through its offseason moves so far it was building the team around Bonds yet again.

On Friday, Bonds called Jason Schmidt, the ace right-hander who left the Giants this week to sign with the Dodgers.

“He’s like, ‘You’re leaving me? I can’t believe you’re leaving me,”‘ Schmidt said in a phone interview. “I told him, ‘I have to.’ We had fun with it. We got to be pretty good friends while I was in San Francisco.”

How will Schmidt pitch Bonds?

“Very carefully, of course.”

Bonds has 734 homers and the Giants never wanted to see him pass Aaron somewhere else – executive vice president Larry Baer acknowledged that would have been a difficult day. And don’t forget that Bonds helps put 3 million fans in the seats every season.

The Giants hired Bruce Bochy away from San Diego in late October to be their new skipper. They re-signed second baseman Ray Durham and third baseman Pedro Feliz, brought back fan favorite Rich Aurilia to play first base and added veteran center fielder Dave Roberts. But that still might not be enough to end a three-year playoff drought.

But Bonds will be the most feared player in the division for the 15th straight year.

“I can’t imagine when all was said and done that they weren’t going to figure something out so he would be able to continue his career, help the team, break the home run record and bring a lot of fans out to the ballpark at the expense of all the other teams in the American League and National League,” Hurdle said.

“I think the logic in baseball today can be thrown out the window. But would it have surprised me that he went to another team? Slightly. But nothing is going to catch you off guard anymore. He knows the team and the organization, so I’m sure the comfort zone is in a good place for both of these parties for him to have the best year he can have. The home run thing should be a draw.”

After the season, Bonds packed up the nameplate above his corner locker in the clubhouse and all of his other belongings – perhaps a ploy to scare the Giants, who said all along they would wait until the offseason to determine Bonds’ future with the club.

Now, Magowan, Baer and the rest of the brass had better cross their fingers that Bonds doesn’t finish 2007 two homers shy of Hammerin’ Hank – or they might just be going through this all over again a year from now.


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