SAN FRANCISCO &

At 5:27:02 p.m. on the scoreboard clock, the public-address announcer at ATT Park intoned, "Batting second ..." With that, the cheers for Barry Bonds began an instant before his name could be announced in starting lineup introductions for the 78th All-Star Game on Tuesday. The Giants' beleaguered outfielder jogged onto the field near third base and doffed his helmet slowly several times in various directions, an expression of fatigued gratitude on his face as he accepted his standing ovation.

Then, with his shaved head still bare as overcast skies produced an occasional drop of rain, Bonds began to make waist-deep bows to the crowd. Now sure of how he would be received, without a boo-bird in the house, Bonds began to smile and enjoy his moment.

Most National League players, though not all, applauded for Bonds, too, as they stood in a line between second and third base. On the American League side, arrayed between first and second base, almost no players clapped, though a few did. Any public act, especially on this night, became an instantaneous part of baseball's accidental referendum on Bonds in all his various aspects &

the prickly person, the steroid-suspected superstar and the soon-to-be all-time home run champion.

As quickly as the cheers arose, they stopped. Bonds had not yet done his bow to all four corners of the park. The scoreboard clock read 5:27:40. Could it be that a moment so precious to Bonds, so long anticipated &

the approbation of his home team's fans as the whole nation watched &

had lasted less than 40 seconds? Not even a minute to proclaim his virtues?

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in," Robert Frost wrote. This city is the place, perhaps the only place in baseball, where Bonds feels at home. Here he still can get 38 seconds of prompted pregame cheers.

From booing Philadelphia to sarcastic Boston to mocking Los Angeles, Bonds is an asterisk outcast, a symbol of a disgraced baseball age now coming to an end, a scapegoat who, almost alone, bares the sins of many others in his game. Yet in this town, there is some restoration of balance, as there probably should be. No one, certainly not a great player who has been convicted of no crime, should be without refuge. Here, Bonds can find a respite from criticism and, as this All-Star Game showed, even bask in a night full of almost unadulterated praise. The City by the Bay has forgiven or ignored his flaws, defended his tarnished honor and given him emotional cover in what might otherwise have been a shabby athletic old age.

"I can't thank the fans enough. I cannot ever, ever thank them enough. I'll never forget it. ... It felt good for the first time in a long time to go out there and be cheered (in an all-star game). I will be forever grateful," said Bonds, who went hitless in two at-bats, flying out weakly to right field in the first inning, then barely missing the home run that he desperately wanted when his fly ball off Josh Beckett in the third inning died in Magglio Ordonez's glove just short of the left field wall, a few tormenting feet short of the bleachers.

Those who prefer to believe that the game's gods decree how the winds will blow when such symbolic fly balls are high in the air will note that Bonds danced down the first base line like Carlton Fisk in the '75 World Series, with the same half-dozen hopeful sideways frog hops, eyes fixed on the sailing ball. Bonds, however, did not wave his arms and, in the end, yelled his disappointment as his face became crestfallen.

In an amusing irony, the kind baseball seems to love, Bonds batted second so that he could get the most at-bats in the fewest innings. Of course, an unselfish hitter who is willing to "give himself up" for the team by advancing a teammate with a groundout usually occupies the second hole. So naturally, Bonds, one of the most self-centered stars of any era, was given exactly those give-yourself-up situation in both his at-bats with speedster Jose Reyes on second and no outs.

Instead of groundouts, Bonds went for the fences. Nobody would begrudge him his hacks in such an exhibition game before a home crowd. But perhaps only Bonds, always jockeying to put himself in the best light or defuse his critics, volunteered four times that "I was trying to get him over (to third base) both times."

"It was weird hitting second ... I'm not used to that," said Bonds, who claimed he considered a bunt in the third inning, then decided: " 'Forget it. I'm going to swing.' I got a pitch to hit, but I just didn't it good enough."

Perhaps Bonds' most poignant and genuine words were for the Giants fans who have stood by him despite reams of grand jury leaks in the BALCO probe and an entire book, "Game of Shadows," devoted to his alleged chemical enhancements.

"I'm lost for words," said Bonds, who participated in a pregame tribute to his godfather, Willie Mays. "With the fans &

this is my family." How true.

The reason Bonds could start in this All-Star Game was because loyal Giants fans voted often &

which is above board and good fun in baseball &

in the final days before the deadline. Nothing prevented Cubs fans from showing similar affection for their man, Alfonso Soriano, who had a 100,000-vote lead until the precincts hereabouts got busy on the Internet.

"I have 2 million friends that you guys didn't know about," Bonds said at a feisty 50-minute news conference Monday. Then, in batting practice at ATT Park, all of Bonds' home runs, even those that did not reach McCovey Cove, were cheered as if they were as real as the 751 homers he has hit in regulation games.

Of course, much of the reason San Francisco sticks with Bonds is because fans here are so aware, and honest, that they were right beside Bonds, cheering and egging him on as he hit 73 home runs in 2001, won four straight MVP awards and took the Giants on a trip to the World Series. Many fans in many other cities, as well as those of us in the media who seldom raised enough Cain about the obvious cheating in the sport, find Bonds a useful target. What, we didn't notice the constant offseason transformations that allowed mature sluggers to add 20 or 30 pounds of muscle in a winter?

Bonds' curse is that, for all those fans throughout the majors who taunt him with asterisk signs and Barry BALCO banners, he's the most extreme case. Bonds is not the marginal minor leaguer who decides he needs an edge in order to make the majors or the ordinary player who craves to be a star. Bonds was a three-time MVP before he ever met Victor Conte. So the analogy is to the corporate kingpin, already enormously wealthy, who games the system to get even more filthy rich.

In the end, this All-Star Game &

on a night that baseball has dreaded all season because the sport's most notorious star would be on center-stage display &

ended as well as it could. Bonds got his cheers. And, for an indisputably great career, he deserved them. But he didn't get the home run he wanted so much with its shallow appearance of vindication. Instead, his long fly ball died at the wall, much as his quest to be seen as the game's true home run king will probably also fail as the years pass.

This summer, Hank Aaron doesn't plan to attend any game in which Bonds might hit a 756th home run to pass him. And the Hammer wasn't part of this evening's Barry-centric ceremonies and symbolism. But somewhere, in the third inning as Barry's ball hung high in the sky, his breath must have been blowing straight in from left field.