Saturday night, Willis was even more declarative about what he would have done.
"I would have shook his hand," he said. "I would have tried to stop him in the line and shake his hand."
To be sure, the stage was set Saturday night for the former Encinal High star native to go into the baseball record books with the man he put on a high personal pedestal while growing up in Alameda. Clearly, from a number of comments he has made about Bonds, he might not have minded as long as the Giants star earned it.
But actually go to home plate to offer congratulations?
Ah, we'll never know. Bonds went0-for-3 with a walk against Willis a strikeout and two popups. Willis left the game with a 3-2 lead, although the Marlins coughed it up in the ninth inning and lost 4-3.
But in a milestone irony, Willis actually got his 700th career strikeout against Bonds.
"Maybe he'll sign my ball, I don't know," he said with a grin.
Unless Bonds' quest for the all-time home run mark extends into mid-August, when the Giants travel to Florida for a four-game series, Willis is now off the hook for an all-time association with Barry. But again, while most pitchers might be frightened by the prospect of being Bonds' victim for either No. 755 or No. 756, Willis maintained he could have worn it well.
"I'm a great fan, but he knows I'm a competitor," he said. "If he hit if off me, I would have been congratulating him and been a man and given him all the praise because he deserves it. It's amazing to see what he's done in the midst of all the adversity he's taken on and off the field."
Bonds befriended Willis early in his major-league career, and their friendship has grown through the years. Bonds couldn't suppress a grin when he stepped in for his first at-bat, but Willis was all business. After throwing a ball outside on the first pitch, he came back with three straight strikes, the last one a try-and-hit-me heater that he simply blew by Bonds.
In their second confrontation, in the third inning, Willis backed Bonds off the plate with a high inside fastball, then jammed him on the next pitch, and Bonds hit a meek popup off the first-base line to end a second-inning threat. The two appeared to exchange a little friendly trash talk as Bonds headed back to the dugout, heightening the drama for their succeeding confrontations.
"Just having fun," Willis said. "I respect him as a competitor, and he respects me as a competitor so we were just having fun out there. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen. You might as well enjoy it. You're in the presence of the greatness. I really appreciate what he's done for the community as well as myself, being an African American. Like I told my daughter, if he's done after this year, I can always say I competed against the best."
Bonds made a big impression on Willis long before they ever met.
"As cheesy as it sounds, it's true," he said. "We don't realize as athletes how we affect people's lives. My family was always big baseball fans for the Giants and the A's. It was not only critical to get home before that streetlight came on, but get home before the games started."
This game surely played well on TV sets throughout Alameda. Bonds and Willis would meet yet once more, with two on and two outs in the bottom of the seventh. Huge situation. Willis had already thrown 105 pitches, and Bonds was almost certainly to be his last batter. Somewhat surprisingly, the Giants slugger tried to jump on the first pitch, but he popped it straight up and high just behind home plate, and catcher Matt Treanor snared it.
Willis, frequently emotional and demonstrative after big outs, let it all hang out after retiring Bonds a final time, cutting loose with a roundhouse fist pump and an excited dance back to the dugout.
It made for some pretty swell theater, but in reality, it would have seriously bucked the odds had Bonds gone deep against Willis. Despite a spotty 2007 season to this point, Willis has been dominant against left-handed hitters, limiting them to a .133 average (11-for-83) and just two extra-base hits, neither a home run. By contrast, right-handers were hitting .331, with 16 home runs and 49 extra-base hits against Willis.
But on this night, he was strong against Giants hitters from both sides, allowing just six hits and one earned run over seven innings. Perhaps facing Bonds gave him that extra motivation and adrenaline rush to find his vintage form. One thing's for sure, he wasn't feeling fear about giving up No. 755.
"I'm not afraid of that," he said. "Maybe some people are, but I'm not afraid of that. I think I showed it, going out there and throwing my best stuff. Whatever happens, happens."
It didn't happen, and we may have missed something historic. A record home run, and the pitcher who gave it up offering his hand in congratulation.
Carl Steward can be reached at
(510) 293-2451 or by e-mail at