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BONDS hot on the trail of McGwire's record

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Each time Barry Bonds steps to the plate, the crowd rumbles and roars to life. With every powerful swing of his bat, stadiums sparkle with camera flashes and echo with shouts of anticipation.

It's only June, but baseball fans already sense history in the making. Bonds, the San Francisco Giants' veteran slugger, is hitting home runs at the fastest pace ever.

Just three years after Mark McGwire hit 70 homers to break Roger Maris' hallowed 37-year-old record in a summer that captivated the nation, Bonds' incredible start to the season has fans thinking that the moody but supremely talented star can become the new home run king.

On Wednesday night in San Diego, Bonds hit his 38th homer of the season, breaking the major league record for homers before the midseason All-Star break. Bonds has 532 homers in his career, but he has never had such a power surge _ and even he doesn't know what's got into him in his 16th season.

``I can't explain what's happening out there,'' Bonds said. ``I can understand the public's fascination with this, but I can't understand it. I've never seen anything like this.''

Bonds, who got a well-earned day off Thursday, needs 33 homers in the Giants' final 90 games to beat McGwire. Bonds has been cautious about his quest, saying he can't imagine beating McGwire's mark, while McGwire says it's premature to talk unless Bonds reaches 60 homers in September.

Such caution doesn't diminish the amazing feats Bonds already has accomplished this season, however.

Bonds hit five homers in two games earlier this season in Atlanta. Last week, he hit the longest homer ever at the Giants' Pacific Bell Park, which is regularly packed with sellout crowds cheering his every move. His surge has fans across the country rushing outside for their morning newspaper or logging on to the Internet to see whether Bonds homered last night.

``I've been to five games this year, and Barry hit a homer at three of them,'' Jason Riggings, a stockbroker from Pleasanton who commandeered his firm's tickets twice during San Francisco's last homestand. ``It's almost weird, the way he's hitting so many. Every night, you wonder what his next trick is going to be.''

Bonds practically grew up in major league clubhouses while his father, Bobby, hit 332 home runs as a speedy outfielder with several clubs. The elder Bonds doesn't want to speculate whether his son can do it.

But there's a growing opinion that Barry Bonds has what it takes to surpass one of baseball's most celebrated records.

``I don't see any reason he can't do it,'' said Tony Gwynn, the San Diego Padres' eight-time batting champion. ``Barry is a uniquely talented individual. He can truly do anything he puts his mind to on the baseball field, and I think he's decided to hit a whole lot of homers this year.''

With an array of breathtaking blasts and towering drives, Bonds hit 38 homers in the Giants' first 71 games. Babe Ruth needed 88 games to reach 38 homers in 1928, and McGwire had only 33 homers at the same point in his historic season.

But while Bonds' quest has drawn admiration from the public, Bonds isn't yet the beloved figure that McGwire became in '98.

McGwire's outsized personality, bulging biceps and infectious grin _ all attributes shared by Sammy Sosa, who chased McGwire and finished with 66 homers _ made him a fan favorite and an international media darling.

But Bonds, three times the National League's Most Valuable Player, has no tolerance for the bothers of celebrity, and he claims to have no interest in cultivating his image. He doesn't even have a familiar nickname, like Big Mac or Slammin' Sammy.

``Barry is a private guy, and sometimes that doesn't go over well in the public eye,'' said Dusty Baker, the Giants' manager since 1993. ``He's dedicated to the game, though, and this season he's on a mission to do something that nobody has ever done before.''

McGwire's charge past Maris' record of 61 homers was rejuvenating and cathartic for baseball fans, particularly the millions who were disillusioned by the lockout and the cancellation of the World Series in 1994. But in Bonds, many fans see some of the qualities that turned them against the game in the first place.

Bonds, who will turn 37 next month, has spent nearly his entire career at odds with media members who routinely characterize him as arrogant and aloof. In Pittsburgh, where he spent his first seven seasons, and in San Francisco, he has never been a fan favorite.

Bonds' iconoclastic ways can be seen in the Giants' clubhouse: he occupies three lockers in a corner of the room, with a leather recliner and a large television sitting in front of them.

But Bonds' moods also vary as widely as San Francisco's summer temperatures. On good days, he can be pleasant and accommodating to the media, jovial with his teammates, and playful with the fans who call out to him at his position in left field.

This weekend, Bonds will play three games in St. Louis, where McGwire recently returned to the Cardinals' lineup after missing large portions of two seasons with injuries. The charge continues _ and Bonds picks up new admirers with every long drive into the cheap seats.

``It's awesome. It's like he's out here playing Little League,'' said outfielder Calvin Murray, Bonds' rookie teammate.

``It looks easy for him. It's a difficult game that's built on failure, and for him to go out there and make it look like everybody around him is a bunch of kids, he's a great player.''
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