Barry Bonds hit 762 homeruns in his remarkable career. I got to see one of them.
As someone who is primarily an American League fan I did not followed the career of Barry Bonds very closely. I saw him play a couple of times in the late 1980s, once at Shea Stadium and another time in a preseason game at RFK. Around 1990 he morphed into greatness. He did not do well in his first couple of post-season efforts and that got quite a bit of media attention at the time. Then he was off to San Francisco and out of my time zone. What little I of knew of him was from his statistics which were very impressive indeed.
The first time I became aware of the intense feelings that Barry Bonds caused came early in the 2001 season as he approached his 500 homerun milestone. At the time I spent a fair amount of time on the APBA-Between the Lines forum. I was taken by the intensity of the negative feelings concerning Bonds and his achievement. It was alleged that virtually none of his teammates had shown any inclination to congratulate Bonds when he hit number 500 and that the feelings he aroused in them were largely negative. My immediate reaction to this was to recall a line from the 1995 A&E/BBC production of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin where Mr. Bennett speaking of Fitzwilliam Darcy states
“Darcy may turn out to be no more of black hearted villain that your average rich man who is used to getting his own way.”
I was sure that as a superstar, Bonds got all kinds of special treatment. Babe Ruth received it. Ted Williams received it. It comes with the territory and I was not convinced that Bonds’ sins were especially distinctive.
In 2002 my boyhood idol Ted Williams passed away. Shortly afterwards I received a call from one of my old IBM colleagues, who would call from time to time to discuss baseball. His leadoff question was
“With the passing of Ted Williams, who now do you think is the greatest living ballplayer?” (He was fishing for Stan Musial).
I said without blinking,
We then got in top a spirited discussion of the steroid allegations and how that might impact how we regard and ultimately rate ballplayers. I think I recall saying words to the effect that unless Major League Baseball is prepared to formally remove the games from the record book or to declare some sort of forfeit, we really needed to take the ballplayers’ records at face value.
All the controversy that surrounded Bonds made me anxious to see him play again so I was excited when the Orioles 2004 schedule included a Sunday game with the Giants. This would be the first time I had seen the Giants in over thirty years and my first Barry Bonds sighting in fifteen. When I first saw Bonds on the field I could not help but compare the weightlifter type physique now before me with that of the rangy, almost thin outfielder I recalled seeing play for Pittsburgh.
Baltimore’s starting pitcher was Sidney Ponson whose future would hold difficulties of its own. In the top of the third inning with the Orioles in the lead 1-0, the Giants had a man on second base with two out. Barry Bonds was the hitter. If there ever was a situation that cried out for an intentional walk, this was it. Bonds would receive no fewer than 120 of these intentional free passes that year. However Sidney would not back down. He insisted on pitching to Barry. He threw and Barry unloaded a homerun over the right field scoreboard. It was really impressive to see – Barry was given a direct “in your face” challenge and he met it straight on. I was glad Mark got a chance to see it.
In September 2007, I saw Barry Bonds one final time. It was a game at RFK between the Giants and the Nationals. Late in the game Bonds came in to pinch hit and grounded out. At the end of the year the Giants announced that they were severing relations with Bonds. Barry made it clear that he would like to continue to play but no team signed him.
You cannot look at Barry Bonds’ statistics without being blown away. Besides the power numbers are the astronomical base-on-balls totals. His ability to come back from his 2005 knee problems at the age of 41 and to have two more very productive seasons is especially impressive. In his last season, at the age of 43, his On Base average was a staggering .480. There must have been some incredible negative baggage for no team to be interested. Toward the end of his life Ty Cobb was quoted as having said that if he could do his life over he would have made more of an effort to have more friends. I wonder if some day, Barry Bonds may feel the same way.
(The above commentary comes from “Six Decades of Baseball.” The picture is that of a baseball card signed by Larry Bigbie, who had 731 fewer career homeruns than Barry, and who played centerfield that day for the Birds. As a postscript I will note that Barry Bonds was one of the people interviewed at the 2016 SABR convention in Miami and he seemed both gracious and personable.)