(Photo: Nicholas Badders/WCSN)
With a special guest in the house, confidence was in the air on Tuesday, March 28th at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, as Barry Bonds returned to Arizona State in an evening that honored his time as a Sun Devil.
On March 21st, Sun Devil Baseball announced that the debut of their “Baseball Heritage Collection” throwback uniform would take place one week later on the 28th of March, the same day former Sun Devil and all-time baseball great Barry Bonds would in the house.
Before the team’s 5-4 comeback victory over UNLV, Bonds arrived at Phoenix Muni, where he spent time with the media and looked back on his days as a Sun Devil. To Bonds, it meant a lot to not only be honored and come back to visit his former team, but experience the program’s new home.
“Oh it’s special. Any time you get to come back to your old alma mater, it’s awesome,” Bonds said with a smile on his face. “This place [Muni] is better than some Major League stadiums. Their locker room, I’m like dying. We had a trailer when I was going to school here. We all dressed in a little trailer and walked over… But this is nice, this is special. Just a beautiful place.”
Bonds used the pre-game time to reflect on his four years worth of memories and the program’s history. When asked what his single favorite memory was, there was no hesitation: June 5th, 1984 against Oklahoma State, the team’s second game in the ’84 College World Series.
“We beat them 23-12,” Bonds recalled. “They were the dominant team at that time. They were hard to beat and we came in that series, that was pretty special.”
Through the entire evening of events, however, Bonds stayed humble in regards to his legacy at ASU. After explaining that Reggie Jackson and Alvin Davis played a significant role in his decision to play for the Devils, he focused on the legacy of the program in a whole.
“I always knew about Arizona State and the tradition… it speaks for itself,” Bonds stated. “It’s good to just be a part of it, with the whole group. I don’t think I stand out more than anyone else. If you get your name on that board [The Wall of Honor], it’s just getting your name on the board. I don’t think that I’m above anyone else on that board, we’re all in there together.”
After talking with the media, Bonds mingled with ASU’s roster, discussing everything from hitting in general to his lack of a two-strike approach.
“I was a little starstruck to be one hundred percent serious,” Tyler Williams admitted after hitting a go-ahead home run in the game. “It’s not every day you get to see Barry Bonds in your locker or Barry Bonds just in the dugout talking. It was really a great experience for us.”
For the game’s winning pitcher, Connor Higgins, the chance to meet Bonds meant more to the sophomore than the game itself.
“I was a giddy little schoolgirl today,” Higgins cheerfully admitted after the 5-4 win. “Honestly I’m more happy about shaking his hand and taking a picture with Barry Bonds than that game we just played. That’s my childhood hero growing up, it was the coolest thing ever for me to meet him.”
In the eyes of Higgins, the confidence that Bonds eluded gave him the motivation needed to pitch 4 and 2/3 innings that were not only scoreless, but hitless too.
“Just seeing him, that really pumped me up on it’s own,” Higgins explained. “I didn’t care who we were playing tonight, honestly. But seeing Barry pumped up and talking to him and talking about all the confidence he has, just thinking about that tonight on the mound too, just so much confidence, it’ll go a long way.”
For Carter Aldrete, however, the connection with Bonds went deeper than most players.
“I grew up watching him,” the Bay Area native recalled. “He’s a hero to a lot of kids and he played with my uncle and he knew my uncle, he was telling stories about him and my uncle playing against each other in the dugout before the game, so it was pretty cool that he had a connection to my family as well.”
Aldrete wasn’t the only player with a personal connection to the former slugger. Freshman outfielder Hunter Bishop, who hit in the leadoff spot for ASU in their victory, caught Bonds’ ceremonial first pitch. Both Bishop and Bonds not only graduated from San Mateo, California’s Junípero Serra High School, but both wore the number 24 on the back of their ASU jersey.
— Sun Devil Baseball (@ASU_Baseball) March 29, 2017
While Bonds was able to take pictures, shake hands and talk with the players on the ASU roster, the visit from the potential Hall of Famer meant a significant amount to the coaches too.
“It was really kind of cool to see because that’s one of, if not the greatest to ever play the game,” head coach Tracy Smith said. “The guys were thrilled, the coaches were thrilled. Freddy Nori, my older coach wouldn’t leave him alone. Mike Earley was grinning from ear to ear because he’s like, ‘listen, he’s saying the same thing I’m saying.’ So it was awesome.”
In his visit to Phoenix Muni, Bonds established deeper connections with the program, gave advice and left all involved with a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“It’s one of the reasons that I think this place is so special,” Smith said. “Because some of the folks that have passed through this institution, played on this team and then to come back and pass along their knowledge and their experiences and again, not just baseball, was awesome.”
With UNLV pitching coach and MLB Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux at the game as well and Bonds requesting to spend the first few innings in the dugout, ASU’s head coach was left feeling truly lucky for the experience he and his players were able to have.
“It was really kind of funny to see these guys, literally their eyes wide open. And to really soak in what he said,” Smith expressed. “I can’t thank him enough for making that trip back here because he’s a busy guy, what he’s doing with now with the Giants, he didn’t have to do this. And he was genuine… He went above and beyond and I thought it was awesome.”
Nicholas Badders is a baseball beat writer for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network. You can follow him on Twitter @BadderUpSports.