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THE GAME'S BIGGEST JERK

But he may never get that World Series ring. In six seasons at then-powerful Pittsburgh, Bonds and co-star Bobby Bonilla were losers in all three league championship series they reached, and most baseball observers see Bonds's Giants as a team in decline. Their 103-win season of 1993 was astonishing, all right, but one short of the Atlanta Braves' 104 W's. Now, even with the watering-down that has come with divisional realignment, the Giants aren't the obvious power they were two years ago. Last year the front office was ordered to cut $5 million in salaries, which decimated the starting pitching staff (hello, Billy Swift), and the Giants' Darryl Strawberry Reclamation Project went as sour as the Dodgers' Darryl Strawberry Reclamation Project had gone the year before.

Last season Bonds suffered a nasty elbow injury that pained him all year, and he recently went through a messy divorce and a paternity suit, which probably doesn't do much for his concentration at the plate. But the loss last week of Matt Williams could be the final straw. In 1994 the stocky Giants third-baseman was on a pace to equal Roger Maris's record 61-homer season when the strike came, and this year he was leading the National League in home runs (13), batting average (.381) and runs batted in (35)--the Triple Crown!--when he fouled a pitch onto his foot, breaking it, and was lost for the season.

Williams's absence takes major punch out of the Giants lineup, and it could even deliver a divisional title to the fledgling Colorado Rockies, who at this writing lead the second-place Giants by two and a half games in the four-team race.

Almost all of the Giants' offensive pressure is now on Bonds. But without the power threat of Williams in the lineup, opposing pitchers will be more likely to work around him and pitch to weaker-hitting teammates. He might win another MVP, but don't look for any knots of gold and big diamonds on his ring finger.

So. Are we now supposed to feel sorry for the best baseball player in the world for the mountains he may never climb? Not on your life. Not with his salary, and not with his attitude. Last week, when the news came that Mickey Mantle, an earlier member of the elite three-time-Most-Valuable-Player club, needed a liver transplant to counteract years of heavy drinking, the response for some of us was this: Yes, but first Barry Bonds could do with a brain transplant.

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