Dave's Sports Views

Analysis, humor and opinion on the sports world

Location: Dallas, Texas, United States

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Barry Bonds' victory lap

Barry Bonds will play his final major league season this year, he told USA TODAY this weekend. He says his pursuit of the all-time home run record won't enter into the equation -- that he'll retire whether or not he hits the 48 homers needed to pass Hank Aaron's total of 755.

If you read the article, you'll see the classic Bonds grousing on display. The man airs more grievances than Frank Costanza at Festivus. This time it's the fact that the game isn't fun anymore and that he's apparently taking handfuls of pain pills and sleeping pills to get through his days and nights. (Anyone who doesn't see the irony in that last admission isn't trying hard enough.)

In any case, though Bonds won't win any awards for congeniality, he has won just about everything else that baseball offers a hitter. He has won seven Most Valuable Player awards, four more than anyone else in league history and more than any athlete in one of the four major sports except for Wayne Gretzky (nine).

He's led the league in batting twice, home runs twice and RBIs once. He has eight Gold Gloves and 13 All-Star Game appearances, and he's sure to increase that last number if he's healthy this year. He has turned the chic new stat of OBP (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) into his own personal trademark, blending his power with a patience and batting eye that only look better when opposing pitchers are afraid to throw him a strike. Bonds broke the major league record for walks in 2001 (177), then broke it again the next year (198), then shattered it once more in 2004 (232).

Last year he missed all but 14 games due to knee ailments, but his five homers in those games showed he still can hit a baseball a long way. Despite the fact that he's only hit 48 homers or more in a season twice, if healthy he's at least a 50-50 shot to break Aaron's record.

Many baseball fans won't be rooting for Bonds, for two big reasons: One is the aforementioned petulance he displays so often in public, and the other, more ominous reason is the veil of suspicion that Bonds' performance this decade has been helped by steroids. A slender, elegant player in his 20s, Bonds has added bulk in his later years that have driven up his power numbers significantly. Yet aside from a grand jury admission that he received two substances believed to be "the cream" and "the clear," he's in a legal sense free of guilt.

The more homers Bonds hits this year, the more time will be spent on the morality of him breaking the most hallowed record in sports. (Ironically, it was for altogether different and far more sinister reasons that many baseball fans were rooting against Aaron to break Babe Ruth's
record in 1974).

And if Bonds' chase turns into a discussion of his merits, it will be a shame. Because Bonds is one of the best players ever to pick up a bat and glove and play in the major leagues. Like his father, Bobby, Barry Bonds had a rare combination of power and speed long before suspicions of steroids ever entered into the discourse of the sport. He lifted the Pittsburgh Pirates to three straight division titles in the early 90s, then went to San Francisco in 1993 and had one of the greatest seasons ever (.336-46 HR-123 RBI-29 steals-126 walks) for a team that lost the division by one game. Save last season, he has hit fewer than 24 homers only twice. He has stolen 28 bases or more 12 times. His defense in left field was outstanding for many years.

Had he stopped playing in 2000, the year before he hit 73 homers, he would still have retired with more than 400 homers, nearly 500 steals, a career average around .280, three MVP awards and all those Gold Gloves. He would have been Hall of Fame material, and no one would care about the results of his drug tests.

The four seasons between 2001 and 2004 lofted him into the category of Ruth, Mays, Aaron and Ted Williams, and have at times made his critics want to put him into a group with Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, counting those who have stained the game. We can't have it both ways. The magnificent numbers of those four years will always be given an asterisk in the minds of many.

Which is also why, again, it would be a shame to see his final season be about Barry's pharmaceutical history and not his baseball legacy. We have no doubt seen one of the game's singular talents over the past 20 seasons. We'll have five years to weigh his character against his numbers, and to question or drudge up new evidence of how valid those numbers might be, as voters prepare to cast their Hall of Fame ballots.

For 2006, let's just enjoy him for who he is -- an all-time baseball great. And if Aaron's record falls, let's at least treat Bonds with more dignity than Aaron received when he passed the Babe.



Blogger Dave Jackson said...

Unless, of course, he comes back in 2007, as he told MLB.com.



8:20 AM  

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