Barry Bonds is, by all accounts, a singularly unpleasant man-sullen, arrogant, and nasty to opponents, teammates, and fans alike. In all likelyhood, he owes his home run record both to his own remarkable athleticism and to the relentless use of performance-enhancing drugs in the latter years of his career.
So that puts baseball fans in a quandary. More than any other sport, baseball is a game of numbers, of statistics, of charts-at least, for fans.
Playing the game has nothing to do with numbers, other than runs. If, after nine innings, you have more runs that the other team, you win. Statistics are just nerdy irrelevancies. You catch the ball, or not. You make the throw, or not. You get a hit, or work the pitcher for a walk, or advance a runner with a bunt or a sac fly, or not. It’s a simple, transparent game, but one which is supremely difficult at its highest level.
Many years ago, one of my college pals was the team’s star pitcher. One day he was throwing in the batting cage to his catcher, and wanted someone to just stand at the plate with a bat, as if he were the batter. I volunteered, put on some protective gear, and stood there.
Hawk threw in the mid-nineties. I never saw the ball-I just heard it hiss as it sailed over the plate. Years later, I understood why Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest athlete of the 20th century, never got to the bigs. He couldn’t hit-not enough bat speed maybe, or he couldn’t see the curve ball.
If Barry Bonds had never juiced, he would have been a lock for the Hall of Fame. But when he decided to transform himself from the lithe, speedy, power-hitting superstar to a grotesquely bulked-up home run hitter, he abandoned the game for the meta-game; the statistics that obsess and rule the fans. He was a far better player, and far more useful to his team, before he became a one-dimensional slugger.
But he got what he wanted, it seems-the game’s holy grail, the home run record. He’ll be immortal…or will he? Maybe the stats nerds will move on, and look at the intangibles-the players whose stats may not impress, but who help their teams win, on the field, and in the clubhouse.
Among all the furor and tumult over Bonds’ pursuit of the record, one simple statistic stands out.
His team, the San Francisco Giants, is firmly mired in last place in the National League West, 13 1/2 games out of first, with the third-worst record in the major leagues.
And that game last night, when Bonds hit his 756th home run?
The Giants lost, 8-6.