Barry Bonds has arrived where he began, the game of baseball as new to him as it is old.
He is coming into his first World Series with the joy of a kid who always imagined he would be there, and all the seriousness of a man who appreciates playing in one at last.
When he leads his San Francisco Giants into Game 1 on Saturday in Anaheim, the 38-year-old Bonds will ascend a stage grander than any he has occupied in his 17 seasons. He might be the greatest player since Babe Ruth, but Bonds has never had a chance to show it to as large an audience as he will have during the next week.
"It's a feeling I can't explain," Bonds said. "Maybe in a few days I'll be able to tell someone how I feel."
On the night the Giants won the National League pennant, Bonds bolted out of the dugout and sprinted across the diamond ahead of everyone else to hug Kenny Lofton after his winning hit.
Yet moments later, Bonds sat in his corner of the dressing room, away from his teammates and their champagne-splashing celebration. He didn't take so much as a sip and no one came over to douse him, except his 12-year-old son, Nikolai, who poured a little water over his head.
Bonds didn't get angry but he let his son know that he wasn't ready to indulge in even that small show of pleasure.
"Now's not the time," Bonds said. "When we win the World Series, I'll celebrate."
For all his 613 home runs and pages of records, his four MVPs and eight Gold Gloves, Bonds has always longed to be known as a champion.
Some may see him as robotic and remote, his face impassive at the plate, his right elbow armored with a large black guard, his massive body making the bat seem small in his hands.
He can be aloof, grouchy, self-centered reclusive before games, wearily seeking silent refuge afterward. He has three lockers, not one, and a huge recliner and big-screen TV in the clubhouse.
Bonds can also be buoyant, joking and shouting with his teammates, kissing his son sweetly after homers. He has brown eyes as lively as some of the colorful shirts he favors. His smile can be as bright as the gold and diamonds adorning his fingers, neck and left ear. He grunts through hours of workouts, pumping iron and stretching, building his body through honest effort, he insists, not on steroids as many have suspected.
As big as he's become, as gaudy as his records are, he's never been a larger-than-life character like Ruth and never endeared himself to the public. His considerable charity goes mostly unnoticed and his athletic gifts underappreciated.
In an age of athletes who preen for the cameras in all sports, Bonds is more a throwback to a time when most ballplayers who weren't the Babe deflected praise and showed respect for the game and opponents. Oddly, that has probably hurt Bonds.
To understand Bonds, it's important to remember that he was born into baseball, the son of a great player, Bobby, and the godson of one of the greatest, Willie Mays.
Skinny little Barry darted around the Giants' clubhouse as a child and shagged flies in the outfield with Mays. Along the way, he picked up a kind of code about how ballplayers are supposed to act and an awareness that baseball is a business that is not always easy and not always fun.
Mickey Mantle, Mays' rival in New York, was one of Bonds' biggest heroes even if he was too young to have seen him play. In both of those players, Bonds admired men of superior strength and varied talents. His father was like that, too, a player with power and speed. Barry's own career has been notable for his dedication to staying physically fit and making the most of his talents.
During his first season with the Giants in 1993, when Bonds hit .336 with 46 homers, 123 RBIs and 29 stolen bases, he thought he was at his peak and might have only a few years left at that level. "If I can't run and I can't hit for power and average, then I don't want to play no more," Bonds said at the time. "Or I've got to work harder to do it. One of the two."
Bonds chose to work harder, putting himself through torturous workouts and adhering to a disciplined diet.
"I might isolate myself away from the other players to do the things that I'm doing on the field," he said. '"Oh, you're on your program,' that's what they say. That's the big thing: 'Barry's on his program.' That's not my own program. That's the program that I'm trying to do to keep my success level up, which will improve everybody else's success level. ... I'm not thinking about myself."
This year, his 10th with the Giants, Bonds followed up his record 73-homer season by hitting a career-high .370 with 46 homers and 110 RBIs.
"The thing I like about Barry more than anything is that he enjoys playing," Giants manager Dusty Baker once said. "Besides the money and all, he just loves to play. The only thing I see he doesn't like is to lose."