A PHONE CALL after midnight rarely delivers good news. Odds are it won't be a cheery voice congratulating

you for winning the Powerball

lottery. Odds are it will be a

police dispatcher, a hospital ER or somebody close who needs to be bailed out, sent money to, or who was just T-boned by an

uninsured drunk.

If the phones of newspaper and TV sports departments and cells of baseball writers in the Eastern time zone didn't ring in yesterday's wee hours, you knew it was Barry Bonds.

San Francisco Giants owner Peter Magowan has sold enough groceries through his Safeway chain of supermarkets to know that you don't haul away the spoiled merchandise during store hours. No, the trucks

rumble to the loading bays

behind the stores and truck away the garbage-to-be in the Robert Irsay hours of the night.

But it was high noon in 1992 when the Giants' new, bail-out owner, the chairman of Safeway, made two announcements that rocked baseball. First, he had signed free-agent outfielder

Barry Bonds to the largest

contract in baseball history.

This was heady stuff for fans of

a franchise whose owner, Bob Lurie, had become Major League Baseball's biggest embarrassment. Lurie had become a joke of an owner who had a $115 million offer in hand to sell the Giants to a Tampa Bay group.

Magowan rounded up an investor group and pledged to keep the Giants in San Francisco. Lurie swallowed hard and accepted their $100 million offer. Leonard Tose must have had the same

inside-straight feeling when Norman Braman rescued his Eagles from a fate named Phoenix.

Signing Bonds was stunning, field-level news. But Magowan's second announcement rocked the Lords of Baseball to their very tax writeoffs. Pete said he didn't need the help of taxpayers adamantly opposed to funding

a new park to replace "Stick Park," where the wind had blown out the Candle a half century before. Magowan said by

financing the new stadium, "The days of putting a gun to the heads of a city and saying, 'Build a stadium or I'll move' are over."

That message apparently was diverted before it reached the Pennsylvania taxpayers who helped fund PNC Park in Pittsburgh and our own beloved

Citizens Bank Park.

It worked out well for Magowan. His ballpark, with panoramic views of the Bay Bridge, the bay and the Embarcadero waterfront, is the most scenic venue

in sports. It has hosted a World Series and, until his name was closely linked to the pharma-

villains of BALCO and the murky world of juicing, Bonds has performed historic slugging deeds. He was not only the straw that stirred the drink, he allegedly might have been the guy who gulped it down.

But now he is little more than an intensely dislikable, hanging-on caricature of himself within easy striking distance of the

career home run record a 190-pound Henry Aaron accomplished using only the hormones God gave him and wrists like steel hawsers.

The lawyers, accountants, bail bondsmen and actual baseball people finally crossed the "T" in testosterone and dotted the "I" in indictments and told Magowan he could announce the 1-year Bonds contract that was hanging fire for weeks.

The late Colts owner, Bob

Irsay, would have approved the way Peter Magowan handled his "thief in the night" announcement. The blow was softened,

according to reports, by PR

department phone calls to selected Bay area media members earlier in the night. The operative message, according to San Jose Mercury-News columnist Ann Killion, was the Giants planned to "start from scratch" with Bonds.

Killion has spent enough time at the former Knight Ridder

flagship paper to discern the

difference between the low-tide odor of McCovey Cove and the odor that surrounds Bonds.

"From scratch?" Killion asked. "With an almost-43-year-old who is embroiled in the biggest drug scandal in sports history? With a guy who has dictated to the organization for 14 years? Nice time to try to start from scratch . . . "

One of the owners who yelped like a scalded dog when Magowan announced his group would build a ballpark with private funds was White Sox owner

Jerry Reinsdorf, who had himself successfully used the moving-to-Tampa Bay ploy to get a ballpark financed and built.

"The best they'll be able to do is cover their debt service, so what's the sense of building it?" Reinsdorf said.

Bingo! You can see that old debt service rearing its red-ink stained head. With or without Bonds, the Giants will be an

awful team, old, slow and filled with holes. But Bonds and his tainted quest will keep the seats filled. He is a constant hook. Even when he doesn't play, which is often, fans have bought their tickets well in advance, so how can they know when he is

recovering from injury or given a day of rest?

As he inches toward the great record many feel he now threatens so late in his career using a Body by BALCO, Bonds has

become a baseball version of the O.J. trial.

He is too sleazy, too self-absorbed and too one-dimensional not to watch. Bonds makes Mike Tyson seem cuddly.

Even as a huge Money Pit mob mocked his futility here last season, there was that one magical contact, that one "Oh, bleep" swing and the home run to remember forever it produced. You can still see the speck of a baseball caroming off the

McDonald's sign on the lofty third deck in right-center. Only Ryan Howard has hit one in the same league of awesome.

So for the bargain price of $15.8 million, Peter Magowan has probably bought himself 1 more year of debt service thanks to the Supergoose who has laid so many giant, golden eggs.

But life without Barry Bonds is only a scrambled knee or grand jury indictment away. *

Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com.

For recent columns, go to