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Mini-Bonds was more interesting than the supersized version

Posted: Tuesday December 7, 2004 1:21PM; Updated: Tuesday December 7, 2004 3:43PM
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Bonds vs. Bonds
Category 1986-2000 2001-04
Batting Average .289 .349
On-Base Percentage .412 .559
Slugging Percentage .567 .809
Stolen Bases 471 35
Gold Gloves 8 0
Home Run Titles 1 1
Batting Crowns 0 2
MVPs 3 4
Black Ink* 33 32
Grey Ink# 223 62
*Black Ink scores measure how often a player leads the league in major categories.
#Grey Ink scores measure how often a player places in the top 10 in a league in major categories.

Sometime during the 2006 season, we'll be watching -- many of us with disgust -- as Supersized Barry Bonds rounds the bases after hitting No. 756, the noble Hank Aaron firmly planted in his rearview mirror.

It's preferable to imagine another reality, a timeline in which Bonds would be working on his Hall of Fame speech that summer instead of beating Aaron's legacy to a pulp with his maple bat. What if, instead of evolving into Bonds 2.0 after the 2000 season, Bonds had retired?

That's where the clear delineation of Bonds' career has to be made -- after 2000. It's baseball's version of Skinny Elvis vs. Fat Elvis, and it's a debate that rages, appropriately enough, just as Bonds closes in on becoming the all-time Home Run King.

The Bonds before that dubious 73 home run season -- I will call him "Mini-Bonds" -- was an upper-crust, Mickey Mantle-type Hall of Famer. He had three MVPs in the bag, tied for the most in history with Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra and Mike Schmidt.

Mini-Bonds had belted 494 home runs and swiped 471 bases, making him the founding -- and still only -- member of the 400-400 club. His career batting line was .289 (average)-.412 (OBP)-.567 (slugging).

Years ago in Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?, baseball historian Bill James came up with a few ways to measure a player's worthiness for the Hall of Fame. One of those devices is called the Black Ink Test, so named because it gives a player points for leading his league in major categories (numbers that would be black on the back of a baseball card).

If Mini-Bonds had called it quits after 2000, his Black Ink number would have been 33, easily above the average score of 27 for Hall of Famers. In the Grey Ink test, which gives players points for top-10 showings in major categories, Mini-Bonds scored a 223, comfortably above the average of 144 for Hall of Famers.

Starting from 2001 through '04, Bonds' statistics became Ruthian. His batting line ballooned to an inconceivable .349-.559-.809 for the four year-span. The Black Ink score for Puffy Bonds? Thirty-two, one shy of his career total up to that point. (His Grey Ink was 62.) That's comparing four years of production to 15.

By any measure, Behemoth Bonds is the far more devastating force at the plate. All you have to do is look at the pathetic teams the Giants have put around him and still been able to compete. But is he more fun to watch?

Mini-Bonds was a multi-dimensional threat. He could beat you with the longball, yes, but also with a diving catch or timely stolen base. His game, though inferior in overall effect compared to what it would later become, was at least more interesting. He wasn't the master practitioner of the three true outcomes -- home run, walk, strikeout -- that he is now. Mini-Bonds wasn't too massive to chase down a liner in the gap, as is the case with Ocean Liner Bonds.

If he did cheat rampantly, as many believe, then Franken-Bonds represents the ultimate violation of the rule "don't fix what ain't broken." At the very least, he has admitted to "unknowingly" taking steroids, and that fact alone sullies a career that was nothing less than magnificent even before the 73-homer season.

This is the saddest part of what this past week of leaked grand jury testimony has revealed: Bonds and Jason Giambi weren't marginal players trying to set themselves up for life with a couple of years of big league checks, which is what we're supposed to believe about the majority of drug cheats in the game. So maybe Giambi wasn't going to become a 40-home run hitter without the aid of steroids, but he at least could have been an on-base machine who could spray a few balls around and pop an occasional big fly. A Sean Casey type. Sammy Sosa, whose power surge also has been questioned, was a consistent 30/30 threat right up until the Great Home Run Race of 1998.

Bonds, on the other hand, had a special place already carved out for him in Cooperstown. Perhaps he still does. In any case, his plaque won't shine nearly as brightly as we once thought it would.

Jacob Luft is a Baseball Producer for SI.com.

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