Rich Hill doesn't seem all that worried, maybe because he's been through it before. He was destined to become No. 714 before Juan Pierre climbed the center-field wall in San Francisco last year and stole a home run from Barry Bonds.
Pierre helped Hill escape being a historical footnote that night, but the experience was all a rookie pitcher could want, and more.
``That was about as exciting as it gets, I guess,'' Hill said.
It could get a lot more exciting for Hill this week when Bonds and the San Francisco Giants visit Chicago. He's just one of many pitchers looking at the calendar and schedule while wondering at the same time if his name will one day be mentioned in the same sentence as Al Downing.
It probably won't happen against the Cubs, but sometime over the next few weeks Bonds should be stepping to the plate with No. 756 possible with each swing of the bat.
By now, that should be making some pitchers in the firing line nervous. So it's a bit surprising that some like Hill are treating it as though it's the opportunity of a lifetime.
``Pitching to him? I'm excited to pitch to him,'' Hill said.
Just how much of that is false bravado or merely supreme confidence is, of course, debatable. Some might also be chalked up to youthful ignorance of what the long-term implications are of giving up the historic home run.
There's a reason Downing is remembered in baseball lore, and little of it has to do with the 123 games he won in 17 years of major league service or the three World Series he pitched in. He was once known as the black Sandy Koufax, and is regarded as the first black starter for the Yankees, but his fame comes from something he would rather have not done.
Pitchers come and go, but Downing had the misfortune of being on the mound for the Dodgers the April night in 1974 when he served up a pitch that Henry Aaron hit over the left-field fence. The home run was No. 715 for Aaron, breaking the revered mark long held by Babe Ruth.
No one remembers that St. Louis pitcher Vic Raschi gave up Aaron's first home run in 1954. And you would have to be a real baseball geek to know that journeyman Dick Drago gave up Aaron's last home run while toiling for the California Angels in 1976.
But we remember Downing. And we'll remember whoever is on the mound when Bonds breaks the record, no matter how tainted by steroids that it might be.
So is it beginning to be nervous time for today's pitchers? Well, kinda.
``If you're out there thinking about being the next Al Downing then you're going to be,'' Cubs pitcher Scott Eyre said. ``You got to out there and think positive, you're facing one of the best in the game or one of the most feared in the game, it brings out the best in you.''
That sounds good coming from a distance, but there are already signs that pitchers are becoming increasingly more wary about pitching to Bonds. Going into Saturday's game against the Dodgers, he had hit only two home runs in his last 10 games while being walked 18 times.
That's going to stretch the playing field and bring more teams into contention in this home run derby. Among them are the Braves, who travel to San Francisco next week for a four-game series.
``You hope it's done before your team gets there,'' Atlanta's Buddy Carlyle said. ``But you're not going to throw him balls. If he hits a home run, he hits a home run.''
The inevitability of it all seems to be the prevailing attitude among most pitchers contacted in an informal survey of future Giants opponents over the last few days. They all read from pretty much the same script, saying they hate to give up a home run to anyone but that Bonds is a great hitter and will get it from someone.
Still, some can't help thinking about their place in the record book if they happen to be on the mound when it actually happens.
``It's going to eventually happen,'' said Pittsburgh's John Grabow, whose team goes to San Francisco on Aug. 10 for four games. ``If you're in a situation where you've got to pitch to him, pitch to him. But it doesn't bother me if I'd be the guy to give up the home run. I'm just trying to get him out.''
So will John Smoltz, when he gets his chance. Right now, though, Smoltz is just worried about coming off the DL and having a healthy shoulder once again.
``I haven't thought about it,'' Smoltz said. ``I've got a lot of other things on my mind.''
----
AP Sports Writers Rick Gano in Chicago and Charles Odum in Atlanta contributed to this report.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org

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