What Barry Bonds did wrong

He's the best player in baseball, but hitting 73 home runs at age 37 isn't just unnatural, it might be ruining the game.

Published March 29, 2002 12:24AM (EST)

In Alexander Cartwright's 1845 baseball rules, a ball hit over the fence in fair territory was considered a "foul ball" and counted as a strike. The idea was to put the ball in play; that's what clever baseballists did. By 1868, home runs were legal, but a prejudice against them still lingered among baseball's old guard. That same year, Henry Chadwick, creator of the modern box score, wrote that "Long hits are showy, but they do not pay off in the long run. Sharp grounders insuring the first-base certain"  i.e., a single  "and sometimes the second-base easily, are worth all the hits made for home-runs which players strive for."

Actually, I'm not so sure upon reflection that Chadwick was exhibiting a prejudice. God knows that a great many more outs were made by hitters over-swinging while attempting home runs than getting thrown out on the bases. Back then, baseballs simply didn't carry very far, and the gloves were more primitive than the guests on Jerry Springer. There was a real premium in putting the ball "in play"; your chances of reaching base even when you hit one directly at a fielder were pretty good. Nowadays, when even the worst fielders succeed 98 percent of the time, it may not matter whether a batter makes out by contact or strikeout.

I've always been a progressive as far as sports goes. I think a study of any sport supports the theory that what is new and daring is best for the sport. I think the forward pass saved the game of football. I think the 3-point shot added spice to basketball. And there is absolutely no question that the home run, starting with Babe Ruth, is central to the appeal of baseball. But now I think it would be progressive to do something to suppress the home run.

All through the second half of last season, I flogged the sports press for not giving Barry Bonds enough credit for his incredible season, the greatest in National League and quite possibly in Major League history. (On paper, the only season in baseball history that equals it is Babe Ruth's 1924 season.) But something was wrong with what Bonds did in 2001. I confess that I don't have a firm idea as to what it was, but something was wrong. By wrong, I'm not making a moral judgment; I mean that something was out of whack in the universe.

For at least the last 15 seasons, Barry Bonds has been the best player in baseball. That's not the issue. The issue is that Bonds turned 37 last July, and in no previous season had he ever hit so many as 50 home runs. In fact, in his entire career he only exceeded 42 home runs twice. In 15 previous major league seasons, Bonds had averaged 33 home runs per year, and then, all of a sudden, at an age when nearly every ballplayer experiences a sharp drop-off, he increased his average production by 221 percent.

Why? How? It wasn't Bonds' home park in San Francisco, or everybody would have hit more home runs there, and Bonds hit just one more home run at home than he did on the road. It couldn't have been that the ball was juiced, or why wouldn't several other hitters with as much or more power than Bonds have also hit over 70 home runs?

It might have been a combination of things, such as the whip-crack maple bats that Bonds uses, and the body armor he wears to protect his left elbow, which takes the fear out of crowding the plate and gives Bonds an enormous edge over the most intimidating of pitchers. (Note that the commissioner has clamped down on the use of body armor for hitters this season, but still allows Bonds to wear his.)

It's not, as I have maintained for years, the pitching. In fact, pitchers are probably more talented and versatile in our time than any other period in baseball history. They don't give up a greater number of hits -- a simple check of batting averages in the last few years shows a significant drop from the heyday of Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby -- and strikeouts are far more common in the modern game. The problem with pitchers today is the hitters today. Eighty or 70 or 60 years ago pitchers learned to bear down on the one or two big hitters in the lineup while taking it relatively easy on the rest. But a modern starting pitcher rarely faces a lineup in which every hitter isn't capable of hitting a home run.

It's not that the balls are going farther. If that was true, the legendary 500-foot blasts once hit by Jimmy Foxx and Mickey Mantle would today be traveling 700 or more feet off the bats of Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza. No, the big difference is that everyone in the lineup hits the ball over 400 feet. Increasingly, baseball has become a game of strikeouts, walks and home runs. Which means, quite simply, that the rest of the team is standing around much more waiting to get involved in the game. There are fewer batted balls put into play, and thus fewer great catches and plays at the plate. In other words, the action time of all other players in the game has been reduced while that of the pitcher and batter has been greatly increased.

At minimum, I think that's what's wrong with what Bonds did. Though I haven't heard many fans articulate this sentiment in quite this way, I honestly believe that that's what they're groping toward when they say that baseball "doesn't have enough action." The home run and the pitcher's chief weapon against it, the strikeout, make for many fewer plays in the field as compared to earlier times. This season, it seems as if all of baseball is rushing toward the use of these maple wood bats that Bonds has had such success with. Suppose the bats prove to be the major factor in Bonds' incredible home run surge last year -- is it not likely that a number of other players will experience the same sort of thing?

Let me toss this one at you: Suppose someone as good as Barry Bonds uses that kind of bat while playing half his games at Coors Field in Denver (where Bonds himself hit three home runs on Sept. 9)? Are 93 home runs out of the question? How about 100? I don't see why not. But is the kind of world we really want to live in?

I'd like to see more serious study on the increase in home runs and what it's doing to the balance of the game. By serious, I don't mean "What do you expect when everyone's batting against minor league pitchers?" I mean serious analysis and some thought to its effect on the game -- and if we can conclude that it's a problem, some thought about what might be done to counter it. I'd like to hear your suggestions. Write me at abarra@nac.net.

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As we go to press, I believe my colleague, King Kaufman, is picking Kansas to go all the way in the NCAA Tournament. King is a nice guy, but he fronted a rock band for years, and you can see what all that time standing too close to the amps did to his thought processes. I think it's obvious to everyone, as it's obvious to me, that the Oklahoma Sooners, who are 2-1 against Maryland and Kansas this year, are going to throttle Indiana and then take the winner of the Kansas-Maryland game by at least 4 points ... And I should have gotten to this a week earlier, but the cover story of the March 18 issue of U.S. News & World Report, "America's Best College Sports Programs," is one of the best and most comprehensive pieces of sports journalism I've read in years, and yet another example of the curious fact that, increasingly, the sports stories that take the greatest overviews are from outside the mainstream sports press.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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