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Several readers wrote to say they found it amusing that in his first game back after missing most of the season with a knee injury, Barry Bonds almost hit a home run in his first at-bat, settling for a double off the top of the left-center-field fence, then later hit a fly ball that would have been a homer in most parks but was an out in SBC Park’s vast right-center field.
What was amusing was what I left unsaid: If Bonds were still on steroids, that baby would have been gone!
I left it unsaid for the same reason I leave a lot of things unsaid: I didn’t think it was true.
I’ll let reader Tim Potter stand in for the small group — I’m probably making more of them than I should, but I love this subject — who expressed this sentiment:
“It’s funny that you say ‘Later in the game he hit a fly ball to deepest right-center that would have been a home run in most parks,’” he writes. “I say it’s funny because you miss the obvious point. In past years when Bonds was pumped full of steroids, that would have been a home run. He would have hit it 40 feet farther.
“But it is more of the typical fawning you display when writing about Bonds. Next thing we know you’ll be nominating him for this year’s MVP.”
Well, second point first, the Giants are undefeated with Bonds in the lineup.
But seriously, is this how we’re supposed to think about Barry Bonds for the rest of our lives? That without steroids, he’d have been nothing?
Just as I didn’t know that Bonds had taken steroids before his grand jury testimony was leaked, I don’t know now that he’s off them.
He was reportedly tested in September 2004 and May 2005, and while baseball takes its sweet time handing down suspensions, it presumably would have gotten around to doing so by now if Bonds had failed. But all a passed steroid test means is that Bonds isn’t taking anything the tests know how to turn up.
For all my fawning, I’m not giving Bonds the same benefit of the doubt that his critics seem to be giving him.
I also am going to guess that this benefit of the doubt will dry up as soon as Bonds hits his first homer. The difference between the presumption of current innocence or guilt for Bonds is those few inches by which his first fly ball failed to clear the fence. It’s absurd.
Let’s see if we can picture what Bonds would have been without steroids.
His radical home run surge began in 2001, when he hit 73, but let’s back up a year to 2000, when he also set a career high with 49, and call that the beginning of the late-career explosion that, along with his changed physique, sent steroid rumors into overdrive.
Maybe he was juicing before that, but that’s when he became the steroids poster boy.
Through 1999, Bonds’ age 34 season, he’d hit 445 homers, one every 19.6 plate appearances. Since then, he’s hit them at a ridiculous rate of one every 11.2 plate appearances to arrive at 703. But if he’d just continued his former pace, he’d have entered this season with 592 home runs, still in fourth place all time behind only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays.
But OK, I know. Without the juice, he’d have declined in those years, not continued hitting home runs at the same pace. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the most statistically similar player to Bonds through age 34 was Ken Griffey Jr. Since Griffey’s only 35, his late 30s haven’t happened yet, so let’s compare Bonds’ years from 35 on with those of the next most similar hitter, Frank Robinson.
Through age 34, which was 1970, Robinson had hit 475 home runs, one every 19.7 plate appearances, almost identical to Bonds. Do keep in mind that Robinson played in an era of depressed offense and Bonds in a high-scoring era, so Robinson’s home run output was more impressive, but that’s besides the point here.
Robinson played six more years. Two of them, 1971 with the Orioles and 1973 with the Angels, were pretty good. He was hurt some in 1972, with the Dodgers, and was only OK when healthy. He was also only OK, a declining slugger, in 1974, with the Angels and Indians. As a player-manager in 1975 and ’76, he played sparingly, with diminishing results.
All told, in that six-year period from age 35 on, Robinson hit 111 home runs, one every 21.5 plate appearances. Still pretty damn good, but a decline of about 9 percent from his output through age 34.
Let’s give Bonds a similar decline. Let’s knock him down 10 percent from one homer every 19.6 plate appearances and have him hit one every 21.6 from age 35 on. And let’s account for the idea that steroids kept him in the lineup, allowing him to collect, as of the start of this year, 490 more plate appearances after age 34 than Robinson did. We’ll take those away.
With Robinson’s 2,387 post-age-34 appearances and a home run every 21.6, Bonds would have hit 111 homers, just like Robinson did. That would have left him with 556. He’d have started the season ninth on the all-time home run list, seven behind Reggie Jackson, just ahead of Mike Schmidt and well in front of Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, Willie McCovey and Ted Williams.
Rafael Palmeiro, interestingly, would have passed him this year.
It’s hyperbole, if not revisionist history, to say that steroids added 40 feet to Bonds’ hits, to say that he would have been nothing without them. Homers don’t clear fences by 40 feet very often. Bonds wasn’t Duane Kuiper without the juice.
The thing about life is it’s not always so simple. We don’t know when Bonds was on and off steroids throughout his career, including now, and when he was on we don’t know how much they helped him. Maybe those few inches that his first drive missed by on Monday. Maybe more than that. Maybe not at all.
If we’re going to judge Barry Bonds, the player, we all have to decide for ourselves how much of a boost steroids gave him. I suspect that without the juice he would have been a lot more like what I just described, an aging slugger with a home run total in the mid-500s by now, than like the 700-plus man he is. Still a Hall of Fame player.
But that’s just my guess. Your guess might be different. But “banjo hitter who would have been out of baseball years ago” isn’t an educated guess.
Debating the relative value of different ballplayers over time is only a game, but it’s a great game. Dismissing the entire career of Bonds, or Palmeiro, or Jason Giambi, or anyone else who has ever used steroids doesn’t accomplish anything. Life’s more complicated than that. Deal with it.
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