I am a fan of the San Francisco Giants. Have been since I was eleven and met Willie McCovey–a tale for another day. I am fully aware of the absurdity of being a fan of a professional sports team. I know I’m rooting for laundry. I don’t care. I’m also aware of the absurdity of a guy from Indiana living in Utah liking the team from San Francisco California, a city I have never lived in and have only visited a few times in my life.
My favorite player of all time was not Willie Mays, but the other Willie, McCovey. But in recent years, we Giants fans have had the pleasure of cheering for a man who was, I think, the greatest offensive force the game of baseball has ever seen: Barry Lamar Bonds. That description, some would say, encompasses both meanings of the word ‘offensive’.
When I was a kid, the baseball statistics that defined hitting greatness were the Triple Crown stats: batting average, home runs, runs batted in. And Barry hit more home runs than anyone in the history of the game. But we live in a Moneyball world of advanced statistical understanding, a world of FIP and BABIP and WAR. I’m a nerdy enough fan to be into that world, but bad enough at math to understand the new numbers imperfectly. But take one stat: OPS. It’s easy to calculate–add on-base percentage to slugging percentage. The two central skills for a hitter are a) getting on base, and b) hitting for power–knocking in other guys who are on base. Okay, so here are the norms: a guy with an OPS of around .720 is an average major league hitter. .800’s a good hitter. .900’s a star. Put up an OPS of 1.000, and you’ll be the most valuable player in the league. An OPS of 1.000 is amazing. It requires an on-base percentage of .400 (phenomenal) and a slugging percentage of .600 (phenomenal.) Only one player in all of baseball had an OPS over 1.000 last year, Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers at 1.033.
Barry Bonds’ OPS was over 1.000 fourteen years in a row. From 2000-2004, his OPS was 1.127, 1.379, 1.389, 1.278, and 1.422.
1.422. I know I know I know. Boring. Buncha boring numbers. It’s just. . . nobody does that. Everything in baseball favors the pitcher. The hardest feat in all of sports is hitting a baseball. Great hitters, even superstar great hitters, fail more than they succeed. A great hitter gets on base 40% of the time. Barry was on base 60% of the time. Put it this way: he was the only hitter in the history of baseball to succeed more than he failed, and he did it five years in a row, the last time being when he was 39 years old.
We also all know why. He cheated. He used steroids. He was a cheat. A lying cheating cheater cheat.
Okay, but, so. Barry Bonds didn’t do anything the way you were ‘supposed to.’ He choked up on the bat, for example. Great hitters have their hands way at the end of the bat, right by the knob. Choking up on it–moving your hands up a few inches from the knob, gives you a little better bat control, but you don’t hit the ball as hard. Barry is the only guy in baseball who could choke up and still hit 40 home runs a year. Or, one year, 73. In a bad ballpark for home runs.
You’re supposed to ‘hustle.’ Barry didn’t. He played left field; if a guy on the other team hits a single to left, the fielder is supposed to run as hard as he can to the ball, throw it back to the infield quickly, to prevent runners from advancing. If the game was close, Barry would do that. If it wasn’t close, he wouldn’t bother. Barry was fast, but he hardly ever ran fast, unless the game situation required it.
Ballplayers are supposed to stretch before games. Barry didn’t. They’re supposed to put team first. Barry didn’t–he sort of famously took over three lockers in the locker room and installed a huge easy chair for himself in front of two of them.
He was focused on one thing. He wanted to become the greatest hitter in the history of baseball. He didn’t hustle, because running hard can result in injuries. He needed an easy chair, because he was basically always on base, so needed to relax after games.
So did he use steroids? Of course he did. Everything about the man revolved around his single-minded pursuit of one goal, achieving absolute greatness as a professional baseball hitter. During the off-season, he trained fanatically, with the training staff at BALCO devising specific exercises designed for him alone. Other players, invited to train with him, tended to drop out after a few days–couldn’t take the workload. Did BALCO include steroids as part of that training? Sure. Of course. He testified that he didn’t know about it, that when they rubbed his body with ‘the clear’ and ‘the cream’, he didn’t know they were steroid based, that he thought the shots he was being injected with were vitamins. Did he know? Did he lie? Probably. I’m not sure he cared if they were breaking the law. He was getting stronger, he was hitting better than anyone ever. Who cares why?
Was there a rule against it? That’s an interesting question, actually, as the rules in baseball governing steroid use were vaguely worded and barely enforced. There was surely an unwritten rule against it, but Barry Bonds never paid any attention to unwritten rules, and hardly any attention to written ones. He had one goal. He half-killed himself to achieve it.
I think now we know what the top end is. What is the absolute limit, what is the ceiling, what is the ne plus ultra? Setting aside all extraneous considerations, including laws governing controlled substances, including culture and whatever morality attaches to considerations of fair play, what becomes possible, what are the final limitations of human musculature and human will. In baseball, we know the answer. It’s Barry Bonds.
Was he, is he, a bad person? In some respects, you’d kind of have to say yes. He cheated on his wife, and he may have abused her. He was obnoxious to the press, and a distant and unapproachable teammate. He also did a lot of work with youth groups, out of the public eye. Clubhouse staff liked him. The ball girls on the team thought he was an awesome big brother figure. He was, as we all are, a complex person. He’s exceptionally bright, and a bit contemptuous of what passed for conventional wisdom. If professional athletes live unreal lives of entitlement and privilege, Barry was entitlement and privilege squared, because he wasn’t just a rich ballplayer, he was the son of a rich ballplayer. His father, Bobby Bonds, was a great player too. Barry’s godfather is Willie Mays. He was literally raised in a locker room. So maybe that helps explain his personality a bit.
But :I can say this. I saw him play, and he was incredible. There’s never been anything like it, the sheer domination he had over the game of baseball. If he doesn’t make it into the Hall of Fame–and he might not, because of the steroids–well, that would diminish the Hall, not Barry’s legacy. When my grandchildren look at the numbers in awe, I can tell them, you shoulda seen him. I did, I was there, and he was something else again.