On a pleasant summer night in San Francisco last Friday, Barry
Bonds did something the rest of us should try. No, hitting the
600th home run of a major league career is beyond the general
populace, not to mention all but three other ballplayers in
history. What's instructive is what Bonds did after he connected
with a fastball from Pittsburgh Pirates righthander Kip Wells.
Like De Kooning before a drying canvas, Bonds took a step back
and admired the majesty and magnitude of his work.
A Bonds home run typically leaves nothing to doubt from the
violent, noisy moment of contact. This one screamed for 421 feet
before landing among the centerfield loonies of Pacific Bell
Park. They clawed, pummeled and bloodied one another at the
chance to own the five-ounce piece of history, at least until it
could be sold to the highest bidder. And just as Bonds took a
long, steady view of the moment when he joined Hank Aaron, Babe
Ruth and Willie Mays in an exclusive fraternity, so do we need to
take a long view of his career.
We need to pause because Bonds is not only a late boomer, but
also a mostly unembraceable presence. He has, despite his
unsurpassed skills, engendered no simpatico emotions or even a
nickname. After blasting 73 home runs last year in one of the
greatest seasons of all time, Bonds finished third--third!--among
outfielders in fan balloting for the All-Star Game this year,
drawing less support than Ichiro or Sammy Sosa.
"People don't appreciate him," says teammate Shawon Dunston, an
18-year veteran. "We're playing with arguably the best ever, but
he won't get that recognition because people say he's not nice.
He's going to break [Aaron's] record. He's going to hit 800."
So step back and behold. On Friday night Bonds was again at that
jewel of a ballpark beside the shimmering waters of McCovey Cove.
He hit No. 500 there. He hit 71 there. He hit 600 there, as if
joining Hammerin' Hank, the Babe and the Say Hey Kid was another
return engagement on the tour, like Sinatra at the Mirage or
Springsteen at the Garden. You half expected the crowd not only
to cheer but also to flick cigarette lighters. "To be in that
select group is great," Bonds said after the game, "but nothing's
more satisfying than doing it in front of 40,000 fans in San
Perspective? Bonds is the only player who broke into the big
leagues in the past 47 years to hit 600 homers. If he plays
another four seasons with a modest decrease in production, the
38-year-old leftfielder might retire as the alltime leader in
home runs, extra-base hits, runs, walks and intentional walks (a
mark he already has). Explaining how he arrived at 600 is a
lesson in spontaneous combustion.
The alltime greats announce themselves early, like youthful
princes born to the throne. Ruth, Ted Williams, Mays, Mickey
Mantle all glowed with an unmistakable destiny from their first
moments as big leaguers. Outside this regal procession is Bonds,
the only man to sneak up on one of baseball's numeric Mount
Everests. Ever defiant, Bonds has overturned the game's actuarial
Bonds began his career as a lithe leadoff hitter for the
Pittsburgh Pirates in 1986. In determining Bonds's statistical
twin after each of his first eight seasons, the comprehensive
website Baseball-Reference.com found him to be most similar in
career production by age to this mixed bag of hitters from
throughout major league history: Bob Coluccio, Tom Brunansky
(twice), Jack Clark (thrice), Bobby Bonds and, as recently as
'93, Greg Luzinski. Two years ago Bonds wasn't even among the 10
outfielders named to major league baseball's All-Century team.
Today he ranks not only among the greatest players of all time,
but also as perhaps the most feared hitter ever. Never before
have pitchers avoided a batter as much as they do the
lefty-swinging Bonds, who, like a supersized Danny Almonte, seems
too good for his league. In 2001 pitchers walked Bonds a record
177 times, or 26.7% of his plate appearances. Through Sunday they
had been even more careful this year, walking him 31.6% of the
time. The respect Bonds gets is most extraordinary with runners
in scoring position (47.3%), and with runners on and first base
That fear factor is a late-career development. Entering this
season Bonds had almost the same number of plate appearances as
Williams (14 more, or 9,805 to be precise), but he had made 13%
more outs and struck out 82% more often. Bonds trailed Williams
by wide margins in batting average (.344 to .292), on-base
percentage (.483 to .419) and slugging percentage (.634 to .585).
Ruth and Williams were feared throughout their careers--they
walked in 20% or more of their plate appearances in nine and 10
seasons, respectively. Bonds has done so only four times.
"When he was younger, you were more concerned about him hitting a
line drive in the gap or stealing a base than you were about him
hitting a home run," says Atlanta Braves veteran lefthander Tom
Glavine, against whom Bonds, at week's end, was 24 for 75 (.320)
for his career. "He's a different hitter now. In fact he's a
different hitter over the last five years than he was, say, when
he first went to San Francisco [in 1993]. He went from a guy who
would occasionally hit the mistake pitch for a home run to
somebody who hits mistakes out all the time."
No batter ever has made himself this good this late in his career
(chart). How did it happen? Most evident, the 6'2", 228-pound
Bonds filled out physically without losing any of the snap to one
of the quickest batting strokes in the game. (He has repeatedly
denied that he uses steroids and says his growth is attributable
to his workout routine and nutritional supplements.) More subtly,
Bonds's development as a power hitter accelerated when baseball
entered this post-Camden Yards age of long-ball worship and he
learned to lift the ball.
His career can be delineated into three stages. In Stage 1, from
1986 through '89, Bonds was a slasher who hit as many ground
balls as he did fly balls. In Stage 2, from '90 through '97,
Bonds was a consistent run producer who became a better home run
hitter by getting the ball in the air more often. In those eight
seasons his ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio fluctuated between
71:100 and 87:100. Not coincidentally, Stage 3 began in '98, an
expansion year best remembered for the McGwire-Sosa home run
race, when an even bigger, smarter Bonds moved into the company
of the alltime power hitters. Over this last stage his ground
ball-to-fly ball ratio has decreased every full year: 63:100 (in
'98), 62:100, 57:100, 56:100 (56:100 in 2002, through Sunday). In
other words, he now hits almost two flies for every grounder.
This transformation would not be possible without Bonds's putting
more arc in his swing--he's looking to go deep. With his added
strength, many of those fly balls are sailing far beyond the
fences of today's cozy retroparks.
Further, in Stage 3 Bonds has crept closer to home plate,
enabling him to pull pitches on the outside half of the plate
with power rather than hitting line drives to the leftfield gap.
The defensive shift most teams employ against him is also a Stage
3 development. "He's so close to the plate, he can take a pitch
away and turn on it," Glavine says. "If you hit him on the hands,
it's almost a strike. Yet he's so quick that he kills the inside
pitch. You have to pitch him inside to keep him honest, but you'd
better bury it way in because if you miss [over the plate], it's
In Stage 1 Bonds hit 21 home runs per season; in Stage 2, 36.
Through Sunday he was on pace to slug 48 homers this year--his
average during Stage 3--which would give him 615 for his career at
season's end. With another 48-homer season next year he would
pass Mays, who finished with 660. If he continues to maintain his
Stage 3 rate, Bonds would pass Ruth (714) and Aaron (755) in
2005, the year he turns 41.
Is it possible for Bonds to maintain this production at such an
advanced age? In his final season (1960) Williams, at 41, hit 29
homers--sixth in the American League--in a much less
homer-friendly, much less muscular time. In '72 Mays, at 41, hit
eight homers and followed that with six the next year, his last.
In '75 Aaron, at 41, hit 12 homers and bowed out the next year
If Bonds has taught us anything, it's that the arc of his career
is like no other's--especially not like Bob Coluccio's.
No player in major league history has hit more home runs between
his 35th and 38th birthdays than Barry Bonds, who turned 38 last
month. Here are the only players who have hit as many as half
the homers that Bonds did over that age span.
35th HRs OVER
PLAYER BIRTHDAY 3 YEARS
Barry Bonds July 24, 1999 173
Babe Ruth Feb. 6, 1930 136
Hank Aaron Feb. 5, 1969 129
Mark McGwire Oct. 1, 1998 125
Rafael Palmeiro Sept. 24, 1999 118
Andres Galarraga June 18, 1996 114
Mike Schmidt Sept. 27, 1984 105
Dave Kingman Dec. 21, 1983 100
Edgar Martinez Jan. 2, 1998 90
Fred McGriff Oct. 31, 1998 90
Hank Sauer March 17, 1952 90
Source: Elias Sports Bureau