TEMPE, Ariz. -- Barry Bonds was making a grand, albeit controversial, exit, and Albert Pujols was emerging as one of the game's newest superstars. And for a four-year stretch in the early 2000s, the peaks of two of baseball's greatest hitters intertwined, with Bonds rewriting the record books and Pujols heading toward unprecedented consistency.
Bonds made his unofficial return to baseball on Monday, his first of seven days as a special guest instructor at Giants camp, and when the slugger was asked who he presently enjoys watching most, he mentioned Pujols, along with Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera.
That brought a smile to Pujols' face on Tuesday morning.
"He's somebody I have a lot of respect for in this game," Pujols said. "He was somebody that everybody stopped doing what they were doing just to see his at-bats. He always treated me with respect every time, since my rookie year."
Bonds, now 49, is the all-time leader in homers (762), ranks fourth in career OPS (1.051) and Wins Above Replacement (162.5), and has collected seven Most Valuable Player Awards -- more than twice as many as anybody else. But his ties to performance-enhancing drugs, and the impact they perceivably had on elevating his prime in what should've been his twilight, has led to less than 37-percent support in each of Bonds' first two years on the Hall of Fame ballot.
In Pujols' mind, though, Bonds is "the best player that ever wore this uniform."
"To me, he is," the Angels' first baseman said. "Who else? Who else can you name? I don't think there's anybody else that can put up the kind of numbers that Barry has. He's amazing."
The irony is that Bonds' alleged usage of PEDs may have robbed Pujols of some extra hardware. In 2002 and '03, as Bonds was on his way to four consecutive National League MVPs in his late 30's, a young Pujols finished second in voting, not capturing his first until an '05 season in which Bonds was limited to 14 games.
But Pujols mostly credits Bonds, and Mark McGwire, for the way he approaches hitting.
"Not necessarily helping me out with the hitting, but just the focus that he went at it with," Pujols said. "When I was with Mark [in St. Louis] in 2001, he didn't even teach me anything about hitting. But watching his focus and his concentration and his preparation, that's what helped me out. It's the same thing with Barry. His preparation, his BP, his routine, his focus from the on-deck circle all the way to the batter's box, is amazing. You knew he was going to do some damage every single at-bat, if he got his pitch to hit."
Bonds has been away from baseball for 6 1/2 years, ever since his final season with the Giants in 2007. But his legal troubles are behind him now, and time has allowed some of those wounds to heal, and Bonds felt "the time was right" to finally return to the game he excelled at.
Bonds addressed the assembled media in a mid-morning news conference at Scottsdale Stadium on Monday. He was affable, witty, humble and, for most of the 26-minute interview, joyous. It was, in many ways, the opposite of his standoffish reputation as a player, both with the media and even with his teammates.
But Bonds could be engaging and helpful when he wanted to be, and he tended to demonstrate that with players who were near his level of excellence.
Pujols was one of them.
"He always respected me," said Pujols, who was on five NL All-Star teams with Bonds. "They can say the same thing about me. The thing is people read you wrong because of the way that you approach this game. People think that you have to have fun and enjoy it, but this is our job, and we work so hard to get to this level and we always have that chip on our shoulder. We're not going to come here thinking that we own everything. We have to walk through here knowing that we're still hungry. And I can say the same thing about Barry. Barry was always hungry. He's the best player that ever wore this uniform, and he knew it, and he was still working hard to be the best that he can be."
The Angels play the Giants again on Monday, at Tempe Diablo Stadium as part of their third and final split-squad day. It's a long shot, but Pujols hopes Bonds is still around by then, and that he makes the trip, so the two could catch up, and talk baseball, just like old times.
"It's good to see him back," Pujols said. "Trust me, if I see him next week, I'm definitely going to pick his brain."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less