Bobby Bonds, who died Saturday at 57, was never appreciated as much as he should have been. It’s an oft-told tale that upon joining the Giants outfield in 1968 Bonds was declared the next Willie Mays, who played one position over in center field. Bonds had a fine career, but he never lived up to the tag. Neither did any of the other toolsy young black outfielders who were hung with it in the ’60s and ’70s. Who could have?
His son could have. Barry Bonds is on bereavement leave following his father’s death, which means an interruption in the argument he’s been making these last few years that he is not just as good as Mays was, he may be better. Better than everyone else too. Ever.
Now would be a good time to stop and savor that argument.
Barry Bonds has never been appreciated as much as he should have been either. He’s never had to fight a “next Mays” label. There were the obvious comparisons to dad, but it didn’t take long for Barry to establish that he was a better player than Bobby had been, which is no knock on Bobby.
But Barry Bonds is a famously difficult guy, unfriendly to the media, not accommodating to the fans or, more importantly, the fans’ idea of what a superstar should be. Though he’s been a horse, usually playing in 150 or more games, fans have long perceived Bonds as dogging it because he didn’t always run hard. His poor postseason performances before last season earned him a reputation as a poor clutch player, a guy who puts up big numbers but wilts when the game is on the line. I confess I have been guilty of thinking that way myself. And he has always had a knack for saying exactly what fans don’t want to hear, whether it’s a failure to be sufficiently aw-shucks humble or an off-hand comment putting down Babe Ruth.
When he broke the single-season home run record two years ago by hitting 73, that record was only 3 years old. There wasn’t the same feeling of watching a once-in-a-lifetime event that had permeated the 1998 season, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa raced to break Roger Maris’ 37-year-old mark. Instead there was talk of steroid abuse and juiced baseballs.
In the two years since, as Bonds has continued to perform at jaw-dropping levels, leading the Giants to the National League pennant last year and to what looks like it’ll be at least an easy win in the N.L. West this year, I think we’ve started to take him for granted. Yeah, Barry Bonds, we think. Don’t pitch to him. The Braves pitched to him twice last week with the game on the line and he beat them with home runs both times. Most of the talk I heard afterwards was about the Braves. Why’d they pitch to him? Why didn’t they bring in John Smoltz?
Folks, for the last three years, Barry Bonds has pretty much done whatever he’s wanted to at the plate. That just doesn’t happen in baseball. Every once in a while a good hitter will get so dialed in, as baseball people say, that for a few games it seems that he can do no wrong, miss no pitch. But it goes away. Bonds has been in that kind of groove for the last 18 months of play.
When something astounding goes on for long enough we cease to be astounded. We don’t sit in a 747 and go, “I am sitting in an aluminum can as big as a building! And flying five miles up in the air! At 500 miles per hour! Holy crap!” After three seasons in which Bonds has taken an already Cooperstown-worthy career and cranked it up about 12 notches, we’re not astounded anymore, but we should be. We should be appreciating what we have here, which is the chance to be astounded daily. Bonds is 39. This will all be over before we know it.
This is the part where I could throw a bunch of numbers at you, but I won’t bore you with them. If you don’t already know the Barry Bonds numbers and what they mean then you won’t get anything out of them now. But let me just show you one number that I think illustrates the problem.
Braves reliever Trey Hodges, who gave up the second of those two game-winning homers to Bonds last week, said afterward, “To be honest, I’m in shock.” Hodges is a 25-year-old right-hander who at the time he spoke had worked all of 67 innings in the big leagues. He must have been the one person in the world who was shocked that this Bonds character might hit one out against him, but that’s not the number I want to talk about.
“He’s doing some amazing things,” Hodges continued. “There’s still a 70 percent chance he’s going to get out, but apparently he’s pretty good in that situation.”
To be honest I don’t know what situation Hodges meant other than “when a mediocre reliever throws him a fat pitch with the game on the line.” But there’s the number I want to talk about: 70 percent. That’s an old baseball saw, that even the best hitters fail 70 percent of the time, since a .300 batting average is a benchmark for success.
Well, counting walks as successful at-bats, Bonds fails 54 percent of the time that he’s pitched to, not 70 percent. That’s a big difference. If you throw in his intentional walks, his failure rate drops to 48 percent. Hitting is the hardest thing in sports to do, Ted Williams always said, and here’s a guy who succeeds more often than he fails. And he doesn’t exactly succeed by bunting his way aboard. He leads the league in home runs again. It seems that even his peers, guys like Hodges, don’t get it.
Now that we can’t knock Barry Bonds for not being whatever it is we want him to be, we’ve managed to get so used to his greatness that we damn him with faint praise by merely talking about him in the same way we talk about everybody else. Seventy percent, my ear.
Bobby Bonds had 21st century skills in the mid-20th century. He had leadoff speed and middle of the order power, and he played a pretty mean right field. He was underappreciated because he wasn’t Willie Mays and because his particular combination of talents was undervalued in his era, but three years ago Bill James rated him the 15th best right fielder of all time. He was just about as good a player as you can be without being a Hall of Fame-type player. And his proudest accomplishment, he told Sports Illustrated once, was that he had become known as Barry Bonds’ father.
If that means anything to you, or if his valiant, 18-month fight against ravaging illness tugs at you at all, take a minute while his son is away from the game for a few days and recognize how lucky you are to be around for the Barry Bonds era. That would be a pretty good tribute to the old man, for someone in his family to finally get a full helping of props.
- – - – - – - – - – - -
Bookmark http://www.salon.com/sports to get the new Kaufman column every day. Send an e-mail to King Kaufman. Because of a computer meltdown, the Sports Daily Newsletter will not be sent out this week.