The greatness of Barry Bonds

Sure, he's totally unlovable, but the San Francisco Giants superstar is still the best player in the National League, and maybe the best in baseball.

Topics: Baseball, San Francisco,

Word is trickling out of the West Coast that Barry Bonds has been making an effort this season to be a nicer person. And guess what: His team is in first place. Somewhere, Leo Durocher is spinning in his grave.

Maybe, in his 15th season, Bonds has started to give some thought to his legacy. It’s about time. Barry Bonds was, you should know, the greatest baseball player of the ’90s. Any poll that fails to credit him as such is simply bogus.

Most people who have been around him for this period would also put him at the top of a couple of other lists: Biggest Jerk In Baseball and Least Loved Superstar. No defense for the San Francisco Giants left fielder in these last two categories will be attempted. I don’t know Bonds and have never spent any time around him. I’m content to go with the opinion of people who know him best. On the first count, however, I have a few things to say.

Barry Bonds is, possibly, still the best all-around player in baseball, an unofficial title that he merited from the end of the ’80s to perhaps a couple of seasons ago, when he might have been overtaken by the Seattle Mariners’ Alex Rodriguez. Maybe. He remains the best player in the National League. He is one of the 20 best players of all time. I’m going to do a detailed study of this in the offseason, and when I do I suspect I’ll rank Bonds even higher; maybe in the top 15, or even top 12.

A surprising number of sportswriters of my generation would pick Ken Griffey Jr. over him, but Bonds is better. As we wind down the 2000 season, Griffey has a big edge in career home runs with 438 in 6,352 at-bats; Bonds has taken more than 1,000 more at-bats to hit just 55 more. That’s where the comparison ends, though. They have identical slugging percentages, so that takes care of the home run argument. Griffey’s batting average is seven points higher, but by the time he has played 15 seasons they’ll probably be about even. (Griffey has now failed to hit over .300 in his last three seasons.)

Batting average is irrelevant in any case since Bonds’ on-base average is a whopping 32 points higher than Griffey’s. He has also stolen a whopping 298 more bases. Simply put, Bonds has produced more runs using up far fewer outs than Griffey. In the field, it’s a tossup, with Griffey winning several Gold Gloves and a rep as one of the best center fielders in the game today, while Bonds, in the less important position of left field, also the winner of numerous Gold Gloves, is regarded by some as the best left fielder ever.



Bonds has a very good chance of winning this year’s National League Most Valuable Player award, and if he does so he will be the first player in history to win the award four times. (I’d vote for the Mets’ Mike Piazza, but I’m not going to the barricades against a vote for Bonds.) Willie Mays, Bonds’ godfather, regarded by many as the greatest all-around player of the last half century, won two MVP awards in 23 seasons. Hank Aaron, also regarded by some as the greatest all-around player of the last half century, won one MVP award in 24 seasons. If you’re keeping track, yes, that means Barry Bonds could well wind up with more MVP awards in 15 seasons than Willie Mays and Hank Aaron won in 47. That doesn’t mean that Bonds is the greatest ballplayer of the modern era. It also doesn’t mean he isn’t.

What I’m saying is that an argument could be made that Bonds is the greatest baseball player of all time. I myself would not make that argument, but I wouldn’t argue too hard against someone else who made it. Stripped down, the argument would go like this: If a guy can be called the best for any particular decade, there is a strong possibility that, conditions and opportunities being the same, he could be as good or better than anyone else at any time. Please don’t e-mail me with the holes in this argument. I’m already aware of them. What I’m saying is that if Bonds is good enough for this kind of case to be made for him — and the evidence certainly indicates that he is — then we shouldn’t be reluctant to acknowledge his greatness.

Why are so many people reluctant to do so? Well, for one thing, he really is a jerk. Or was, until he got nicer. He is, or has been, arrogant, selfish, insensitive to those around him (none of which, I confess, usually matters much to me) and largely indifferent to the history and traditions of baseball and his spectacular good fortune to be part of it (which really pisses me off). The truth is that if he was as decent as, say, Cal Ripken Jr. they’d probably be saying that he was as good as or better than Willie Mays.

There’s another reason: He hasn’t been given his due. He’s been terrible in the postseason. In 23 playoff games he has just 13 hits and one lousy home run, which in fact happens to be one hit and one home run more than Willie Mays hit in 19 World Series games. The point is not to denigrate Mays but to note that postseason baseball really isn’t a large enough sampling to tell us anything real about a player. Postseason failure is a criticism we as fans apply selectively to players we don’t like. We love Willie Mays so we’re willing to shrug and say, “What the heck, what can you tell from 20 games?”

Well, it looks like Barry Bonds is going to get another chance at the postseason. Soon, we may only be able to dislike him for being a jerk.

Allen Barra cowrote Marvin Miller's memoirs, A Whole Different Ballgame. His latest book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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