Sunday, August 05, 2007

755 and a Bunch of Walks

I happened to turn on the tv Saturday night for the second inning of the Giants-Padres game. Barry Bonds hit Clay Hensley’s fourth pitch deep into left center field to tie Hank Aaron. Ironically, Hensley once was suspended from the minor leagues for steroid use (he was sent to the minors right after the game). Bonds was so sure of this one that he stopped to admire his swing then just walked-trotted the bases. The crowd greeted the event with a mixture of respectful cheers and boos. Someone threw a ball back on the field from the left field stands, though it wasn’t the actual ball. Major League Baseball puts a special but invisible mark on each of Bonds’s balls these days to prevent multiple claims of having the actual artifact.

In his next three at bats, Bonds got walked. When he hit number 754 against the Marlins eight days earlier, he was walked his next four times up. Okay, Bonds likely did use the stuff (unlike Hensley and dozens of others though he’s never tested positive), but isn’t anyone going to say anything about how gutless all these so-called major league pitchers are? Barry Bonds is going through what may be the worst hitting slump of his Giants career (he had one truly bad year his second season as a Pirate), he’s forty three years old, and the pitchers still treat the guy as if he were Babe Ruth in his prime. Personally, I find the collective lack of guts of roughly half of national league pitchers a bigger scandal than the steroids thing.

In 1973, the year Aaron broke Ruth’s record, Hammering Hank drew 39 walks in 340 at bats. In his final season, he drew 35 and hit .229 as a designated hitter for the Brewers. Babe Ruth, in 1927, his signature year when he hit 60 home runs, the Bambino drew 137 walks. With two months of the season left, Bonds has 113. At this point, Bonds is presumably clean. One can argue that it’s not the numbers that tell you how special a player is in any sport, it’s the respect shown by opponents on the field. The record that will soon belong to Bonds may be tainted, but no player has ever been shown this kind of respect. The pitchers are sending the clear message that Bonds is every bit the equal of Ruth and Aaron.

Let’s go more contemporary. Alex Rodriguez, whom everyone insists is clean, became the youngest player at 32 to hit 500 home runs for his career. Still in his prime and in the midst of a great year even by his standards, Arod has 65 walks so far. Albert Puljos, the best of the younger hitters in the game, has 24 home runs (3 more than Bonds) and 67 walks this year. While the walk totals are also a measure of the three sluggers supporting casts (Ryan Klesko who hits behind Bonds has all of 5 home runs this year), it still suggests that pitchers treat the ancient and slumping Bonds as at least as dangerous as either Arod or Puljos. How weird is that? Actually, how incredible is that?

That’s the irony. There are great chunks of Barry’s career when he wasn’t juiced. Even Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, the authors of Game of Shadows, wrote that Bonds did not do the evil deed until 1998. Given the intense level of scrutiny since BALCO broke, I also assume that Bonds has been clean for the last 3-4 years (BALCO broke in 2003). I have no idea what the residual benefits of prior steroids and HGH use would be btw, but every other player accused of using them reverted shockingly quickly to mediocrity after they stopped. Take a look at Brady Anderson, Bobby Estellela, Marvin Bernard, etc. Even stranger, most steroid users become more brittle with age. For instance, within two years of hitting his 70, Mcgwire was all but out of baseball. Okay, maybe Barry wouldn’t have home run records, but the controversy obscures some pretty remarkable feats.

Consider this. At age 43, Bonds has stolen 5 bases without being caught. In 5 seasons, he’s stolen 21 bases and been thrown out once. Barry has more home runs after age 40 than any player in history. Based on the way the pitchers are still responding to him, he’s not exactly done and he basically missed an entire season at 41 with a knee injury. At 43, he still plays left field, not very well these days, but quite remarkable in its way because he hasn’t yet taken advantage of the designated hitter rule (except when the team plays in American League parks). Has there ever been a 43 year old guy whom a major league team depended on as their main slugger?

I don’t condone what Barry Bonds did, but I think he deserves his moment. To hear his critics, it’s as if the entire baseball drug scandal will be purged if we can somehow torture Barry Bonds like something out of Shirley Jackson’s story “the Lottery”. Bonds is really not the guy who screwed up the “sacred” numbers of the game. Sammy Sosa has fours seasons of 60 or more home runs. Rich Aurilia had 37 home runs in 2001 and no more than 23 in any other season, yet his name has never been linked to the scandal or Ernie Banks. Jason Giambi has an MVP award, a huge contract, and the apparent forgiveness of Yankees fans. Booing Bonds doesn’t change any of those things. If you want to punish Barry Bonds for doing steroids in a way that will truly get to him, the answer is very simple- make sure that Jeff Kent gets into the Hall of Fame before he does or possibly even worse have the two go in together.

Maybe I shouldn’t have popped up from the couch and started cheering when Barry tied Hank. I know there are reasons not to, but when he hits 756 either this week or some time in late September, I’ll probably do the same thing. Whatever he did, I, in more than forty years of watching baseball, have never seen a hitter whom pitchers tried harder to avoid even when he wasn’t using.



At 8/06/2007 12:59:00 PM, Blogger None said...

This weekend.. some friends and I walked into a SF sports bar for less than an hour. Bonds homers. Kind of an odd place to witness his "heroics". It was nice to see the fans in SD give him a standing ovation. Just playing MLB at 40+ deserves a standing-O.

The last 15 years have been tough on baseball. Mythology has given way to player / owner strikes. Rotisserie baseball has given birth to Bill James and Moneyball. Last are the drugs. For me this all adds up to indifference. By the time Bonds went opposite field on Hensley, the all time hr record doesnt seem to mean much. The curtain has been pulled back and all that is left is baseball acting like any other industry.

That said... we made it to Oakland to see the A's on Saturday.. 2 hits and a win. Amazing!

At 8/06/2007 01:27:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

True enough, some combination of things getting worse and the general public learning more about the sausage making process that is major league sports.

IT's honestly been a long time since I saw a group of kids in a front yard or a park somewhere playing baseball simply because they wanted to.

You know, I never knew until this year that Reggie Jackson and Barry Bonds are distant cousins. Be interesting to do a genome on that family and see if there's a "talking to reporters" gene.

At 8/07/2007 04:11:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

You're right that the numbers have been screwy for a lot of reasons.

I laughed when you mentioned 'The Lottery' and agree, we might be going a bit far.

At 8/07/2007 04:20:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

"We"? Does this mean that you've been booing Barry Bonds too?

If I ever interview you, I'll have to make sure I get your definitive answer on that.

At 8/07/2007 05:03:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

Haha, did I mean the royal 'we' or ...? Interview me anytime Chancelucky, I know your questions would be better than 'What's your favourite colour'.

At 8/07/2007 09:20:00 PM, Blogger benny06 said...

Odd that Keith Olbermann asked Barack Obama at the AFL-CIO debate if he would have Barry Bonds for a reception at the WH. Obama said because Bonds hasn't made the record yet, he would not be able to answer the question. Obama was smart enough to turn into a sports model leadership issue though.

At 8/07/2007 11:10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Barry Bonds has the best of all possible baseball swings period. That has nothing to do with steroids.

For those of us lucky enough to have seen a lot of that pure and gloriously economical swing, we can only pull our forelocks in amazement. People who disdain Barry Bonds the hitter merely show their ignorance of his swing.

At 8/08/2007 02:55:00 PM, Blogger None said...

Actually.. hypothetically, one could argue that 'roids do influence the swing. Not only does the player have improved strength, but improved focus. I can imagine playing 160 games all over the country can be a difficult thing to do. 'Roids help the player stay fresh, not only by improving strength in the off-season, but by maintaining that through the regular season.

There is little defense of what Bonds (or Baseball) has done. Imo, drugs have no place in sport.

Now that he has broken the record, we can all argue about the validity of it (as many of the local sports commentators suggest). There is another option.. we can forget about Bonds and MLB. Perhaps to focus our entertainment interests elsewhere.

At 8/08/2007 02:57:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Benny, I was a little surprised that Obama did that. He's been very frank about foreign affairs lately particularly with respect to terrorism and rogue states. It just seemed odd that he'd dodge the Barry question.

Mr. Pogblog,
last night when he broke the record, Bonds had that perfect swing again. I hadn't seen it in a couple weeks.
I'm glad that Hank Aaron did record a message. I also respect the Nationals for actually pitching to Bonds.

At 8/08/2007 03:00:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

But the same can be said of amphetamines, something that was rampant in baseball during Aaron's time (no Aaron was never linked to the stuff)

I keep bringing this up, but given what all these people are saying, Why is Gaylord Perry still in the Hall of Fame?

At 8/09/2007 03:51:00 AM, Blogger Martin Heavisides said...

There is no designated hitter rule in National League baseball, so Bonds can only take advantage of the designated hitter rule in American league parks. Other than that, a good summation.

At 8/09/2007 07:58:00 AM, Blogger None said...

"the same can be said of amphetamines"
and.. what about all the new technology? Everything from eye to elbow surgery.. Even the other legal supplements people take. And.. what if a super drug does come out.. Then what?

That is the best argument I've seen for the 'roid era. I go back and forth on this issue almost daily. All very confusing.

At 8/09/2007 12:29:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Martin, I'm aware of that. My point was that Aaron spent the last two years of his career as a DH, Bond continues to play in the field on a regular basis. There are some traditionalist who think the DH is a form of cheating the "sacred numbers", though a legal one.

yes, I think it's an issue that's far more complex than most admit.
I posted about that end of things about a year and a half ago, if you're even vaguely interested.
At bottom, there's some debate about what it means to be "human", but it'll be a while before we actually acknowledge it.

At 8/10/2007 03:38:00 AM, Blogger Martin Heavisides said...

It would also make a difference, present time, to the stats of a career American Leaguer and National Leaguer. I suspect many National League hitters near the tail end of their careers, if they're DH material, look to be traded to the AL.

At 8/10/2007 10:46:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

yes...there's been talk of Bonds signing with an American League team next year for that very reason.
for many years AL and NL stats have not been completely comparable.
ERA's are slightly higher in the AL as are complete games.

Oddly though, the big home run hitting seasons of the last decade or so have all been in the national league and have generally not involved Designated Hitters. Roger Maris remains the American League single season record holder.

At 8/15/2007 06:39:00 PM, Blogger Martin Heavisides said...

One local paper said we should deny Bonds recognition for his home run record. Not because of steroids, because he's a prick. Well what kind of standard is that in professional sports? Nobody's suggested Pete Rose should be denied the record for most hits in a major league career because he was a prick, in fact he's been excluded from the Hall of Fame, not because he's a prick, but because he bet on baseball while still active in the game. Ty Cobb, who previously had the record for most hits, was probably as much of a prick as Rose and Bonds combined. I don't keep up with football records, but two less-than-conclusively-proved-but-certainly-more-than-plausibly-alleged murders wasn't enough for anyone to suggest O.J. Simpson didn't deserve the record for most yards running in a single season or a career, whichever it was (possibly both).
(Incidentally, in case you haven't checked yet, I have posted the answers to the movie/tv quiz on my blog.)

At 8/15/2007 08:47:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Yes, I saw the answers. I didn't realize that so many of them were from televisions shows....Made me feel better because I had it in my head that they were all from movies.

I do think steroids/hgh raise some issues about the numbers, but people often neglect to mention that Ruth's records came at least in part from the fact that they changed the ball during his time.
Of course, Ruth's numbers were still well beyond his contemporaries. Then again, Bonds's are too post his use of steroids.
It's not a defense, but he seems to have done it because other players were and were getting records and attention. Major league baseball probably knew and did nothing about it the time. They also didn't have a steroids policy in place when Bonds was doing it.
It's much more complex than people acknowledge.

At 8/16/2007 04:21:00 PM, Blogger Martin Heavisides said...

The change in the ball made a difference for Ruth, but of course every player since has had that advantage. One thing about Ruth's numbers is that for the first five, six years of his career he was a pitcher, and a very good one. They moved him to the outfield because they wanted his bat in every game.

At 8/18/2007 06:48:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I'm not sure that's exactly true. The ball was deadened slightly I think in the thirties, thouh it was livelier than the pre-1919 version.
Robert Cramer's biography of the Babe written pre-Barry argues that Ruth's numbers compared to his peers really set him apart. Bonds's steroid numbers vs. the rest of baseball are arguably more extreme.
I'd still say Ruth was the greater player. He is likely the only player who could have made the Hall of Fame as either a pitcher or a hitter.

The odd thing about Aaron was he might have been no better than the third or fourth best player in baseball at his peak. He just stayed very consistent and happened to play in favorable hitters' parks. However, Aaron appears to be the best human being of the three :}

Personally, I think the most interesting comparison is Bonds and Ted Williams.

At 8/20/2007 07:23:00 PM, Blogger Martin Heavisides said...

Yes, probably the dominating player at his peak, when Aaron first came up, was Mickey Mantle, and the player with the most consistent numbers was Willie Mays. Players like Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente dominated later. Aaron was always a likely allstar, but not necessarily ever the dominant outfielder in the game. There's something to be said, however, for his kind of consistence and endurance.

At 8/21/2007 07:43:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

One of the interesting things to me is that Aaron is now more revered than he was during his prime.

Some others from the period though not all outfielders,

Frank Robinson
Carl Yazstremski
Tony Oliva (pre knee injury)
Musial (a little older)
Billy Williams
Tommy Davis (pre knee injury)

were very much peers of Aaron. Much like Bonds, the difference in the career numbers came from the fact that Aaron's maintained his numbers after age 35. Mays fell off considerably and Mantle barely played after 35.

Some people think Oliva might have wound up being the best hitter of the sixties had he not gotten hurt.


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