Search

Pushing 70 With the greatest slugging in recent memory, the Giants' remarkably efficient Barry Bonds was primed to break Big Mac's record

Oct. 08, 2001
Oct. 08, 2001

Table of Contents
Oct. 8, 2001

Catching Up With...
NHL 2001-02 Preview

Pushing 70 With the greatest slugging in recent memory, the Giants' remarkably efficient Barry Bonds was primed to break Big Mac's record

The tableau on Sunday at Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco was
too familiar. Wasn't it only yesterday that the commissioner of
baseball had sat in a field-side box to witness a revision of
the home run record, while fans (albeit not in neoprene wet
suits and not brandishing plastic paddles) jockeyed for the
specially marked prize baseball? Baseball history is rewritten
quickly these days--to be exact, it happens every 12.4
strobelike flashes of Barry Bonds's two-toned maple bat.

This is an article from the Oct. 8, 2001 issue Original Layout

Through Sunday, Bonds, the San Francisco Giants' leftfielder,
had averaged one home run every 12.4 swings this season while
having hit 69 balls over the fence. (The major league home run
champion last year, Sammy Sosa, hit a home run every 12.1 at
bats.) Every 12.4 swings Bonds rendered the single-season-record
70 home runs by Mark McGwire, set a mere three years ago, a
little less awesome. Every 12.4 swings Bonds took an eraser to
the records of some of the greatest names in baseball
history--Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby, Hank Aaron,
McGwire. Every 12.4 swings Bonds added luster to what may be the
best season ever by anyone other than Ruth. "We have never seen
a season like this in our lifetime," says Ned Colletti, the
Giants' assistant general manager, "and we probably never will
again."

Take as a case study San Francisco's series last weekend against
the San Diego Padres. Bonds entered the three-game set with 67
home runs. He came to bat 13 times. The Padres threw him 51
pitches. Bonds looked at 41 of them, most of them closer to
Calaveras County than the strike zone. Given 10 swings, he
crushed two mammoth home runs, leaving him six games to hit two
homers and break McGwire's record.

According to Stats, Inc. (chart, page 43), Bonds took 210 fewer
swings (854 through Sunday) to hit his 69 homers than McGwire
did (1,064) to hit 70 in 1998. So brutally efficient had been
Bonds that he'd flipped the traditional odds that favor
pitchers. With a .505 on-base percentage, he was more likely to
reach base than he was to be put out. Only four men in the past
100 years have accomplished that in a season: Hornsby, Ruth,
Williams and Mickey Mantle. Pitchers so dreaded even tempting
Bonds that they'd walked him in 26.1% of his plate appearances,
a pace that, if maintained in the final six games, would break
the record of 25.9% set by Williams in '54.

At week's end, heading into a three-game series against the
Astros that began Tuesday night at Houston's Enron Field, the
37-year-old Bonds had smashed or was threatening a slew of
records (chart, page 41), including Aaron's mark of 47 home runs
at age 37 or older (a record Bonds broke in early August)."I'm
in total amazement," says San Francisco shortstop Rich Aurilia.
"He won't see a strike for four at bats, then on the 13th pitch
he'll get something to hit, and he won't miss it."

Barrel-chested and thick-necked--his batting helmet seems tiny,
like a cork about to blow off a champagne bottle--the 6'2",
228-pound Bonds cuts an intimidating figure while staring down
pitch after pitch. When he sees something he likes, watch out!
Though as of Sunday he'd swung at only 34.5% of the pitches
thrown to him this season, Bonds said last Friday, "I never
anticipate that they're not going to throw me a strike. Be ready
to hit regardless, even if you know they're not going to pitch
to you."

Says Arizona Diamondbacks righthander Curt Schilling, a 21-game
winner who served up home runs 23, 43 and 44 to Bonds, "I
haven't seen him miss a pitch this year. The only thing I can
compare him to is Matt Williams in '94. [Williams had 43 homers
and 96 RBIs that year for the Giants, whose season was shortened
to 115 games by the players' strike.] I felt Matt could sit the
whole game waiting for one pitch, and when he got that pitch, he
hit it out. Barry is the same, but I don't think it's one pitch.
There are multiple pitches he can hit out. What's more amazing
is that so many teams pitch around him, you would assume he
mentally would get behind the 8 ball. He hasn't done that, which
is a further testament to how great a hitter he is."

Schilling had been the only pitcher to yield three home runs to
Bonds this year until last Friday night, when Padres rookie
righthander Jason Middlebrook joined him by mistakenly grooving
a 3-and-0 fastball. Bonds has homered in each of his three at
bats against Middlebrook, who said after Friday's game, "I threw
him a couple of good sliders, and he didn't even lift his bat
for them. From what I can see, he never tips his hand. With most
hitters, you pick up hints by the way they approach some
pitches. You never see him late on a fastball, as if he was
looking off-speed. You never see him out front on an off-speed
pitch, as if he was looking for a fastball. Sometimes you know
if a hitter is looking in or looking away. With him? Nothing. He
gives away nothing."

The longer a hitter can wait for a pitch, the more time he has
to recognize it--not only the type of pitch, but also its track
and speed. Bonds's hands are so fast and his swing so compact
that he has more time than most hitters to take those crucial
mental measurements. "He and Alex Rodriguez let the ball get
deep on them, more so than any hitters I've faced," Schilling
says. "They react quicker than most other people."

Bonds's pursuit of the home run record wasn't so much a chase as
it was a countdown. In September he never went more than two
games without a home run. Never did he drop even a hint of a
slump, which may be why Aurilia said on Friday, "Over the last
week or so I've noticed he's been very relaxed, very confident.
I think that's because he's beginning to see he can do it."

So relaxed was Bonds that he spent the afternoon of Sept. 26,
before the last game of a series in Los Angeles, napping at the
house of Dodgers leftfielder Gary Sheffield following a
home-cooked lunch of shish kebab and collard greens. He did not
add to his 67 home runs that night but did contribute to a 6-4
San Francisco victory. He drew three walks from three Los
Angeles pitchers, the last one, in the ninth inning, setting him
up to score the game-winning run.

Bonds's mood darkened the next day, last Thursday, an off day
for the Giants. His friend and bodyguard for 12 years, Franklin
Bradley, died unexpectedly because of complications during
abdominal surgery intended to help him lose weight. Bradley, 37,
was a mammoth man who was to be married in the coming weeks.
Bonds had paid for the surgery. In a rare moment of
self-revelation Bonds broke down at a routine news conference
the next evening at Pac Bell Park. The news conference had
trudged along with Bonds's usual feints and dismissals of
questions until a reporter asked him about keeping his focus.

"One of my friends...I lost yesterday," he stammered, before
losing his composure as his eyes welled with tears. A bit later
he added, "Every time I have the opportunity to exhale or
breathe, whatever you want to call it, something has come up
that has been difficult for me. I had a very disappointing
article that came out, what happened with the [Sept. 11] tragedy
and some other issues, and I lose one of my best friends
yesterday. Every time I want to enjoy it for a minute, something
else happens. When I really want to give you guys the story I
want, it seems like I just can't. I haven't had time."

This was Bonds out of armor, having laid down the arrogance and
condescension he has smithed into his sword and shield. It was
probably his most heartfelt public moment as a baseball player.
If that wasn't it, then surely the second inning of that night's
game provided it.

Bonds looked at each of the first eight pitches he saw from
Middlebrook, drawing a five-pitch walk in the first inning and
going to that 3-and-0 count in the second. With every pitch you
sensed Bonds was baiting poor Middlebrook, drawing him closer
and closer into his crosshairs. Look, look, look, look, look,
look, look, look...pow! When Bonds finally unloosed his swing,
there was a flash of his bat, and the baseball was gone, 16 rows
up in the centerfield bleachers, 438 feet away. Number 68. This
one was for Franklin. As Bonds crossed home plate, he glanced
heavenward and thrust his fists high over his head. He sat in
the dugout and began to weep. The tears came for a minute, maybe
two. He dabbed at his eyes with the sweatband on his right
wrist, and then with the back of his batting glove on his right
hand. "It felt good to be able to do something for him," Bonds
said.

The armor was back in place on Saturday. San Francisco second
baseman Jeff Kent, who has tweaked Bonds for his
self-centeredness, walloped a game-tying home run in the fourth
inning, canceling out his failure to turn a double play in the
first inning that had allowed San Diego to score a run. The
Giants, with the exception of one, rose to greet Kent as he
returned to the dugout. Bonds didn't get up from his padded
seat. "It's no surprise," one teammate said. "Everybody else was
excited because it was a big hit and we felt good for Jeff.
Barry's a beauty. He's in his own world. It's not new."

Two innings later, a walk and a fly-out behind him, Bonds
stepped into the batter's box against Chuck McElroy, a
lefthander who had held Bonds to two hits in 32 at bats. Bonds
was wielding a new maple bat, as he had after each dinger since
the 500th of his career on April 17. He'd signed and numbered
each of these home run bats for possible future sale, according
to his agent, Scott Boras, who says endorsement deals for a
cereal and a theme park already are in place, pending a 71st
home run.

Beyond the rightfield wall a tiny flotilla of nonmotorized
watercraft, including rafts, kayaks and surfboards, bobbed
expectantly in the chilly waters of McCovey Cove. Kevin
Hallinan, Major League Baseball's senior vice president of
security and facility management, surveyed this scene. Three
years ago the frenzy over McGwire and Sosa home run balls
prompted Hallinan to devise a tagging system to authenticate
these winning lottery tickets falling out of the sky. The
baseballs used for their at bats were sequentially numbered in
black ink above the Rawlings logo. They also were marked with a
unique design that could only be viewed under ultraviolet light.
To make sure the design didn't wash off, Hallinan conducted
tests in which he dunked baseballs in beer and in water. "Who
could know that three years later we'd have baseballs splashing
into McCovey Cove?" he said.

McElroy threw three pitches with specially marked ball number
22, and Bonds looked at them all--a ball, a strike and a ball.
The fourth, an inside fastball, was the call to action. Bonds
connected with a remarkably loud thwack! The ball climbed over
the rightfield wall and toward the cove. As it did, four people
tossed red-herring baseballs into the water. A kayaker dove into
the drink and grabbed the real one. Home run number 69.

By Sunday, in anticipation of 70, the flotilla had swelled into
a multicolored armada so tightly packed that a baseball would
have had almost no room to hit water. Bonds came up dry anyway.
The sellout crowd of 41,669 on land, including shirtsleeved
commissioner Bud Selig, saw Bonds take only one cut all day,
resulting in a groundout. The other 10 pitches thrown his way
were balls, including one that dinked off the protective plastic
wrap on his right elbow.

Not once for Bonds's four cracks at 70 did the Pac Bell fans
bother to stand during his at bats, in keeping with the
been-there, done-that feel to the home-run-record sequel. The
media pack covering Bonds, about 350, was half the number that
showed for McGwire in 1998. Perhaps 70, or even 71, home runs,
like space-shuttle launches, have lost some of their power to
amaze. With Bonds, though, the wonder isn't in how many but in
how. Only those who had witnessed the Babe at his best had seen
anything quite like it.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN IACONO COVER Smashing! Home runs are only part of Barry Bonds's record-busting seasonCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH ZEROED IN Bonds tattooed the clueless Middlebrook for homers 65, 66 (left) and, on a 3-and-0 fastball, 68.COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER BULKIER THAN THE BUC The bigger Bonds of today (right) can generate a lot more pop than Pittsburgh's 1986 rookie model.COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO HOMER HEAVEN Round-tripper number 69, off McElroy last Saturday, prompted what has become Bonds's routine postdinger salute.

King of Swing

Among the most remarkable aspects of Barry Bonds's season is how
he has made his cuts count. Through Sunday, Bonds had virtually
matched Mark McGwire's record 70 homers in 1998, despite having
taken 210 fewer swings. Here's how Bonds's economical approach
at the plate--measured in swings per dinger--compares with the
free-swinging, 60-plus homer seasons of McGwire and Sammy Sosa,
plus Sosa's 2001 output (59).

SWINGS
PLAYER, YEAR PITCHES SWINGS PCT. SWINGS HR PER HR

Barry Bonds, 2001 2,479 854 34.5 69 12.4
Mark McGwire, 1998 2,692 1,064 39.5 70 15.2
Mark McGwire, 1999 2,454 1,052 42.9 65 16.2
Sammy Sosa, 1998 2,875 1,332 46.3 66 20.2
Sammy Sosa, 2001 2,630 1,225 46.6 59 20.8
Sammy Sosa, 1999 2,861 1,363 47.6 63 21.6

SOURCE: STATS, INC.