The American Hero Who Fell Off His Pedestal
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
As you may have heard, San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds tied a long-since broken record over the weekend, an event that ranked behind the Mets-Yankees showdown and the right cross Cubs catcher Michael Barrett delivered to the jaw of his White Sox counterpart among the big stories of the weekend. That’s as it should be. Bonds hasn’t set or even tied a record, it took him nearly a month to not set or tie a record, and by now most people don’t feel like celebrating his drug-tainted achievements anyway, so it’s no wonder that 714 was a big slow fizzle.
It could have been so different, though. Had Bonds made a few different choices, he’d have been lauded at some point this year as a great American hero, the savior of baseball’s integrity, and the greatest player in the history of the game. He would have stood proudly beside Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, and Frank Robinson as President Bush delivered a speech praising his conquest of Babe Ruth’s ghost, and urging him forth on behalf of a grateful nation toward the ultimate victory: the breaking of Aaron’s all-time mark for home runs. Two decades’ worth of self-absorption would not only have been forgiven, but recast in the public mind as signs of misunderstood genius. With a single mind and heart, baseball fans would have cheered him on as he struggled toward 756.
How might all of this have happened? All Bonds would have had to do is not take drugs. He almost certainly would have passed Ruth anyway. It makes Bonds all the more tragic – he appears to have begun taking performance enhancing drugs not to make himself a better ballplayer, but because he wasn’t recognized for being as great as he actually was. In taking them, he robbed himself, and everyone else, of the chance to find out how great he could have been.
Certainly, the answer is, “Surpassingly great.” Bonds was the best player in the National League every single year from 1990 through 1998, usually by huge margins. Before he started on a drug regimen after the 1999 season, he already had several important records, like the NL single-season record for walks, and he was clearly on track to set career records for both walks and runs. A bit less obviously, he was on track for Ruth and maybe even Aaron.
This contrasts a bit with his reputation – after all, before he set the single-season home run record, he had never even hit 50 in a season. Of course, Aaron never hit 50 either, and Bonds was always awfully consistent in his home run hitting. In 1993, his first year with the Giants, he hit 46; he hit 37 and 33 the next two years, both of which were interrupted by the strike, then hit 42, 40, and, in 37. So his established level after the 1998 season was 40 home runs a year, and he had just finished his age-33 season.
Since 1998, Bonds has averaged 42 home runs a year. In his healthy seasons he’s hit more than that, but he’s also lost a season and a half to injuries that it’s reasonable to infer were a result of drug use. So if a drug-free Bonds had stayed healthy and maintained his established level of power, he would have been on schedule to pass Ruth this year. Would he have done so?
As to the question of health, there’s obviously no way to answer that. Ballplayers are always at risk of sudden traumatic injury. But it’s worth considering that before he’s alleged to have started using steroids and the like, he truly was in legendary, world-class condition. Given that, and his access to modern training techniques, there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t have stayed as healthy as late as any player in baseball history – certainly if Rickey Henderson could keep playing at a high level into his early 40s, Bonds could have.
As to the second question, I think he not only would have kept hitting 40 home runs a year, but probably would have begun to hit more. That’s the common pattern with the few hitters who are really comparable to Bonds – they hit more home runs per at-bat. Aaron, at 33, actually had a lower established level of home run power than Bonds at the same age; he started hitting a lot more home runs at 35, partly due to changes in his environment. Ted Williams’s greatest power seasons came after he was 35; Willie Mays hit 52 home runs at 34.
That’s because ballplayers, as they age, put on weight, begin to lose their reflexes, and focus more on power. Look at Frank Thomas – he can barely hit .200 anymore, but he draws his walks and can still hit a home run every 10 at-bats. Great hitters see their power increase as they get older; it’s everything else that goes by the wayside. Bonds would have been able to take advantage of that because he would have stayed on the field for more games than a player like Williams, who started from a less athletic base and didn’t have the benefit of training with Jerry Rice.
And a natural Bonds, it’s worth remembering, would probably have aged better and added more power than any other player in baseball history, not only because he was so great, nor just because of modern training, but because he had the greatest combination of speed and power the game has ever seen. It’s been shown many times over that the players who age the best are those who have both great speed and great power from a young age, because as they grow slower they still have more than enough speed and reflexes to play at an elite level, while the power they add just makes them all the more valuable.
Put all this together and it’s perfectly reasonable to think Bonds would have averaged something like 40 home runs a year from 1999 to 2005, entered this year right around 700, and gone on to pass Ruth. He would have been given immense credit for serving as a living reproof to the likes of Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, treated as a national hero, and vindicated in the end after years of being overlooked in favor of inferior players like Ken Griffey and Sammy Sosa. It’s a shame the way things worked out.