NEW YORK - He sat in the dugout, surrounded by reporters, talking candidly and contritely about using illegal performance-enhancing substances.
At least that's how Mets reliever Guillermo Mota chose to handle the situation before last night's game at Shea Stadium. Activated from the restricted list after serving his 50-game suspension for violating baseball's steroid policy, he took his medicine straight up.
"I learned my lesson," Mota said earnestly. "I'm a good guy. I did it. I know what I did. I think about it a lot . . . I'm sitting and thinking about my mistake."
These are words that, it seems, many people yearn to hear from Barry Bonds. But the San Francisco Giants slugger, despite being enveloped by billowing clouds of suspicion for nearly 4 years, reportedly denied to a grand jury that he knowingly used steroids and repeatedly has refused to address the issue publicly.
So in a delicious bit of irony, about an hour after Mota spoke, Bonds appeared in the Giants dugout on the opposite side of the field for his mandatory once-a-series media availability.
Let's just say that any similarities between the conversations were coincidental and superficial.
Bonds, by the letter of his $15.8 million contract, might have to talk. But he doesn't have to say anything. The tone was set at the beginning when Bonds brandished a small tape recorder, pointedly telling the inquisitors crowded around him that he was keeping his own record of the proceedings.
Since Bonds has 746 career homers, only 10 away from surpassing Hank Aaron's all-time record, the first question concerned his pursuit of one of baseball's most hallowed milestones.
"I don't really talk about me. If you want to talk about [the team], fine," he replied.
Did he look forward to playing on New York's big stage?
"I just enjoy playing baseball. I don't care where it is."
And so it went, back and forth, Bonds batting the questions back like a tennis pro returning a volley.
What did he think of the boos that roll out of the stands every time he comes to the plate?
"It's like a concert."
Inevitably, the subject turned to commissioner Bud Selig's unwillingness to commit to being in attendance when Bonds eventually passes Aaron.
"I don't have any comment on Bud. He's his own man. Just as I'm my own man."
But the subject clearly nettled him.
"Can we help educate kids about the sport?" he asked plaintively. "Or are we going to keep talking about the same thing over and over?"
What does he think about as he approaches the record?
"We're not even close enough to discuss it at this point. It shouldn't even be a topic of conversation yet."
Has he thought about his place in history?
"No. Right now, I'm just playing baseball. I don't have time to reflect on anything."
Most of this was pretty standard stuff. The only questions that appeared to get under his skin were the one about Selig and one about Aaron, who has been outspoken about the fact that he plans to be far, far away when Bonds hits his 756th homer.
"I have never spoken personally to Hank Aaron," Bonds said, annoyed again. "I just know what I've heard through the media. I don't have a thought on it. Hank Aaron has been in the game a long time, and we all love and respect him."
With that, a Giants public relations official stepped in and ended the interview.
Bonds got no closer to Aaron in last night's 3-0 win over the Mets at Shea Stadium, remaining stuck at 12 for the season. He has homered once since May 8.
He went 1-for-3, with a single to center in the first. In the third, he grounded into a doubleplay. In the fifth, he was intentionally walked for the 19th time this year. In the seventh, he grounded out.
And, yes, each time he came up, he was heartily and sincerely booed.
Mota came in to pitch in the eighth inning. He was asked before the game what sort of reception he expected when he came out of the bullpen for the first time.
"I don't know how the fans will react," he said. "The fans will do what they want. I don't have any control of that. We'll see."
Asked how he would react, he smiled.
"I would cheer," he said, clapping his hands. "I would say, 'He's a good pitcher.' I'm a good guy."
Bonds would seem to be way beyond that point. Even some of his peers might be starting to turn their backs.
"The public doesn't think of him as being the right guy [to break the record]," Andre Dawson recently told the Miami Herald. Dale Murphy told the New York Daily News: "He's gone about his career the wrong way. I'm very indifferent to what he's accomplishing."
Mota's candor might earn him the benefit of the doubt. The reaction from the crowd was mixed when his name was announced. There might just be a lesson in there somewhere. *