Did I miss something, or did Barry Bonds just have the greatest season in baseball history? Or did Barry Bonds just have the greatest season in baseball history and you missed it?
Let's not blame this on the WTC attack and the war -- the media was pretty much asleep on this one all season. And besides, in the wake of tragedy, weren't we subjected to a wash of sickly "sports as healing influences" stories? Shouldn't Bonds' achievement have been picked up on then, perhaps in the same way as Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak was a national concern as America braced for war in 1941?
A few did try to make Bonds more of a story and flopped. Harry Edwards, for instance, told CBS News that "Every time Barry Bonds steps up there and hits a home run he's saying, 'We will not only survive, we will dominate -- we will prevail.'" Which has got to be about the silliest thing Harry Edwards has ever said, the evidence being slight that our enemies exhibited fear when Barry Bonds came to bat. Nor was there any evidence that Americans mourning the death of thousands took much solace from the slugger's assault on Mark McGwire's record.
Nor should we have. The ink was scarcely dry on the ocean of "The events of Sept. 11 have certainly put sports heroism in perspective" articles before the second wave of equally fallacious "We need sports to help us remember why we're great" stories began to wash in. In the space of three weeks pitching complete games and throwing TD passes went from meaningful to irrelevant to practically patriotic.
This is not what I'm talking about; I'm not concerned, for the time being, with the sociological and political implications of Barry Bonds' achievement. What I'm talking about is simply sports. All season long Bonds gave notice that he was delivering perhaps the greatest season of any major league ballplayer in more than a century, probably ever, and only in the final couple of weeks did the sports media choose to give him their full attention.
First, let me make a case in support of my contention. It doesn't even have to do directly with Bonds' record-shattering 73 home runs. It would be equally true if, say, Bonds had hit maybe 55 home runs and about 70 doubles (he had 32), or if he had fewer extra base hits and maybe about 50 more points on his batting average. (He ended up hitting .328.) It doesn't really matter how you distribute it; the point is how many runs you produce, or more precisely how many runs you create the opportunities for (there being only so much any hitter can do to actually produce the runs).
Baseball analysts have long known that the most important statistics for analyzing hitting effectiveness are slugging percentage (the number of total bases a hitter accumulates with his hits, thus measuring his ability to drive in runs) and on-base average, which includes hits and walks and which measures a hitter's ability to produce runs by reaching base. Some analysts add the two; some, like me, believe that multiplying brings out a more accurate picture, as a team's total will almost always correspond to the actual number of runs it actually scores.
Anyway, the all-time high for what I call S.L.O.B. (slugging times on base) is Babe Ruth in 1920, at 45.06 runs per 100 at bats (Babe had an .847 slugging average and a ridiculous .532 on-base average). The second best, before this year, was Ted Williams in 1941 (the year he hit .406), at 40.49 (that's a .735 slugging average and a truly absurd .551 OBA).
Well, this year Barry Bonds was 44.44. His OBA was .515; his slugging average, .863, was the highest in Major League history. So, by this stat, the best one I've ever seen for measuring hitting effectiveness, Babe Ruth, in 1920, was "worth" or "created" .5 more runs per 100 at bats than Barry Bonds this season. But that's not the whole story. What about the other components of the game? In 1920, Ruth stole 17 bases out of 30 attempts; I think that actually cost his team a few runs. This year, Bonds was 13 for 16 attempts, which probably created two or three extra runs for his team. I think that alone puts Bonds over the top, but what about defense? Ruth has been given the reputation of a fine outfielder, but not in 1920. That year Ruth fielded a lousy .932, 30 points below the league average, made 19 errors and averaged just 2.02 fly balls a game to the league's average of 2.26. Perennial Gold Glover Bonds fielded .977 this year. When they add this all up, I'm telling you, Bonds will have outstripped Ruth.
And you know what? They're not going to give him the MVP award. That's right; remember I said it. You could see it coming a month before the season's end. First, the New York Times ran a story a couple of weeks ago in which the argument was made that Bonds was better "protected" in the batting order than Sammy Sosa. I hate that argument, because "protected" is one of those subjective evaluations entirely in the eye of the beholder. (I've never understood why a great hitter has to be protected anyway; I thought great hitters gave protection.) Then, Tom Boswell, of all people, argued in the Washington Post that Sosa should get the nod because of superior RBI production. Boswell is one of the first progressive baseball columnists, one of the first to make wise use of stats in building his arguments. He pioneered his own hitting stat, "total average," which is fairly close to S.L.O.B. and which reveals Bonds to have a big lead over Sosa this past season. Boswell knows as well as anyone that you can't use RBIs as a barometer, because the variation in opportunities is too great from team to team, but now, after years of sensible argument on the subject, he goes irrational and argues against the man who had, by his own figuring, perhaps the best season of any hitter in baseball history.
What's going on? Part of the problem, we should all admit, is Barry Bonds himself, who is seen as a poor ambassador for baseball. Another is that Bonds' season is widely regarded as a fluke. And it is. For a 37-year-old who had never hit 50 home runs before to set a record like this, and by such a margin, is truly a strange development. I don't know what suddenly turned Barry Bonds into the greatest one-year power hitter in baseball history; if you had asked me for a list before the season of 15 players likely to set such a record, Barry Bonds would not have been on it. Well, no matter; it happened, it's not likely ever to happen again and when it happened the sports media, by and large, treated it as something that should be covered only as an obligation. And so, years from now, when real fans ask, "Where were you on Friday, Oct. 5, 2001?" the likely reply will be "What happened then?"