Junk Bonds

It’s not that hard to put yourself in Barry Bonds’s place in the fall of 1998.

Granted, you probably didn’t have a famous dad who hit 39 homers and stole 43 bases for the San Francisco Giants in 1973. And you probably didn’t play catch with Willie Mays as a pre-schooler. And you probably weren’t blessed with a prodigious amount of natural talent to hit a baseball and run the bases. And you probably didn’t make millions of dollars a year, or consistently alienate your co-workers with a lone-wolf attitude and a penchant for ugly mood shifts.

But forget all those minor details and imagine that you, Barry Bonds, watched two blatantly inferior players, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, become anointed as record-setting baseball saviors when your instincts told you that they were were juicing like old-school NASA astronauts on Tang.   

Bonds isn’t one for tearful confessions or repentant mea culpas, so we might never know more than we do now about Bonds’s late-career “training” regimen. We’ll always suspect that the frightening growth of his hat size and his astounding power surge from 2000-2004 were steroid-aided, while he’ll always claim that he’s simply a tireless gym rat.

Since those years will always be shrouded in smoke and mental asterisks, if we want to compare the careers of Bonds and and Hank Aaron, the home-run king he’s dethroning, all we can do with any degree of confidence is examine their first 14 big-league seasons (Bonds allegedly began using steroids after his 13th season, but the slugging spike didn’t kick in until the following year).

Aaron beat Willie Mays and other contenders to Babe Ruth’s career home-run record largely because he remained so productive in the twilight of his career, smacking a career-high 47 homers in 1971 at the age of 37, and 40 two years later. Nonetheless, even if we limit our study to his first 14 years, he handily trumps the pre-2000 Bonds in almost every significant way.

Batting average: Aaron: .316, Bonds: .288; Hits: Aaron: 2618, Bonds: 2010; Home runs: Aaron: 481, Bonds: 445; RBIs: Aaron: 1541, Bonds: 1299.

Aaron’s superiority is even more impressive when you consider that he attained those stats from 1954-67, a tough era for hitters, who battled big ballparks, high pitching mounds, and a high concentration of outstanding pitching (subsequently diluted by multiple expansions). Remember, in 1968 Bob Gibson not only recorded an astounding 1.12 ERA, but hitters were so overwhelmed that only one American Leaguer, Carl Yastrzemski batted .300 or better (he led the league with a whopping .301 average).

These obstacles never slowed Aaron much. He was a right-handed Ted Williams, a pure hitter who approached Triple Crown numbers on a nearly annual basis (though he never actually won a Triple Crown). But Aaron was also a more complete player than Williams: a speedy baserunner and a smooth rightfielder with a powerful throwing arm. In the modern baseball era, only Willie Mays rivals Aaron’s five-tool greatness.

By comparison, the pre-2000 Bonds looks more like a three-and-a-half-tool star. His .288 average was solid but hardly exceptional, and while his fielding skills made him a perennial Gold Glove winner, let’s be kind and say that his throwing arm never made anyone forget Roberto Clemente.

The pre-2000 Bonds was neither the best power hitter nor the best base stealer of his generation, but he combined power and speed better than anyone who’s ever played the game. Before Barry came along, Mays and Bobby Bonds (Barry’s dad) were the only players ever to reach 300 homers and 300 steals. No one had ever made it to the 400-400 club. But Bonds ultimately exceeded 500 homers and 500 steals, and he was closing in on both figures even before he allegedly got on the BALCO “diet-supplement” program.              

That is his true, unimpeachable legacy. The rest looks pretty shady.

How do you explain someone reaching 45 homers only once in his first 14 seasons, and suddenly doing it five years in a row? How do you explain someone exceeding a .312 batting average only once in his first 14 seasons, then suddenly posting averages of .370, .341, and .362?

The pre-2000 Bonds was, give or take Ken Griffey Jr., the best player of his generation. The 21st-century Bonds, however, was a baseball-crunching android, easily the greatest player who ever put on a uniform. It will never be easy to reconcile those two sets of facts. Fortunately, we’ll never have that problem with Hank Aaron.