Barry Bonds: Yes or No?
When I go to games at PacBell Park, I usually walk around the park during the middle innings to hear what fans are saying. There is no criticism of Bonds, and he’s cheered wildly when he comes to bat. The only booing comes when he’s walked, or even when the pitcher throws a couple of balls wide of the plate and it seems that he will walk Bonds.
When e-mailers identify themselves as fans who go to games, they always say something to the effect that “I don’t care what he’s doing or not doing, I just want to see him hit.”
Which is why Giants management gives Bonds whatever he wants, whether it’s $18 million a year, extra locker space or the right to be absent when the team picture is taken. He puts people in the seats.
When I go to my local grocery store, though, talking to clerks I know don’t go to Giants games, they’re very critical of Bonds, especially after his latest news conference, when he was wallowing in self-pity. My e-mail box is full of mail from people who think Bonds’ batting records are all a result of steroids use, and the writers usually make a reference to not going to Giants games.
IN BOTH GROUPS, there’s a feeling that steroids have made Bonds the hitter he is, but an examination of his career shows a different pattern, of a player who struggled early but has steadily improved as a hitter, both in power numbers and in average.
In the first part of his career, with Pittsburgh, Bonds didn’t hit .300 until 1990, when he was 26, and then just made it at .301. Two years later, he had his second .300 season in six full seasons in Pittsburgh and another in which he played 113 games. He has hit more than .300 in eight of his 11 seasons with the Giants, and he’s also had two near-misses, with seasonal averages of .291 in 1997 and .294 in 1994.
In Pittsburgh, he averaged 27 home runs in his six full seasons, reaching his then career high of 34 in his last season. In his first season in San Francisco, Bonds hit 46 home runs, batted .336 with 123 RBIs, 129 runs, 181 hits and 38 doubles. All were career highs.
At that point, Bonds was a class example of a good hitter coming into his prime, at 29. Young hitters, even the most talented, take time to understand the mental aspect. As they get older and more confident, they learn to lay off a pitch early in the count if they aren’t going to be able to do much with it, and they’ll wait for a pitch they can drive. That’s why great hitters often hit more for power as they grow older.
I’ve used the example of Hank Aaron before, but here are two more from the non-steroids past: Stan Musial and Ted Williams.
Musial didn’t hit more than 19 home runs in a season until 1948, when he jumped to 39 at the age of 28. He followed with five more seasons of 30-plus home runs, the last in 1955, when he was 35.
Williams was even more astounding because he broke in with 31 homers in 1939 but hit for more power later. He hit his career best 43 in 1949, when he was 31. In the later stages of his career, he was often sidelined by injuries, but he hit 38 home runs in 420 at-bats in 1957, when he was 39, and 29 in just 310 at-bats in his last year, 1960, when he was 42.
So, Bonds isn’t alone in remarkable power displays late in his career.
BONDS FOLLOWED his great ’93 season with 37 homers in only 391 at-bats in 1994, when he played only 112 games because of the strike/lockout when ended the season early and canceled the World Series.
He fell off a bit in 1995, to 33 homers, but then had 42 and 40 in the next two seasons.
Bonds did not have either the bulkiness or puffy face that are often signs of steroids use in those years. Giants employes first noticed a significant weight gain before the 1999 season. The next year, 2000, Bonds hit what was then his career high of 49, and in 2001, had the 73-homer year that shattered the record which had been set by Mark McGwire just three years earlier.
Steroids? There is another factor that is seldom considered: the ballpark. Candlestick was a brutal park for hitters. Right-handed hitters suffered the most – Willie Mays changed his swing so he could hit the ball out to right-center, because he didn’t think he could hit it through the wind coming in from left field often enough – but it was no treat for left-handed hitters, either, because of the wind which could blow sand and even the peanut shells Willie McCovey complained about into their eyes.
PacBell is usually considered a pitcher’s park because of the “Death Valley” area in right-center, but it doesn’t have the wind/peanut shells problem for hitters. Bonds is able to focus and just crush the ball.
My belief is that steroids have helped Bonds because he’s been able to bounce back from injuries sooner, though they’re no help with his knee problems. It has been his mental preparation, his focus and his incredible bat speed that have made him the hitter he is, not steroids.
THAT WON'T CONVINCE any of the Bonds-haters, though, because this is an emotional argument. So be it. When he comes back from his surgery re-hab – my uninformed guess is some time in June – the Bonds-haters can stay home, as they always have, and those of us who are at the game can enjoy the best player of his generation.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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