With apologies to Adrian Beltre and Albert Pujols or whomever you would like to designate as the Most Valuable Cardinal, Barry Bonds should win the MVP Award in a runaway.
It doesn't matter at this point if his Giants get into the postseason or not. He has carried his team to the brink of a playoff spot with about two weeks left in the season. The Giants have been the highest-scoring team in the National League directly because of one man, Bonds.
Now, you can construct solid arguments for Beltre and Pujols. The Dodgers would be a third- or fourth-place team without Beltre, who this season has been among the two or three best players in baseball -- and maybe the best. I'm talking about being a complete baseball player, not just a hitter. And poor Albert. He has thrown up four Hall of Fame quality seasons and will not have a single MVP to show for it. But managers don't stay up at night wondering when and if they should pitch to Beltre and Pujols. Pitchers don't lose their courage when those players step to the plate.
The managers and pitchers have voted for MVP, and they casted a ballot each of the 208 times they walked Bonds this year. Two hundred eight! Over the past four years Bonds has walked 731 times, more than Yogi Berra did in his entire career (704) and very nearly the sum of Joe DiMaggio's career (790). This for a man who turned 40 years old this year.
It's flat-out ridiculous that Bonds has produced the prime of his career after turning 36. It is a career arc that never had happened in the history of baseball, not at this level. Look at it this way: Bonds already would have made the Hall of Fame if he had quit after 2000. He had 494 career home runs. He was 36 years old. He was comparable to Mickey Mantle, who had 536 home runs at 36. Except Mantle retired at 36. He was finished.
Bonds? He was about to become greater than he ever had been in his life. In the four years since then Bonds has hit 207 home runs, more than the 24-year-old Pujols. At 40, Bonds is on track for personal bests in batting average (.372), walks, on-base percentage (a record .610), OPS (1.437), fewest strikeouts, intentional walks and, posssibly, runs (he's at 120, nine short of his career high). Folks, nobody alive or dead has ever seen anything like Bonds' past four seasons.
Not only will he break Hank Aaron's record of 755 career home runs, he will blow it away. No less an authority than Aaron himself called him "the greatest ballplayer that has ever played the game -- bar none." Aaron, speaking to Sporting News Radio and alluding to suspicions of chemical enhancement, added, "I'm serious about this. I've watched him play and, quite naturally, people are going to start assuming that he's doing certain things. Let's forget about that. This guy is in a world of his own. They try to compare Babe Ruth and say Babe Ruth was this. There's no comparison."
OK, let's look at Aaron's two points in reverse order: that there is no comparison between Bonds and Ruth and we should "forget about" what people are saying about Bonds' links to the BALCO scandal. First, Barry vs. Babe in short form:
The Babe is clearly better across the board. But wait. We're not done. We're leaving out an important segment of their careers. Check this out:
Ruth threw more innings than Bruce Sutter, who many people want to put in the Hall of Fame. The above list doesn't even include Ruth's postseason pitching record: 3-0 with a 0.87 ERA. Total Baseball ranks him 20th all-time in win shares for pitchers -- ahead of such Hall of Famers as Nolan Ryan, Fergie Jenkins, Bob Gibson and Jim Palmer.
So there is no way Bonds is a "no comparison" better ballplayer than Ruth. (Please, spare me the argument that the game is so much better today. I know that. It's obvious. But don't run down somebody as if they had a choice of eras in which to play in. Let's deal with what is, not what may have been.)
Where people get confused is that nobody, not even Ruth, has ever been a better hitter over a four-year span than Bonds.
Now, about this idea that we should simply "forget about" the suspicion that Bonds has shaped his body and his game with help from a laboratory at the center of a federal investigation, I wish it were so easy. Trouble is, the BALCO mess, which became a track and field story when the Olympics were in play, will shortly become a baseball story again. The next wave of leaks and news probably will hit around the time of -- surprise! -- the World Series, this being an election year and all. Look what happened to Marion Jones. She never was charged with anything in court. But look what leaked evidence did to her reputation. It wasn't the fire, it was the smoke that dragged her down. And look what happened to her on-track performances after the drug crackdown -- Jones failed to medal after taking home five in Sydney.
Tom Verducci will answer select questions from SI.com users in his Baseball Mailbag.
In the meantime, the issue of performance enhancers is not something to be set aside easily -- not for Bonds and not for many players, including the pitchers he faces. Remember, steroids are just one part of a complex, clandestine world filled with human growth hormone, insulin growth factor and the next wave of undetectable THG-like substances; beware the athlete who doth protest too much that he does not use steroids specifically. The idea -- and I've actually seen this published -- that baseball players must be cold-turkey clean now because they are subject to one, in-season steroid test this year is an utter joke.
It must be part of the argument. It is a real part of this sports era, and to dismiss it entirely is to be naive or foolish. Look at it as if you're at a magic show. Do you sit there and really believe that the lady was actually cut in half and then snapped back together? Of course not. But because you want to be entertained, you suspend logical thinking and natural skepticism and lose yourself in the illusion. A magician does not reveal his tricks, but I suspect most people would rather not know how it's done anyway.
Magic? It's not magic at all. It's trickery. But you wouldn't lay 50 bucks to see a trickster put on a show in Vegas? Call him or her a magician, however, and you whip out the plastic faster than you can say abracadabra!
Some things about Bonds we can be sure of. I wish, for instance, that Bonds would lose the body armor he wears. He's too good of a hitter to fashion himself with a protective device. Do we want pitchers throwing from behind screens? We know, too, that he is on the most dominating run of hitting the game has ever known. To watch him is to see the art and science of hitting mastered like it's never been before. We know he is easily the MVP. The rest of it ... well, in no other era could we look at professional sports and wonder what might be part of the greatness we are witnessing. It is a complicated age.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci covers baseball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.