Saturday, September 30, 2017

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #1: Barry Bonds

Even as an adult, much of life feels out of my control. A child's life is even more out of their hands. I didn't choose my family, I din't choose my home. I was incredibly fortunate in both of those regards. Others, through no fault of their own, are not. I did choose baseball, but I didn't choose to come of age during an era so many writers and fans would belatedly decide was bogus. For more than a decade now earlier generations have led a relentless effort to deny the beauty of the baseball I grew up with, but I say to hell with anyone who says the baseball I grew up wasn't as joyous as the baseball they grew up with, to hell with anyone who would put an asterisk next to any of it, to hell with anyone who would deny the transcendence of Barry Bonds.
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This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.

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Bonds made his MLB debut in the spring of 1986, while a few hundred miles away I was falling in love with baseball during my first season of t-ball. Bonds played in his first MLB All-Star Game during the summer of 1990, when I played in my first Little League All-Star Game. He went on to win his first MVP Awards that year, firmly planting himself in my consciousness as one of baseball's very best players, and over the rest of his career he became not just one of the best, but the best.

Back then I would ooh and ahh at the numbers on the back of a baseball card. Today I have Baseball Reference, and Bonds' page is more eye-popping than any piece of cardboard I've ever held: a single-season record 73 home runs in 2001, a pair of batting titles, league leader in slugging percentage seven times and on-base percentage ten times, 14 All-Star appearances, seven MVP Awards, nearly 2,000 runs batted in, more than 2,000 runs scored, 601 doubles, 514 stolen bases, an all-time record 2,558 walks, and of course the 762 career home runs.

My first clear memory involving Bonds is of him losing out to Terry Pendleton for the 1991 NL MVP. I don't know where I would have seen or heard it discussed as a questionable choice, or exactly why I personally would have thought it was wrong, but I did. Perhaps it was hearing Little League coaches declare "a walk is as good as a hit" so many times. By age 11 I was already thinking about guys getting on base, rather than just thinking about batting average.

A year after that I was at my mom's apartment, having stayed up late on a school night to watch Game 7 of the NLCS. The Pirates were only one out away from advancing to the World Series when a player I'd never heard of named Francisco Cabrera lined a single to left field; Bonds was unable to make a good enough throw to prevent the game-winning run from scoring, the Pirates lost their third straight NLCS, and Bonds' reputation for being a postseason choker was cemented (even though he'd reached base safely 12 times during that series). Bonds left the Pirates to sign with the Giants a few weeks after that game, the first time I'd seen an MVP change teams.

As the story goes, Bonds saw the adulation given to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa when they both broke the single-season home run record in 1998, and (frustrated that he'd never been shown that sort of affection) decided to turn himself into an even greater power hitter than he'd already been.  Bonds says he used legal supplements and a new workout regimen, with illegal PED use only happening later after a trainer lied to him about certain substances he provided Bonds with. Others believe he knowingly went directly to steroids. By his standards, 1999 was actually a down year for Bonds, but his production rebounded in 2000, and then he entered the most dominant four-year stretch in baseball history.

In 2001 Bonds broke the single-season record for home runs, with 73, as well as the mark for walks, with 177. To hit so many home runs under any circumstance is incredible, to have done it in a season when pitchers worked around you at a record clip is all the more remarkable. Little did I know that the 2001-level of working around him was only the beginning. The following year he drew 198 walks, and in 2004 that number rose to 232, including a record-shattering 120 times intentional walks. His on-base percentage was .609, another record, and one that looks like a typo.

My favorite Bonds moment from those years wasn't any of the record-breaking ones. Instead it's from the second day of the 2002 season. I was at Brothers, a mediocre bar in Iowa City where my college friends and I spent a lot of time for some reason. I was a few weeks away from graduating. Bonds, coming off those 73 home runs the season before, had homered twice on Opening Day. I'm not sure if the game was actually on at the bar, or if they were just cutting in to show his at bats, but in the first inning he launched one into the seats. The Dodgers intentionally walked him after that, but the next time he came to bat, they decided to pitch to him, and he blasted another one way over the fence. Just 13 innings into the season, and he had already hit four home runs. I remember the overwhelming giddiness I felt as he trotted around the bases, because absolutely anything seemed possible. No other moment from more than three decades of following baseball has given me the same sensation.

During those four years, Bonds had a batting line of .349/.559/.809. He set new single-season records for home runs, walks, intentional walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS. He led the Giants to within a win of their first World Series championship in 48 years, batting .356/.581/.978 in 17 postseason games that October, with a postseason record 8 home runs. He was voted NL MVP all four times. He passed 700 career home runs, putting him in the neighborhood of the biggest record in American sports.

By August 7, 2007, Bonds had tied Henry Aaron's all-time home run record. I was working as a waiter and bartender during graduate school at the time, and was cleaning up after a dinner shift that night when Bonds came to bat in the 5th inning. The game was out west, so it was late in Chicago. The only people still at the restaurant were me, the manager, and a couple of the line cooks. Even though it felt inevitable, when Bonds ripped a 3-2 pitch deep into the seats, I was struck by the momentousness of the occasion. It had been 33 years since Aaron broke Ruth's record, after Ruth had held the record for more than half a century. There was no telling if I'd ever see anyone break that record again.

My awe was interrupted a few seconds after Bonds crossed home plate by my boss: "Whatever... He's still a cheater." Bonds was blacklisted at the end of that season, the only player ever to hit 28 home runs and lead the league in on-base percentage, but find himself unable to get a contract offer. It's been ten years since Bonds played his last game, and the passage of time has done little to soften the disdain many feel for him. I understand the disdain, and I know all the arguments against Barry Bonds, both the PED use and his surly attitude toward the press and some teammates. I could give a longer response to them, but the short answer will suffice: I don't care.

Barry Bonds was the greatest ballplayer I've ever seen.

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